How the conservation discourse ignores the rights of forest-dwelling groups

The media was buzzing with news about the arrival of cheetahs in Kuno National Park in Madhya Pradesh to mark Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s 72nd birthday on September 17.

However, the resulting eviction of the Adivasi residents of the national park village of Bagcha and the legal effectiveness of resettlement procedures under the Wildlife Protection Act have not received quite as much attention.

The Wildlife Protection Act 1972 aims to conserve wild animals, birds and plants in forests by establishing protected areas such as sanctuaries and national parks such as Kuno.

Madhya Pradesh possesses some of the largest protected areas in India and has a large population of Adivasni and other forest dwelling communities who have borne the brunt of conservation efforts.

A Wildlife Protection Act amendment bill passed in the Lok Sabha on August 2 aims to increase the number of protected species in line with the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species and increase penalties for violators.

While the amendment has been discussed in the context of wildlife conservation in Lok Sabha, it omits much of the lived realities in which the law operates. It has barely touched on how the changes will affect forest dwellers. The Wildlife Protection Act was responsible for the large-scale resettlement of tribal communities. The advent of the Forest Rights Act of 2006 had little impact on the community’s recognition of rights to their forests.

In a forthcoming study, the Criminal Justice and Police Accountability Project, in which the authors of this article are part, has examined the implementation of the law beyond the arbitrary resettlement processes. We looked at the associated criminalization through arrest files, initial investigation reports and forest crimes.

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An analysis of FIRs registered by the Madhya Pradesh police for hunting offenses from 2016-20 shows that over 32% of the accused were from the Scheduled Tribes, over 12.5% ​​from the Scheduled Castes and about 12% from others suppressed Caste originated communities.

Department of Forestry data for 2016-20 showed that nearly 40% of all those accused of hunting belonged to the Scheduled Tribes and overall 75% of all those accused belonged to oppressed caste communities.

The accusation of hunting automatically led to the registration of other crimes, such as destroying the borders of protected areas, trafficking in animal articles and illegally transporting game species – despite the lack of evidence.

The “wild boar” problem

During the discussion of the draft law in Lok Sabha, several members called for wild boar to be declared a vermin species. Such a move would not only decriminalize wild boar hunting, but also address the conflict that has arisen due to the growing wild boar population.

In the Madhya Pradesh data we analyzed, wild boar is the most commonly hunted animal in protected areas and territorial areas. In our data set, more than 24% of the cases registered by the Forest Service under the Wildlife Protection Act involve wild boar.

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Field findings suggest this is due to the problem of feral pigs destroying crops and attacking human settlements. If the animals are caught in fences erected to protect the crops, the farmers are liable to prosecution under the hunting provisions of wildlife protection. This even if the damage caused by crop failures is hardly compensated.

As early as 2003, the government of Madhya Pradesh formulated rules for the culling of wild boar, which had increased in numbers and were damaging to crops. Despite these rules, forest officials in interviews with the project team confirmed that permits to reduce the wild boar population were rarely granted. The problems caused by wild boar have been documented in states such as Kerala, Goa, Punjab, Telangana, Rajasthan, Bihar and Madhya Pradesh over the past decade.

To address this issue, states have resorted to either designating the species as vermin for a limited period of time or allowing licensed hunters to do so.

Despite the considerable damage caused by wild boars, they remain protected by the Species Protection Act. Killing such animals in self-defense has led forest-dwelling communities to attract criminal action.

Ironically, these communities’ traditional practices of maintaining forest diversity come into conflict with state-accepted practice of fort preservation.

Criminalization in such cases has led to lengthy prosecutions – cases last six to seven years. Sometimes the accused even face violence from forest officials. Despite the provisions of the Wildlife Protection Act, it is difficult for the accused to get bail. Our field research has shown that some of the accused were held in custody for up to a year and a half.

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Attempting to protect their crops is equated with the serious offense of disrupting ecological security in protected areas, which has severely limited the use of the forest by indigenous communities.

Recognize the rights of forest communities

During the discussion of the amendment law, Union Minister for Environment, Forests and Climate Change Bhupender Yadav made a passing remark that the settlement rights of tribal and other traditional forest dwellers would be respected before national parks and protected areas would be notified.

The rights balancing process associated with designating a protected area does not currently recognize collective forest rights of forest dwelling communities recognized under the Forest Rights Act 2006, even if individual forest rights are recognised. Research has repeatedly underscored that protected areas, rather than recognition of forest rights, have led to forced and enforced evictions of communities without resolving the conflict between the two laws.

This has led to the criminalization of tribal communities’ rights to access the jungle to collect forest products and nistaar – the concession granted to communities to remove bamboo and firewood at set prices. The same pattern is repeated with the expulsion of the Adivasis from Bagcha, whose lives intertwined with the forests and their animals will change dramatically.

Nikita Sonavane, Mrinalini Ravindranath and Harsh Kinger are associated with the Criminal Justice and Police Accountability Project.

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