"We are united here to save our endangered trees within customary boundaries of the village," says Bisingi Mallik, an elderly tribal woman from Kondh community, resident of Gangeri, a forest fringe village in Balliguda block in Kandhamal district. While the gram sabha is being held in Gangeri on December 14 to claim the community forest lands, as per the provisions of the Forest Rights Act, 2006, Mallik, along with residents of her village have tied pieces of red cloth around endangered indigenous tree species there by organising a traditional festival. This was to protect their forest resources from Timber mafia, and foreign species plantations by forest department officials.
Similar demonstrations are underway in several villages in Balleguda block (gram sabha held in Sirubali village on December 13). A total of 25 community forest rights claims have been filed by various communities in Balleguda block in the last 10 months.
The Sirubalii gram sabha has installed two different display boards at the entry point of the village, mentioning details about their traditional boundaries (where they move and traditionally have been protecting, managing, regenerating and nurturing the forests for generations). These boards specify that the gram sabha has the power to even punish the people who try to demolish their traditional, holy trees and kill wildlife.
In the gram sabhas, villagers recognise the traditional boundaries of their forest lands to claim ownership and the forest and state revenue department officials are mandated to verify the claims, and disburse land deeds accordingly, according to Forest rights act, 2006.
Odisha has 58.14 lakh hectare of forest area which is about 37.34 per cent of the total geographical area of the state. The Scheduled Tribes (ST) population in Odisha was 95.91 lakh and number of ST households was 21.54 lakh as per 2011 census.
According to data from Ministry of Tribal affairs, a total of 6.26 lakh claims (including 6.12 lakh individual claims and 13,712 community claims for ownership over forest lands) have been filed at the end of August, 2018. Of this, only 4.21 lakh individual claims and 6467 community claims were verified, and land titles were distributed, while the remaining more than 2 lakh claims were rejected.
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While Odisha is ranked as the best performing state in terms of implementation of FRA act by the Centre’s monitoring programme PRAGATI (Pro-Active Governance and Timely Implementation), it is not in sync with a report by the Comptroller and Auditor General of India (CAG). The CAG revealed that between 2011 and 2016, only 46 per cent of villages were fully covered in recognising forest rights. Alongside, despite a higher rate of rejection of claims, the government officials even failed to intimate the people about the rejection, thus denying their right to file petitions.
Furthermore, the Audit found that the government even failed to conduct awareness campaigns to sensitise people to avail benefits under the FRA act.
“Tribes and traditional forest dwellers adhere to different means in conserving their forests, which is being obstructed by monopoly plantations by private contractors and forest department officials,” says Susanta Kumar Dalai, forest rights activist based in Kandhamal. Under the banner of Indigenous Uncultivated Forest Foods Organisation, Susanta has been organising campaigns creating awareness among the Tribals over forest rights and the FRA act.
“While the tribals depend upon the uncultivated forest produce for their livelihood, they are not even getting proper prices in return, when they sell the produce in the nearby towns, mainly because of the interference by middlemen contractors,” he said. If the forest dwellers are trained “how to conserve, manage and regenerate the forests, and when they are given ownership title deeds under FRA, it would protect both the Tribes and their traditional knowledge and the ecosystem of the forests will be under balance,” Susanta said Newsclick.
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