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Satellite images may be used to support verdict to 'evict' lakhs of India's forest dwellers

Satellite of the Chandrapur tiger reserve, 2017
By Our Representative
Ahead of a crucial Supreme Court hearing on July 24, indications have emerged suggesting India's top officialdom is preparing grounds to support the controversial petition by hardcore conservationists, which led the apex court to order on February 13 a time-bound eviction of millions of forest dwellers, whose claims for forest land under the Forest Rights Act (FRA) was rejected by authorities across India.
A recent report suggests, this is being done by citing historical "evidence" of satellite imagery to show how large tracts of forest lands have been "illegally" occupied. While the eviction order came on February 13 in the petition filed by Wildlife First, along with Nature Conservation Society and Tiger Research and Conservation Trust, the apex court stayed it on February 28 for four months following a huge outcry, forcing the Government of India to intervene.
The apex court bench, led by Justice Arun Mishra, staying the order, said, states must file affidavits within four months responding to allegations that there was a high rate of rejection of claims, non-communication of rejection orders, unrealistic timelines in deciding claims, and so on. The stay followed Government of India solicitor general Tushar Mehta submitting the eviction order would affect a "large number of families".
Now, citing satellite images of the landscape of the premier Tadoba-Andhari Tiger Reserve (TATR) in Chandrapur district, Maharashtra, a report claims there is evidence of "a cause behind massive encroachments on forest land." According to this report, a comparison of satellite images from February 2007 and 2019 show "a lot of deforestation, cultivation and encroachments" have happened in Chandrapur and Brahmapuri territorial divisions in the TATR landscape.
The report quotes Maharashtra forest officials to say that they "conducted a survey in 90% area of TATR landscape in the last two months and recorded encroachments over 950-hectare forest land. This is apart from the 1,500-hectare either in process of getting titles or already issued.” Based on this, preliminary offence reports (PORs) has been "registered and notices issued to the people in case of fresh encroachments”.
Even after a multi-layer verification process of the first land being cultivated before December 2005 under the Forest Rights Act (FRA), these conservationists claim, individual forest rights (IFRs) were granted on approximately 72,000 sq km forest land, equivalent to an area of Assam state, to claimants since 2008.
A 2004 image of the tiger reserve
The conservationists further claim that the process has "unearthed" about 19 lakh bogus claims, showing that "FRA has been used as an opportunity to grab forest land." Forest officials now add, the evidence from the satellite image in TATR are enough to suggest the illegal occupation of the forest land. Thus, high-resolution historical satellite images encroachments can now be "easily" identified.
They say, "encroachments" in Tadoba landscape fall in tiger-bearing areas of Ekara in Brahmapuri, Sindewahi, Mul and Mohurli "where conflict is at its peak affecting wild animals and people." While increasing encroachments is considered one of the major reasons for shrinking wildlife space causing conflict, it is pointed out, during the last little over three years (2016-19), Brahmapuri division alone has recorded 34 human deaths and 304 cases of human injures in wild animal attacks.
Officials, supporting the hardcore conservationists' view, believe, it will be "ecologically suicidal" to hand over forest land to lakhs of "ineligible" claimants. Quoting Ministry of Tribal Affairs (MoTA) data, they add, till September 2018 even the gram sabhas had "rejected 14.77 lakh claims", hence there is no reason to allow status quo to " illegal" occupants of forest land.
Disputing the latest official move to use satellite images to support "the hardcore conservation petitioners in the Supreme Court Forest Rights Act case", a top forest rights advocacy network, Community Forest Rights-Learning and Advocacy (CFR-LA), says, this is being done by providing misleading and wrong data.
A series of tweets on their behalf say, "Even as a debate over Forest Rights Act (FRA), 2006, on title claims for ‘pattas’ (land) rages ahead of Supreme Court hearing on July 24", the satellite imagery "actually shows no evidence of new forest felling and land occupation."
There are no signs of vast increased encroachments in the images between 2004 and 2017 that has been used, the CFR-LA  says, insisting, "But that is besides the point... If someone illegally occupies new forest land after 2006, there are state laws to deal with them as FRA doesn't protect such occupations."
Pointing out that conversationists and their supporters in the officialdom have been providing "wrong data about total area recognized" under FRA,  CFR-LA cites MoTA to say that "it is 51,600 sq km and not 72,000 sq km adding, conservationists "keep on repeating the false idea that 72,000 sq km of forests have been distributed to tribals and forest dwellers."
"Two thirds of the area (35,200 sq. km) recognised is collective rights on forests", the NGO network says, pointing out, these are areas where "forest land use can't be changed to non-forest." It adds, "In fact the gram sabhas are empowered" to protect community forests, a best practice accepted now across the world."
In Maharastra 92% and in Gujarat 95% of forest lands recognised as individual forest rights (IFRs) didn't have tree cover before 2005
Calling India's FRA "one of the best practices of community forestry", the NGO network says, it has been also been recognized that "securing rights of indigenous peoples and local communities may curb global warming". They add, "We cannot restore tropical forests without restoring the rights of their traditional owners, and there is enough evidence from research by that collective rights under FRA have improved forest conservation..."
Pointing out that, that brings one "to the rest of the area recognised as individual occupancy rights (IFRs), the CFR-LA  argues, "A Maharastra government report (incidentally the same used by petitioners) says that at least 92% of the sampled forest lands recognised as IFRs didn't have tree cover before 2005."
It adds, "Another check by Gujarat government found that 95% of the individual claims recognised as IFRs had no tree cover, i.e. they were under agricultural land use already by cut off date. The implication is that studies quoted by petitioners themselves are saying that a maximum of 2% of forest land recognised under FRA may (note the doubt) be problematic."
CFR-LA continues, "There’s little evidence to show FRA is leading to large-scale deforestation. Instead of blindly opposing it, conservationists must demand sincere implementation of the forest law."
It adds, one shouldn't "parrot the discredited and wrong data used by petitioners." And if authorities have "evidence that are new illegal occupation through forest fellings over 2,450 ha in TATR landscapes, who stops them to provide proof that FRA doesn't apply and take legal action?"
"But if these are eligible forest land under occupation by tribals and forest dwellers even in the core area, the rights have to be recognised under FRA", CFR-LA says, adding, the Act even provides for compensation under the Land Acquire Acquisition Act, 2013, allowing relocation based on free, prior and informed consent (FPIC) FPIC "in case there is a determination that co-existence is not possible."

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