• Tanvi Dutta Gupta

Indigenous Rights Around the World: India's Forest Rights Act

What can American Indigenous advocates learn from India's Forest Rights Act?

Women from the Baiga tribe march in protest of a threatened eviction in 2003.

As fires continue to rage across the western United States, more and more attention is rightfully turning towards the importance of Indigenous land ownership and management. The harms of confining Indigenous people to reservations are increasingly discussed and new, better models for Indigenous land rights are proposed. But the US is not the only place in the world fighting to give Indigenous people rights over their homes and histories.


In India, the Forest Rights Act (2006) (FRA) represents one of the most important pieces of legislation in the country for granting Indigenous tribes rights over land, even in protected areas. But ever since its enactment, controversy has dogged its footsteps. Nearly a decade and a half after it was passed into law, many tribal groups still live under the threat of eviction and harassment by forest services. What got India to the FRA? And what can we learn about the global fight for Indigenous land rights from it?


India's History of Indigenous Suppression


After 1947, when India got independence from the British, the new government continued colonial forest management strategies. This model of forest management was based on the eviction of Indigenous people, centralized governance, and exclusionist policies—ideas drawn from American national parks and early wilderness theorists like Muir. In India, this model led to 125 years of over a hundred different rebellions by Indigenous groups.


Based on India’s forest conservation acts, forest officers could go anywhere listed as a forest—even if not properly surveyed (and sometimes places that in reality weren’t forests at all)—and evict the people who lived there. In one state alone, 125 villages were burnt to the ground. Across the country, families were violently forced to leave, even if they had been living on that land for centuries. Elders from the Soliga tribe in South India, who found their native lands in conflict with a new tiger reserve, still recall watching forest officials on trained elephants crush their homes and fields, leaving them no option but to move away from their sacred sites to government-built settlements. In one fell move, in the name of conservation, they were stripped of their cultural and social foundation as well as the only economic livelihoods they knew.


A Soliga tribe member harvests leaves from the forest (https://live.staticflickr.com/8587/15964083611_aa36c94f65_b.jpg)

In 2002, a violent wave of attempted evictions brought things to a head. Indigenous groups across India amassed in the Campaign for Survival and Dignity (CSD) and began campaigning for basic protections. As they gained traction, in 2005 the CSD was invited to draft the basis of the FRA. But at the same time, some conservationists were actively campaigning against the act. India’s traditional models of tiger protections were directly based on a Tiger Protection Force that evicted indigenous families. Though many of those families had been living on those lands among tigers for centuries, conservation models linked indigenous presence with decreases in forest quality and tiger numbers. They outlined an explicit conflict between “tigers” and “tribals”.


But this conflict did not always hold up in reality. In the years after the Soliga’s eviction from the new tiger reserve, the area witnessed a 350% increase in forest fires in the landscape. The Soliga knew the solution, which they had been practicing for decades: controlled burning and pruning of the invasive and highly flammable Lantana plant. But conservationists balked at the idea of setting fires in the national park designed to protect tigers, despite what the Soligas kept telling them about how they had managed this place that used to be their home.


The Forest Rights Act is Passed


Finally, after two years of debate, conflict, controversy, and dilution, the Campaign for Survival and Dignity succeeded in getting the FRA passed into law. The act was revolutionary, though weaker than its initial form. If Indigenous groups could prove occupation of land before 2005, or for the last 75 years, they were granted permission to continue living there without threat of eviction. Most notably, the act framed itself in terms linking justice and conservation, and formally deemed tribal groups as protectors of the forest they lived in.


From the time it was signed, however, the FRA came under attack. In the first year alone, some conservationist groups brought two petitions to the Supreme Court of India attacking the act as unconstitutional. Though both petitions were struck down, the act was hardly safe, and faced more legal challenges over the decade that followed. In February 2019, one petition by retired forest officers and a few non-governmental organizations succeeded in the Supreme Court. The government had failed to send a defendant for the case. The Court ordered the eviction of anyone whose claim had been rejected to date.


Millions of people were at risk: this was the largest eviction ever ordered during peacetime in India, and affected Indigenous groups across the country. The criteria for eviction—a rejected claim—was rarely the fault of the groups themselves, but rather bureaucracy and sometimes outright illegal maneuvers by state governments and forest departments to reject and delay claims. With 400 million forest dwellers in India, only 4 million had filed claims and only 1.7 million of those claims had been approved.


Thousands of people came out to protest the order across the country and several conservation groups came out in defense of the act, emphasizing how integral indigenous knowledge and practice was to their work. Finally, by the end of the year, the court asked the state governments to review the rejections. To date, the Tribal Ministry is debating the progress made by states and by extension and the Act’s constitutionality.


Indigenous Rights Today


The saga of the FRA is not over. The Act, even if kept in law, is hardly perfect: for one, it grants no legal rights to tribes, only the permission to stay and cultivate lands. But the conflict mirrors the more fundamental reckoning everyone who cares about nature must eventually deal with. Does our idea of wild land exclude the very people who shaped it? And how do we move these abstract debates about land rights into practical policy?


The FRA reveals that the path towards indigenous rights is not easy, and has no clear end in sight. But it does offer key insights. Perhaps the most important takeaway is that progress can be made when Indigenous people are given a platform. The Act may never have existed without the intersectional Indigenous advocacy of the Campaign for Survival and Dignity, and the battle to keep it alive continues because of their work.

As the US moves forward, we must keep working to shift power away from colonialist centers. Indigenous land management is not a fight that ends with this fire season or this election cycle. And it is not a battle that ends at the American border.