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With cops' help? 40,000 trees cut in western Odisha for establishing open pit coalmine

Tree felling in Talabira forests under police protection
By Prafulla Samantra*
In the same week as the UN Climate Change Conference (COP25) summit, as world's leaders discuss climate change, in the industrial belt of Western Odisha, more than 40,000 trees were cut in Talabira forest on December 9 and 10 for establishing an open pit coalmine. 
On December 11, local authorities have moved the felling to Patrapalli village, 3 km away from Talabira – threatening to destroy forest that the villagers have protected for the last four decades.
This tree-felling follows the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEF&CC)’s Stage II clearance to divert 1,038 hectares of forest land for an opencast coal mining project called Talabira II and III coal blocks in March 2018.
Villagers emphatically say that they never gave their consent for the diversion of the forest land required by the Stage I clearance letter and that their rights under the Forest Rights Act haven’t been settled.
Thus, the official Stage II permission appears to be based on forged Gram Sabhas Resolutions. The Patrapali village has submitted claims for Community Forest Rights (CFRs) on their forests which are still pending. On these grounds the Stage II clearance is illegal.
The proposed Talabira II and III blocks coal mining project belongs to Neyveli Lignite Corporation (NLC) India and is located in the Jharsugda and Sambalpur districts of Odisha. SCs and STs comprise almost 60% of the population affected by the project. 
The 1,038 ha of forest land included in the mining project are natural forests dominated by Sal trees, which have been actively protected by villagers for the last 40-50 years. This region of Odisha has some of the oldest and most established community forest protection in the state and are one of the last big forest patches in the whole area, surrounded by mines and industries.
Village communities have formed traditional village forest committees which have been protecting forests for decades, either through patrolling by community members or by watchmen paid through voluntary contribution by villagers.
The community-protected forests affected by the Talabira coal mine not only act as the sole green lungs of this highly industrialized and polluted zone, but also the last refuge of dwindling wildlife in the area. Villagers say that bar tigers almost all wildlife is present in these forests. Elephants are regular visitors to these forests.
The Forest Rights Act is applicable to these forests and villagers’ community forest resource (CFR) rights should have been recognized. One of the villages, Patrapalli, has already submitted CFR claims, which are still pending. Furthermore, under the Forest Rights Act, villagers consent is required for any diversion of forest lands. (See section xxxiii in the Forest Clearance Letter for Phase I)
Villagers allege that they have not provided this consent and the district administration has submitted forged Gram Sabha Consent letters. In fact, village communities have passed strong Gram Sabha resolutions rejecting the proposed diversion of forests for the coal-mine. Thus, Stage II clearance of the project is illegal and contravenes not only the Forest Rights Act but also the Prevention of Atrocities Act as majority of the population is SC/ST.
The current situation is extremely worrying. In the presence of more than 10 platoons of police force, the forest protected by Talabira village has already been cut. The locals estimate that more than 40,000 trees have been felled using machines and the land has been levelled. Now the police force has surrounded the Patrapalli village and their tree felling is expected to start soon. The whole area has been cordoned off by police forces and the local villagers are terrorized.
At a time when India needs to protect its forests to fight against climate change, forceful destruction of forests protected by communities over decades without their consent to mine climate-killer coal, is a climate crime.
It is especially tragic since this verdant forest nurtured by marginalized forest communities is one of the last forests left in Sambalpur-Jharsuguda industrial belt, an area where climate change fueled temperatures tend to reach 48 degrees Centigrade in summer.
A climate crime and injustice to tribal and forest dwellers, democratic-minded individuals should come together and oppose this gross violation of rights of the communities and law.
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*Winner of Goldman Environmental Prize for 2017

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