MAC: Mines and Communities

Thousands Protest For Rights Over India's Forests

Published by MAC on 2006-11-30

Thousands Protest For Rights Over India's Forests

Planet Ark INDIA

30th November 2006

NEW DELHI - Thousands of India's poorest and most marginalised people gathered in the heart of New Delhi and other cities on Wednesday demanding rights over the remote forest land where they have lived for centuries.

Women in brightly coloured saris and men in turbans from far-flung rural areas waved banners and punched their fists in the air calling on the government to quickly pass a law recognising their rights. "Who will look after the forests? We will. We will," they chanted. "Who do the forests belong to? They belong to us."

More than 40 million people live in India's resource-rich forest areas including protected wildlife reserves and dense woodland, eking out a meagre living from simple farming, picking fruit and collecting honey.

For generations they have had no legal right to the land or the use of forest resources.

They say they have been treated as "encroachers" and "criminals" on their own land and forced to leave it by forestry officials, mining and logging companies.

"Millions of impoverished people ironically live in the richest lands in India, but they have not been able to benefit from the land," said Shankar Gopalakrishnan from the Campaign for Dignity and Survival, a union of forest community groups.

"EVICTED, BEATEN, TORTURED"

"Every year, hundreds of thousands are forcefully evicted, beaten, tortured and their homes are demolished by officials and businessmen who want to use the land for their own purposes."

Similar protests took place in the eastern cities of Bhubaneswar and Ranchi, where thousands of forest dwellers gathered, beating drums and chanting slogans. Fifty-four-year-old Rambati Bai said despite spending more than 60 years living in Sunabeda Wildlife Sanctuary in the eastern state of Orissa, she and her family were not allowed to call the forest home.

"Last year, the forest officials came to my village and told us to leave the forest. Is it that easy? How can we live in another place?" said the woman, clad in a shabby, crumpled white sari.

Others said they had been jailed for months for refusing to leave the land that they and their forefathers had cultivated for generations.

The government is expected to pass a new law -- the Recognition of Forest Rights Bill 2005 -- before the end of the year which would, for the first time, give forest dwellers the right to own the land they have been using.

But some wildlife groups have voiced concern about the bill, saying it would give too much protection to forest people and would threaten efforts to save endangered tigers.

Activists for the forest dwellers say the bill has already been watered down to give people little power after pressure by green groups and powerful logging and mining companies.

"The government is using conservation as an excuse not to give us rights," said S.R. Hiremath of Samaj Parivartana Samudaya, a local charity working with forest communities in the southern state of Karnataka.

"We are not a threat to the environment and not a threat to animals. For centuries, we have lived in co-existence with the environment and its destruction is because of the mining and paper companies."

Story by Nita Bhalla

REUTERS NEWS SERVICE

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