Protecting Nature's Hotspots for people and prosperity

Returning to the Forest: India’s Indigenous Population Reclaims Their Ancestral Home

by Mitchell Altman

In the summer of 2010, three members of one of India’s indigenous tribes, known as Adivasis, walked into the forest near the southern town of Gudalur to collect honey. This was their legal right, as outlined by the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act of 2006. Despite this legal protection, they were arrested by Forest Department rangers and charged with felling trees inside the forest. 

Adversarial Relationship

Before the 2006 law was passed, the Adivasis had no legal right to collect honey and other non-timber forest products from the forests that had sustained them for centuries. Even after its passage, many lower-ranking members of the Forest Department were unaware of the new law, and higher-ranking officials who were aware of the law actively opposed it. 

The Forest Department itself claimed ownership over land traditionally used by the Adivasis, but under their stewardship, the lands underwent degradation and deforestation to make room for tea plantations. In some cases, they also planted non-native trees like eucalyptus and pine, which diminished the value of the land to the indigenous populations. 

Through the Forest Rights Act, Adivasi village councils, known as Gram Sabhas, were given legal recognition as the bodies which govern their respective community forests. After the act’s passage, however, the Forest Department continued to stand in between the Adivasi tribes and their right to use forest resources. According to Stan Thekaekara, indigenous rights activist and co-founder of the nonprofit organization Action for Community Organization, Rehabilitation and Development (ACCORD), this was because the department was not fully informed of the new provisions. “Very few officials knew about the act and what it meant,” Thekaekara said. “So some of the resistance came from sheer ignorance.”

Others within the Forest Department who were aware of the law were unsupportive, finding flaws with community forest claim forms or saying those forms had been lost. The Adivasi became discouraged and began to doubt the possibility of reclaiming their land. 

Turning Point

To address these infringements, ACCORD secured a CEPF grant to conserve biodiversity in Gudalur Valley by transferring stewardship of its forests from the Forest Department to the Adivasi. The grant was facilitated by the Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment (ATREE), the CEPF Regional Implementation Team for the Western Ghats Region. ACCORD assisted the Gram Sabhas by teaching them the ins and outs of the Forest Rights Act and how to navigate the bureaucracy of the Forest Department. This allowed the Gram Sabhas to directly challenge the Forest Department when the groups disagreed about policy.

ACCORD also assisted the Gram Sabhas in Gudalur with mapping out the sacred groves in the area. Sacred groves are parcels of land which the Adivasi believe are home to the gods. Many of these sacred groves are now surrounded by tea plantations, and thus inaccessible to those who revere these sites.

With so many sacred groves off limits for decades, the younger Adivasis have not developed a connection to the groves. By mapping these locations, young Adivasi are reconnecting with a previously lost aspect of their culture, and they have found a new reason to protect their community forests.

“The major impact of the sacred groves work has been that it has gotten the younger generation thinking more about their culture and identity. This is crucial if they are to maintain their close relationships with the forests,” Thekaekara said. “As they access modern education and become part of a modern capital economy, they run the risk of being disconnected from their cultural roots. The sacred groves and the rituals there are the linchpins of cultural identity.”

The rediscovered passion among the young, coupled with the Gram Sabhas’ newfound knowledge of the intricacies of the Forest Rights Act, allowed the Adivasis to resume their symbiotic relationship with the forests in a way that they hadn’t been able to do for decades. The support that ACCORD provided raised the Gram Sabhas’ capacities enough to allow the Adivasis to assume control over the project, taking the lead in their fight for the recognition of their rights.

Restoration of Rights

In 2014, instead of waiting for permission, Gram Sabhas around Gudalur sent notice to the Forest Department that they were going into the forest to exercise their traditional rights. The Adivasis were able to enter the forest without conflict. To date, at least half of Gudalur’s 30 Gram Sabhas have submitted forest rights claims of their own.

The road to recognition of the legal rights of the Adivasi to their community forests has been long, but enough of the barriers have slowly been removed to allow them to begin not only protecting the forests from imbalance and degradation, but also sustainably using the forests to once again provide them with food, shelter and spiritual fulfillment. ​