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Forests in the Northeast: Losing track

Forests in the Northeast: Losing track
What coal has done to community forests in Meghalaya, oil palm seems to be doing in Mizoram. Since 2005, the Mizoram government has been implementing an ambitious programme of the Centre, Palm Oil Development Programme (PODP) that aims to catapult India from being an importer of oil palm to being self-sufficient in the wonder crop. After all, oil palm is in demand for everything, right from making vegetable oils and biodiesel to soaps and cosmetics. 

While several of the 12 states under PODP struggle to meet the annual targets of oil palm cultivation due to land scarcity and competition from other crops, Mizoram has managed to substantially expand the area under oil palm, at times beyond its annual targets. Of the 101,000 hectares (ha) it plans to bring under the crop, it has already covered 19,000 ha. 

What’s striking is most areas brought under oil palms are community forests on which Mizo tribes have practised jhum, a slash-and-burn shifting cultivation. These tribes own and manage at least one-third of the 1.9 million ha of forests in the state. The Sixth Schedule of the Constitution that governs tribal areas in the Northeast is meant to protect their traditional practices. But the state holds jhum responsible for deforestation and land degradation and has been trying to end it since the 1980s. With PODP in hand, it has meticulously drafted a policy that will not only help curb jhum but promote oil palm. On the face of it, the New Land Use Policy (NLUP), 2011 aims to provide “sustainable income to farming families...by weaning them away from the destructive and unprofitable shifting cultivation practice.” Under the Centre-funded policy, farmers receive Rs 100,000 as one-time support for giving up jhum and opting for plantations such as cashew, banana and oil palm. High subsidies to oil palm under PODP make it lucrative than the other crops. 

By pushing oil palm plantations, Mizoram seems to be effectively abolishing the traditional community forestry management systems, which has been on the wane. Under the systems, the traditional village assembly identifies forest land around the village for jhum and allots it to families for a year. 
The size of the land depends on the need of the family and its capacity to cultivate. This system ensures that no tribal remains landless. Under NLUP, the government undermines this traditional right of the village assembly and allots patta (land title) to individuals who take up permanent cultivation on jhum land. “In many cases, contractors or businessmen from distant towns bag the land titles,” says an Aizawl-based journalist.

At the same time, the government is creating a conducive business environment for palm oil companies. Between 2005 and 2006, it signed memoranda of understanding with Godrej Agrovet Ltd, Ruchi Soya Industries Ltd, and Food, Fats & Fertilizers (3F) Ltd for palm oil production. It gave these companies exclusive rights over seven of its eight districts for procuring oil palm from farmers at a fixed price and offered each of them Rs 2.5 crore for setting up oil mills. 

“Under this arrangement, even though a tribal farmer grows oil palm on his land, in practice it becomes captive plantation of the company. The arrangement undermines the farmers’ rights to sell the produce in the open market,” says T R Shankar Raman of Nature Conservation Foundation, Mysore. 

Studies show expansion of oil palm has resulted in social and economic changes in tropical countries, says Umesh Srinivasan of the National Centre for Biological Sciences, Bengaluru. Following an oil palm boom in Ghana in 1970, many non-native farmers leased or purchased community lands by bribing customary chieftains. Community-owned lands in Papua New Guinea are also being sold to people who have no customary birthrights in the region, says Srinivasan. In Indonesia, he adds, conflicts emerged between communities and oil palm companies over unequal benefit sharing and uncertain land tenure.

Monoculture plantations like oil palm can destroy the biodiversity of a region, says Raman, who has studied jhum in Mizoram for a decade. Jhum, though causes temporary deforestation, does not affect the biodiversity as much. “Today major criticism against jhum is that its cycle has reduced from 10-15 years to two to three years, which affects regeneration of forests. Plantations have decreased land availability for jhum, reducing its cycle,” Raman says. Oil palm may be economically rewarding but nobody takes into account ancillary services of jhum. Farmers not only grow rice, maize, vegetables and fruits on jhum farms, they harvest bamboo, bamboo shoots and firewood from the patch during fallow period, Raman informs. 

Manipur, Arunachal toe the line
In Manipur, 70 percent of the forests are traditionally owned and managed by tribal communities. But these community forests are categorised as Unclassified State Forests (USFs) in government records. The government has proposed the New Land Use Policy, 2014, which aims to bring the entire recorded forest area in the state under “undisturbed” forest cover and joint forest management (JFM) without considering the traditional use of the forest land. Under JFM, the forest department ropes in communities for forest management but retains its control over the forest.

Taking a step ahead, Arunachal Pradesh is drafting a law that empowers the forest department to bring almost any kind of land, including traditional community forests, under its control.

Traditional community forests account for 60 percent of the 5.1 million ha of forests in the state. But just like Manipur, Arunachal Pradesh has categorised these forests as USFs and put them in the list of government-controlled forests. To make matters worse, the government is now hammering out the draft Arunachal Pradesh Forest Act, 2014, which will allow any land on which “no person has acquired either permanent heritable and transferable right of use or occupancy under any law for the time being in force” to be converted into “reserved forests”. Since there is no record of customary rights of communities over their forest land, community forests can be considered as “government property” and converted into reserved forests, says tribal rights activist Madhu Sarin. This will restrict activities of communities in their homeland. The proposed law has also provisions for acquiring private land and “wasteland” and notifying them as reserved and protected forests. It seems the government intends to bring every category of land under its control, says Sarin. The proposed law bars people from collecting forest produce from USFs. Since most customary lands have been recorded as USFs, this will imply a major infringement of customary rights, she adds.

The Centre’s Forest Rights Act, 2006, recognises traditional rights of forest communities. But the state has been dragging its feet over implementing the Act. Last year, it informed the Union tribal affairs ministry that FRA does not have much relevance in the state because most of the forests belong to communities whose territories are identified by natural boundaries. Such clarity is missing from the proposed forest law. Following objections by community leaders and academicians, the forest department has constituted two committees to carry out a “wider consultation” on the draft law.

 (The views expressed are strictly those of Down to Earth.)
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