Image via Raksha Kumar

'It is more than just losing our homes'

Nivada Rana, who belongs to the Tharu tribe, lives within the Dudhwa National Park, which sits on the India-Nepal border. Although unlettered and unaware of the law, her fighting spirit to protect the forests in the highest court of the land has not been dampened.

Sokalo Gond, her co-petitioner at the Supreme Court from the Gond tribe, lives in Sonbhadra, a town about 600 kilometers south of Rana’s forest lands. “We have fought battles all the time in our long lives,” said Gond, whose grey hair seems to confirm her claim. They constantly fight the forest bureaucracy, large corporations, security forces and political interests to protect the natural resources they live amidst. “So the battle in the court is just another one,” she added.

Despite India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi raising awareness about preserving forests to prevent environmental degradation, his government seems to have done very little. According to the latest biennial State of India’s forest Report 2019 of December 2019, India’s forest cover has increased by 0.6 percent in the past two years. A closer examination of these figures show that almost 30 percent of land, which is classified as forest, has mines, agricultural plots, and infrastructure projects built on them.

The burden of saving India’s forests has fallen on forest-dwelling Adivasis. For years now, these communities have been relentlessly fighting battles to protect their homes against large corporations that either want to fell trees to procure timber or mine the earth for precious minerals.

But in the last year, the battle pitch has risen. On February 13, 2019, the Supreme Court of India ordered the eviction of close to two million Adivasis and forest-dwelling families from their traditional habitat. Though the order was subsequently stayed, it was not repealed. The future of Adivasis, and their claim of their forest lands, remains uncertain. Losing forest lands would mean losing their homes, livelihoods, and their identities.

Two Adivasi women are fighting this battle in the highest court of the land.

India’s forest law

In 2006, the central government of India passed what is commonly known as the Forest Rights Act (FRA), a law that recognised the rights of Adivasis to forests and other resources. Prior to the Act, the State — through the Forest Department — controlled the forests, sidelining Adivasis’ needs and evicting them forcefully by terming them as encroachers. FRA was  meant to ‘right historical wrongs done to the forest-dwelling people.’ The law grants local village councils power to decide land ownership. It was under this law that in 2014, the Dongria Kondh tribe won a landmark case against the London-based mining company Vedanta, which wanted to extract bauxite from their ancestral lands.

Last February, the Supreme Court ordered the eviction of Adivasi communities unless relevant documentation to their claims over forests was provided under this Act. In September, a lead petitioner against the FRA — the Wildlife Trust of India — withdrew from the case. The case is ongoing.

For the first six decades of independent India, Adivasis struggled to get their rights over their forests recognised. After the FRA was passed, they fought to see it implemented. Now, Adivasis are struggling to save the law.

“We will do everything to save our forests,” said Gond.

On January 26, when the Indian Prime Minister welcomed the Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, Gond, and her colleagues expressed solidarity with the Indigenous communities in the Amazon who are struggling to keep their forests alive.

“We know exactly what they feel like,” said Rana. “It is more than just losing our homes. Losing the forests is putting all our homes at risk,” she added.

Parallels to Brazil

The Amazonian forests in Brazil are considered vital in slowing down the pace of global warming. The country lost twice the amount of forest area in January this year than it had in the same month last year. Observers blame the policies of the current Brazilian government for the unprecedented acceleration of the loss.

Large areas of the forest, which Brazil’s agricultural industry wants to exploit, have been burned down to the ground. Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro has repeatedly expressed contempt towards the Indigenous communities that inhabit the Amazon. Thousands of them have been displaced in his reign. “In India, the Adivasis are about 9 percent of the population. Hence, no political leader can express contempt openly and get away with it,” said Roma Malik of the All India Union of Forest Working People, a collective that works for Adivasi rights to forests.

Although Brazil and India have similarities of being emerging and ambitious economies, their official position on climate change and deforestation is different. According to Gond, this changes the strategies they use to fight their respective countries. The Modi government has pledged to ban single-use plastic, ensure forest cover increases, and to put its weight behind the harvest and use of solar energy. It has rarely practised what it has promised though — instead, it has bankrolled dirty coal and counted non-forest land as forests.

“We have to fight what actually happens on the ground. And not go by what the officials say,” said Rana.

By contrast, Bolsonaro has been blatant in his desire to exploit the Amazon for economic reasons. In February this year, he proposed a Bill to allow mining, farming, and hydroelectric power projects on what was protected Amazon land.

“When the leader is so blatant and doesn’t mince words, then one is fighting on the same turf,” said Malik.

In India, Adivasis are not sure how they can counter the government's rhetoric on clean environment and its massive disinformation campaign.

“When the government releases wrong figures saying forest lands have increased, the media will carry those figures,” said Tushar Dash, an academic working on the forest rights. “We have to fight real hard to counter that,” he said.

The same is true when it comes to the rights of the forest dwelling people. Since Bolsonaro has been forthright about his compeopt for Indigenous communities, the fight is straightforward.  According to a new report by the Arns Commission, a human rights body, Bolsonaro government's socio-environmental policies are putting Indigenous peoples at risk of genocide.

“In India, they come at us with other weapons - they call us Maoists (armed left-wing extremists inhabiting the forests of central India) and use force on us,” said Rana. “So we need to fight at two levels. First expose them as two-faced and then attack their policies.”

In September 2019, Greta Thunberg, a teenage climate activist accused world leaders of betraying the younger generation by promising "fairy tales of eternal economic growth” at the cost of the environment.

A day after that, Bolsonaro stood up in the UN General Assembly and denied that forests of Amazon were a heritage of humanity. On the other hand, Modi warned US President Donald Trump that “playing with the wellbeing of future generations would be an immoral and criminal act”, just two days before Trump withdrew from the Paris Agreement.

No matter which part of the world one chooses to focus on, the fight to save forests is a reality and the Indigenous communities are the ones on the frontline. “For us, destruction is imminent,” said Gond. “The day the world sees it like that, everyone will fight to save the forests.”