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The Green Brigade

Posted on Jun 18, 01:03PM | IBNS

Earth Summit 2012 or Rio+20 will be the fourth Summit of its kind and represents another milestone in ongoing international efforts to accelerate progress towards achieving sustainable development globally. While the world leaders gather in Rio de Janeiro in a carnival like ambience from June 20, in India's Odisha tribal forest dwellers will continue to fight for their rights to protect the green economy. Sujoy Dhar reports

In the thick Sal forest of Mayurbhand district in Odisha, 50-year-old Bishnu Purty is a resolute tribal forest dweller who is resisting the authorities from encroaching in what is now rightfully his territory after a 2006 law enacted in India empowered them like never before.

So when in the Brazilian capital of Rio de Janerio , the world leaders and experts meet from June 20-22 to deliberate on issues like sustainable development and green economy, Bishnu Purty and his folks on the outskirts of Badipada in Odisha would be actually promoting a green livelihood by protecting their green miles.

Community Forest Management in Odisha is one of the largest sustained movements around one of the key natural resources- the forest.

"We protect the forest with our lives. The forest protects us in turn," says Sukra Singh who belong to a village in Baripada's Budhikhamari that stalled the government's effort to create an urban tourist-friendly eco-tourism project by cutting down trees in mass scale.

Community forestry has found a new meaning in Baripada region thanks to the initiatives of the people who belong to Kolha, Santhal and Lodha tribes.

In Budhikhamari, villagers, mostly tribal people, now depend on 118 hectare forest they rightfully claim under India's Forest Rights Act, enacted in 2006.

The Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006, popularly called the Forest Rights Act, is a key piece of legislation securing the rights of forest dwellers to land and other resources in India.

The Indian Forest Act, 1927, which is the country's main forest law, is a colonial law that does not speak of conservation and had been enacted to serve the former British rulers' need for timber.

"The new law actually restores the rights of the forest dwellers. The old colonial law had taken away the rights of the forest dwellers," says Tushar Dash, who leads the thematic group in Odisha-based NGO Vasundhara, which is working with the tribal people to ensure that they can rightfully claim their rights under the Forest Rights Act.

New research released by the non-profit group Rights and Resources Initiative (RRI) recently showed that hundreds of millions of forest peoples in tropical nations, including in India, have, in the last 20 years, quietly gained unprecedented legal rights to the land and resources owned under customary law.

The research, which comes ahead of the Earth Summit in Rio in June, also finds, however, that more than one-third of the rules governing land rights in most of the forests of Africa, Asia and Latin America significantly limit a community's ability to exercise those rights.

The nations covered in the study account for approximately 75 percent of the forests of the developing world, home to some 2.2 billion people.

The RRI report identifies a significant global trend that began in the wake of the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, as Indigenous and community leaders pressured governments for legal rights to their traditional forestlands.

The area of forest under the control of forest peoples in developing countries has risen from 21 percent of the total forest area in those countries to 31 percent; globally, such rights now cover 15 percent of all forests, compared to 10 percent in 1992.

However, following the enactment of the Forest Rights Act in India, people are resisting encroachment with more power.

So when in January this year the forest department of Odisha decided to build the eco-tourism resort in Budhikhamari in violation of the 2006 law that empowered the tribal people with forest rights, people, especially the women, were up in arms.

They are organized under the umbrella organization of Odisha Jungle Mancha.

"I earn my livelihood from the forest. We pray here inside the forest to our deities to protect us. So I will not any cost let the forest department destroy the trees," says Santilala Nayak, a widow of Budhikhamari.

Women depend heavily on the forest.

"From the dry leaves, Mahua flowers, mushrooms and other non timber forest products, to grazing their livestock, the forest is their lifeline," says Sudhansu Sekhar Deo of Vashundhara, who is in constant touch with the villagers.

The eco-tourism project was being implemented when the local body elections were taking place.

The state's forest department began fencing off the entire forest and knocking down as many as 1500 trees in the first phase of construction for the ecotourism park, say international non-profit group Rights and Research Intiative (RRI) and its local partner Vasundhara.

But soon villagers organized and stalled the move.

Mass meetings, protest rallies and leadership from the Odisha Jungle Mancha led to the shelving of the project.

The villagers actually passed resolutions in the gram sabhas to stop the project.

Bijay Kumar Panda, the divisional forest officer (DFO) of Baripada, was at a loss to explain why in the first place they tried build an eco-tourism project that calls for cutting down so many trees.

"We have stopped the project till a meeting comprising everyone," he says.