By Dr Indrani Sigamany - How can the competing issues of conservation and indigenous rights work in harmony to ensure both forests and the livelihoods of their inhabitants are protected?
The startling news on February 13th 2019, that millions in India are being evicted from forest lands, has made headlines worldwide. The evictions were ordered by India’s Supreme Court and largely directed at indigenous communities and other forest dwellers in sixteen states whose claims for tenure security on ancestral lands under the Forest Rights Act 2006 have been rejected. The numbers of rejected claims are more than two million.
The Forest Rights Act of India 2006 (FRA) promises land security for forest peoples displaced from ancestral lands by the combined forces of colonial forest resource extraction, contemporary free-market economic development, and conservation policies. The main purposes of the Act were to revoke historical injustice endured by the Adivasis in relation to dispossession of lands, restore customary rights to them, as well as to “contribute to a more structured conservation approach.” This formal recognition of the contribution of indigenous peoples to environmental preservation subscribes to the progressive ‘new’ paradigm. This views people as central to the protection of nature, and evidences the importance of human participation in conservation practices to achieve sustainability. It contradicts the ‘classic’ paradigm which argues that people cause destruction of biodiversity.
Subscribing to the classic paradigm that tribal communities degrade the forest environment, the Bangalore-based NGO, Wildlife First, petitioned the Supreme Court to serve the eviction order. On February 28th, the Supreme Court put on hold the evictions, and ordered the states to show evidence of whether due process of the law had been followed when claims were rejected. Since the order for evictions Indian and international conservation civil society
organisations have signed petitions objecting to the violation of indigenous human rights in the name of conservation.
Legally ordering evictions contradicts the evidence of forest people’s role in conservation, as well as violates the legal framework of the FRA. The FRA legally enshrines community forest rights, customary land rights, and rights of indigenous communities to protect and manage forests. More than half of Indian forests are under ‘Scheduled’ areas of the Indian Constitution. This is why indigenous Indians are called ‘Scheduled Tribes’, and those demarcated forests, by right, belong to tribal communities. The Supreme Court orders are therefore questionable, not only according to the FRA, but also according to Article 21 of the Indian Constitution which protects the fundamental rights of life and livelihoods. Furthermore, the SC order and especially the failure of the Indian government in defending a law protecting rights of forest communities raises serious questions of the obligation of protection to its citizens by a government. This ruling also does not adhere to the internationally agreed Sustainable Development Goal 16, which advocates promoting “peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, provide access to justice for all and build effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels”. It is important to acknowledge that in the context of gender inequality in predominantly patriarchal societies, the loss of lands, threat to traditional conservation, and forest based livelihoods, is experienced more acutely by women whose productive and reproductive roles are so closely interlinked with forest lands, forcing them into new vulnerabilities. This Supreme Court eviction order, while affecting all forest peoples, will greatly contribute to the feminization of poverty in these communities.
The human rights drama playing out in India currently challenges both concepts that the World Commission on Environmental Law (WCEL) is committed to, namely, strengthening the legal foundations of the conservation of nature and sustainable development. The current crisis that the tribal communities and other forest dwellers in India are facing raises two major questions: Is the Supreme Court order a violation of existing indigenous rights? How can the competing issues of conservation and indigenous rights, work in harmony within the Indian context to ensure both forests and the livelihoods of their inhabitants are protected?
Dr Indrani Sigamany is a research consultant and capacity building specialist working with social justice and poverty alleviation. Indrani’s socio-legal research specializes in displacement of mobile indigenous peoples, gender, and human rights. Indrani has a PhD from the Centre for Applied Human Rights, University of York Law School, UK.
 Government of India, The Scheduled Tribes And Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition Of Forest Rights) Bill (adopted on 15 December 2006, No.158-C of 2005); Purabi. Bose, Bas. Arts and Han. van Dijk, ''Forest governmentality': A genealogy of subject-making of forest-dependent 'scheduled tribes' in India' (2012) 1 Land Use Policy 664 1
 Government of India, The Forest Rights Act 2006 (2012) Gadgil, M; Berkes, Fikret; Filke, Carl. Indigenous Knowledge for Biodiversity Conservation. (1993) 154
 Gadgil, M; Berkes, Fikret; Filke, Carl. Indigenous Knowledge for Biodiversity Conservation. (1993) 154
 Miller, The New Conservation Debate: The View from Practical Ethics (2011) 948