On 13 February 2019, the Supreme Court of India ordered the forced eviction of millions of forest-dwelling people. The court’s decision is the result of a case filed in 2008 by wildlife conservation organisations: Wildlife First, Nature Conservation Society, and Tiger Research and Conservation Trust.
India’s 2006 Forest Rights Act gives forest-dwelling people rights to their ancestral lands, including in protected areas. It recognises India’s indigenous peoples and forest-dwellers as “integral to the very survival and sustainability of the forest ecosystem”.
In 2018, India launched its National REDD+ Strategy, which specifically refers to the REDD safeguards agreed at the 2010 UNFCCC meeting in Cancun. India’s National REDD+ Strategy lists the safeguard principles, including this one:
Respect for the knowledge and rights of indigenous peoples and members of local communities, by taking into account relevant international obligations, national circumstances and laws, and noting that the United Nations General Assembly has adopted the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples;
In contrast, in their case at the Supreme Court, the conservation organisations demanded the court to declare the Forest Rights Act invalid.
The Supreme Court rejected this demand.
The conservation organisations told the court that tribal people had encroached illegally on protected areas in 20 states. They demanded that state governments should evict people whose claims to traditional forest lands have been rejected.
The Court ruled that state governments have until 27 July to evict people whose claims had been rejected.
The government’s lawyers did not appear in court to defend the law on 13 February. Today, two weeks after the order, the government filed an application to the Supreme Court seeking a temporary stay on the evictions. The Supreme Court will hear the matter tomorrow, 28 February 2019.
Writing in Business Standard, journalists Nitin Sethi and Aashish Aryan explain that the government’s application to the Supreme Court does not seek a full review of the eviction order. Instead the government asks that the order be modified to “withhold eviction proceedings” until states file detailed affidavits “regarding the procedure followed and details of the rejection of claims” of tribals and other forest-dwellers under the Forest Rights Act.
UPDATE – 28 February 2019: The Supreme Court postponed the evictions today. On Business Standard, Aashish Aryan reports that, “A three-judge bench, led by Justice Arun Mishra, gave the states four months to file affidavits detailing the process via which the claims on land of forest dwellers were rejected by the authorities. The court will next hear the matter on July 10.” Aryan writes that, “During the hearing on Thursday, the three-judge bench also slammed the central government for “being in slumber” over all these years and asked them as to why they had not come to the court.”
8-10 million people could be evicted
Almost two million claims have been rejected under the Forest Rights Act. That means that somewhere between eight and ten million people could be evicted, depending on the size of the families.
Stephen Corry, Survival International’s Director, said in a statement that,
“This judgement is a death sentence for millions of tribal people in India, land theft on an epic scale, and a monumental injustice.
“It will lead to wholesale misery, impoverishment, disease and death, an urgent humanitarian crisis, and it will do nothing to save the forests which these tribespeople have protected for generations.
“Will the big conservation organizations like WWF and WCS condemn this ruling and pledge to fight it, or will they be complicit in the biggest mass eviction in the name of conservation, ever?”
Praveen Bhargav of Wildlife First, one of the conservation organisations behind the petition to the Supreme Court, put out a statement welcoming the court’s ruling:
On February 13th 2019, a three-judge bench of the Supreme Court headed by Justice Arun Mishra issued an extremely important order in WP 109 of 2008 to ensure protection of forests, which have been severely affected due to ineligible/bogus claimants under the Forest Rights Act (FRA). Such claimants continue to occupy a huge area of forestland, including within National Parks and Sanctuaries, even though their claims have been rejected after due verification and an appeals process.
Aakar Patel of Amnesty International India points out that evicting people from the forests would be a serious breach of their human rights,
“This ruling is a body blow to Adivasi rights in India. It would be unconscionable for Adivasi people to be evicted from their homes and lands merely because their claims were rejected in a process that is known to be severely flawed.
“Many civil society organizations, including Amnesty India, have pointed out for years that the Forest Rights Act is poorly implemented. Adivasi people claiming legal recognition of their rights over their traditional lands often have to face corruption, overly bureaucratic procedures, and government apathy. State governments have themselves admitted that claims are often incorrectly rejected.
“Even where claims have been rightly rejected, the government must consider alternatives to evictions. The Forest Rights Act was enacted to correct the historical injustice faced by Adivasi communities in India. But this ruling, if implemented, could itself lead to catastrophic consequences.
“It is also outrageous that the central government did not adequately defend the Forest Rights Act at the hearings before the Supreme Court, and did not present its lawyers on 13 February, when the order was passed. The government has abjectly failed in its duty to respect and protect Adivasi rights.
“Forced evictions are explicitly prohibited under international human rights law and standards. The government must ensure that they explore all feasible alternatives and conduct genuine consultations with people who could be affected. No one should be rendered homeless or vulnerable to other human rights violations because of an eviction.”
REDD and rights
Obviously, the Supreme Court’s decision about evicting millions of forest-dwelling people is not the result of India’s National REDD+ Strategy. The evictions are the result of a petition by a small number of wildlife conservation organisations that seek to reverse the progress made in the Forest Rights Act in upholding the rights of India’s indigenous peoples and other forest-dwelling people.
But India’s National REDD+ Strategy also puts the rights of forest-dwelling peoples at risk. In a review of the REDD+ Strategy on the excellent blog, Greenmentality, academics Suhas Bhasme and Nitin D. Rai explain the problem:
Forest policy in India has always been premised on the local user as the main threat to forests. The British identified fire, grazing and cultivation as the main drivers of forest loss and this continues to dictate forest administration today. The REDD+ Strategy identifies two types of drivers of forest degradation: Planned and Unplanned. The ‘planned drivers’ include developmental activities (dams, road, cities and town expansion including biomass removals from the forest as silviculture requirements) carried out by the State. ‘Unplanned drivers’ on the other hand are collection of fodder and fuelwood by the local households, small timber and non-timber based forest products (NTFP), illegal logging and uncontrolled felling; agriculture and housing; unregulated livestock grazing and fodder collection. With such a classification of drivers it is nobody’s guess who will lose when REDD+ programmes identify what practices will need to be avoided. While the REDD+ Strategy identifies the need to manage ‘unplanned drivers, and activities’ the Strategy is silent on managing the more environmentally damaging ‘planned activities’ consisting mostly of development and infrastructural activities implemented by the State. This is a problematic assumption for two reasons that leads to strong biases against local users.
This is one of the fundamental problems of REDD. Instead of addressing drivers of forest destruction such as large-scale infrastructure, industrial logging, cattle ranching, and plantations, in country after country after country, REDD places the blame for deforestation on some of the poorest and most vulnerable people in the world.
Bhasme and Rai write, “There is enough evidence that development projects are socially and environmentally disastrous and therefore labelling developmental activities as ‘rational planned actions’ is like sanctioning the destruction of the environment carried out by the State in the name of development.”
They conclude that the implementation of REDD in India, “reinforces the historical injustice to the forest dependent people of India”. Which is exactly what the wildlife conservation organisations sought to do with their petition to the Supreme Court that resulted in the order to evict millions of forest-dwelling people.