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At a time when the world is trying to find ways to fight climate change, indigenous communities living in and around forests have a big role to play to mitigate its devastating impacts

Indigenous communities are found to be the best guardians of forest across the world (Photo by Ranjan K. Panda)

Indigenous communities are found to be the best guardians of forest across the world (Photo by Ranjan K. Panda)

Many of India’s small and marginal farmers, which include indigenous communities, and who live in and around our forests render a singular service to our nation. They protect our natural forests. There are thousands of such villages, which have taken the task upon them to preserve the forests for various reasons.

Many indigenous communities preserve forests as had their ancestors, and for this they receive several benefits on the fronts of health, food, nutrition, water, income and many more. Driving them away from these villages is like making many of our natural biodiversity-rich forests orphans.

That’s why when the Forest Rights Act (FRA) 2006 was enacted to undo the historical injustice done to tribal and other indigenous communities by recognising their right to forestland and forest resources, many saw it as a giant step forward towards real empowerment of small and marginal farmers. For them, forests provide so many benefits that they would stay guardians to help India in many of its missions, including augmenting water resources and combating climate change.

The urban middle class active in policy debates in the social media, as well as economists and other experts who are helping in forming public opinion about moving farmers out of their farms, should think about ways how not to drive these people out of their land and still enhance their income. Recognising the indigenous and local communities’ rights to their forests and forestlands can help us in this mission. And it is now a recognised fact worldwide.

Recognising forest rights

A recently published report of the World Bank says: “For the rural poor living near forests, as much as 22% of their income comes from timber and non-timber forest resources, a contribution larger than wage labour, livestock or self-owned businesses. However, access and use rights are frequently unclear, not recognised nor supported, leaving the forest-dependent poor even more vulnerable and insecure.”

Visits to villages in Odisha and Jharkhand in eastern India that protect forests in their vicinity makes clear on salient fact: indigenous communities, who have been protecting their local forests for decades and have applied for Community Forest Rights (CFR) over them, are now waiting for the government to recognise their rights.

Almost all of them, mostly tribal communities, say that the forests support almost half of their total income, the rest being met by farming. Further, forests have enriched their soil, reducing the cost of production. They have increased the availability of water in the streams, tanks and wells. The forest provides them with food, green leaves and medicinal plants that would costs thousands if they were to be calculated by market value. Most importantly, forests have helped them fight the severest of droughts in recent times.

Climate resilience

The most important part of letting indigenous and local communities stay in forests is not just the benefits they derive, but the larger contribution they are making at a time when the entire world is trying to find ways to increase forest cover to fight the disastrous impacts of climate change.

The rise in temperatures over the past two centuries has been felt across 98% of the planet, reaching every corner apart from Antarctica. Such consistency over space is unprecedented in the past 2000 years. We have seen how unprecedented heat wave has struck the entire country and the delayed and deficit monsoon has already sounded a massive drought across the country, while some parts in northern and north-eastern India are being devastated by floods. See: 2,000 years of record show it’s getting hotter, faster

Most of these unprecedented extreme weather events are now due to climate change caused by the increased greenhouse gas emissions, and deforestation contributes almost a quarter of this.

Globally, countries are now looking to plant trees as a solution to climate change. However, cutting down the existing full-grown forests in the name of development and then planting billions of trees is not going to help much, at least in the short and medium terms. In fact, the government of India has admitted to this fact that “artificial afforestation carried out under compensatory afforestation provisions of Forest (Conservation) Act, 1980 cannot substitute natural forests.” See: Is planting tree enough to fight climate change?

Importance of conservation

Conservation of natural forests is therefore the best solution to fight global climate change and its local impacts. Research done in 2018 by the US based Rights and Resources Initiatives found out that a total of 293,061 million tonnes of carbon is held above ground, below ground, and in the soil beneath forests managed by indigenous and local communities worldwide.

Done in 64 countries, representing 69% of forest carbon globally, it showed that communities protect five times more carbon than demonstrated by a previous analysis done by the same institute in 2016. The study found out that tropical forest governments are failing to act on evidence that legally recognised indigenous and community forests tend to store more carbon and experience lower rates of deforestation than other forests.

Not only that. At a time when at least one million species are threatened with extinction, the indigenous communities have demonstrated greater success in preserving species diversity. Indigenous communities are said to own or manage at least a quarter of world’s land surface. A just published Canadian-led study published by the journal Environmental Science & Policy found that the total number of birds, mammals, amphibians and reptiles was the highest on indigenous community-managed lands in three countries they studied — Australia, Brazil and Canada. Protected areas like parks and wildlife reserves had the second highest levels of biodiversity, followed by randomly selected areas that were not protected.

According to the Global Assessment Report on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services by the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES), while biodiversity is declining everywhere at an unprecedented rate, the rate of decline is lower in areas where indigenous people own land. The natural resources managed by indigenous people and local communities are under increasing pressure, but generally declining less rapidly in indigenous peoples’ land than in other lands.

Best saviours

So, even as some people want to drive out small and marginal farmers from their land and forests to become wage labourers somewhere else, the survival of humanity needs these people to stay in their own place and protect those natural forests. The small farmers are not just farmers. They are in many places the saviours of our last remaining natural forests, and hence, a great support in our fight against climate change.

The right to land and forests to local and indigenous communities, along with other support to enhance their livelihood opportunities, can not only help us in increasing their income but also help them guard the much-needed forests for us. The World Bank report says, “One significant issue affecting tenure security in forest landscapes is the limited formal, legal recognition of and support for community-based tenure rights.”

In a case filed by wildlife professionals, who believe forest and wildlife conservation has to happen without human beings such as local indigenous communities, the Supreme Court in February ordered the eviction of almost 1.1 million people in India from their traditional forestlands. The government of India decided not to defend the cause of the people when the matter was on its final day of hearing in the court.

However, later, due to pressure by several organisations — including the ones affiliated to the ruling regime — it appealed for a relief for the people, perhaps because India’s general elections were due in May. Now that the elections are over and the court is about to hear the case on tomorrow, the government must bring in all these local and global evidences to stop the eviction of these people that would benefit its mission to meeting its climate goals committed to the Paris Climate Agreement.


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