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Forest Rights Act, PESA-empowered Adivasis 'effectively' braved Covid lockdown: Report

By Our Representative 
A new civil society report on the impact of Covid-19 lockdown on Adivasi and forest dwelling communities has said while it true that “vulnerabilities, atrocities and injustices that forest communities” due to forest, conservation and economic policies have increased during the pandemic”, yet examples galore suggesting that these communities have “coped with the crisis with remarkable resilience”.
Especially citing areas where land and forest rights of Adivasi and forest dwellers have been recognised and gram sabhas have been empowered under the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act 2006 (FRA) and Panchayat Extension to Scheduled Areas Act 1996 (PESA), the report states that legally empowered forest communities have successfully coped with the “pandemic and widespread distress.”
Released on October 2, the report, “Community Forest Rights and the Pandemic: Gram Sabhas Lead The Way”, the Gandhi Jayanti day, cites case studies to illustrate how “the recognition of forest rights to use and manage community forests under the FRA has made it possible for many Adivasi and forest dwelling communities to overcome the distress and swing into action to address the situation created by the Covid pandemic and the lock down.”
Prepared by a team of independent researchers as part of Community Forest Rights (CFR) Learning and Advocacy and Vikalp Sangam initiative, the report says, local communities and gram sabhas “better understand the local complexities than local administrations while dealing with a crisis situation as presented by Covid-19, and respond faster especially when empowered by FRA.”
Thus, the report says, the gram sabhas in Rajnandgaon, Chhattisgarh, initiated “a holistic Covid-19 governance plan, while local administrations followed later on.” It narrates, in this context, how secure tenure and empowered gram sabhas “can help reduce distress out migration.”
The report quotes Pratibha Shinde, member of Lok Samanvay Pratisthan, an NGO which works in Nandurbar district in Maharashtra, as stating that “until 2016, a lot of people used to migrate out of Nandurbar district for work. Workers would go for six months as labourers to work in agricultural fields, however ever since getting CFR recognition, that has stopped.”
Shinde adds, “During the Covid-19 lockdown, the villagers had livelihood: in collection of forest produce, tree plantation through Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA) and building ponds and water harvesting for irrigation and other purposes through the CFR management committees.”
Pointing out that the lockdown coincided with a major season for minor forest produce (MFP) collection, the report says, case studies show that ownership rights over forest produce ensured “better and timely livelihood opportunities during the lockdown.”
Thus, in Gondia, Maharashtra, close to 50 gram sabhas are organised as a federation, who guaranteed competitive prices and bonus for the communities for their MFP collection even during a crisis. The federation of 29 villages earned Rs 2.5 crore by selling tendu leaves, while managing everything themselves and taking precautions against the spread of Covid-19.
During Covid-19 lockdown, Adivasis had livelihood: collection of forest produce, tree plantation through MGNREGA, building ponds, water harvesting
Then, in Chamarajnagar, Karnataka, Soliga Adivasi communities survived the lockdown due to their collections of honey and tubers, on which as they have the right to market.
The report further says, local knowledge and long term conservation efforts led by local people has created healthy and diverse ecosystems which makes communities more resilient. Thus, in Nayagarh, Odisha, Adivasi Kondh communities were consuming diverse forest foods during the lockdown as they have been regenerating their natural forests for over four decades now.
In Dhule, Maharashtra, communities had saved up food grains and vegetables, as they have been practising self-sufficient agriculture as a way of long term cluster development for many years now since their CMF were legally recognised.
In Kutch, Gujarat, local knowledge of water systems, grasses and soils allowed Maldhari pastoralists and the hundred thousand cattle species to survive and thrive during the lockdown which coincided with a dry period.
Pointing towards what happens when local institutions, such as the gram sabha, are empowered, and women play a key role in managing the crisis, and other vulnerable communities such as returning migrant workers, pastoralists and Particularly Vulnerable Tribal Groups (PVTGs) are attended to, the report says, “In Dindori, Madhya Pradesh, women organised a system of food distribution and water collection that made sure that physical distance was maintained in the Baiga PVTG villages.”
In Narmada district, Gujarat, gram sabhas ensured that Govaliya nomadic communities received foods. The report quotes Trupti Mehta of ARCH-Vahini as saying, “Till now, communities had chartered their ways through difficult terrain, but nobody had ever imagined that communities would have to face the situation that was totally beyond their imagination, and control Covid-19 pandemic in 2020.”
“Yet”, Mehta asserts, “This was the first time when the gram sabhas were actively involved and were entrusted in the management and protection of the forest resources”, though adding, “The main challenge remains that they carry out their processes in a democratic and transparent way and continue the forest management and protection work.”

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