The “Liberation” of Bamboo – The Caveats

Campaign for Survival and Dignity

The recent victory of village Mendha (Lekha) in securing control over its bamboo deserves celebration. For the first time, after a struggle of decades by forest dwellers across the country, a village has regained control over its forest and over a key livelihood resource. For the first time – despite intense, illegal resistance by the Forest Department till the very last minute – it has been acknowledged that the forest bureaucracy has no God-given right to extract and destroy the livelihood resources of forest dwellers while harassing and repressing them.

But it is also necessary to remember that this is a very limited and partial victory. Claims that “bamboo has been liberated” are greatly exaggerated. This is because in several ways, Mendha is no ordinary village. If this is not to remain merely an eyewash, it is necessary to look more closely at what has actually happened.

First, Mendha is one of the handful of villages in the country whose rights to conserve, protect and manage its community forest resource (CFR) have actually been recognised and recorded by the authorities. In the vast majority of villages these rights have not been recognised at all; and in the few hundred where this has happened, as in Andhra Pradesh, the right has mostly been illegally handed over to the Forest Department-controlled Joint Forest Management committee rather than to the village. In other cases, even if the JFM committee’s name has not been mentioned in the community title, rights only on the area allocated for JFM by the forest department have been recognized (instead over forests falling within their customary boundaries) and the titles made conditional to continuing control of the forest department. As we said in our statement on the Environment Ministry letter on bamboo, the Environment Ministry has now consciously tried to limit ownership and control over minor forest produce to only these handful of villages whose CFR rights have been ‘officially’ recognized. In all other villages, Forest Department control will continue, in violation of the law.

Second, through their earlier struggles, Mendha village’s gram sabha had already wrested control over its community forest from the Joint Forest Management committee in the village. In most cases, the struggle between actual community control and these committees – which, as explained in this link, are actually Forest Department proxies – is still continuing. In its letter on bamboo, also as said in our earlier statement, the Ministry is not only preventing democratic gram sabha control over community forests – it is trying to strengthen JFM committees and blocking the legal recognition of community rights. Had the Ministry’s policy been implemented in Mendha, April 27th would simply not have happened.

The MoEF has a history of saying one thing and doing the opposite in forest management. If bamboo is not to become one more example of this, the Ministry has to be pressurised to abandon its illegal positions and recognise rights over minor forest produce (as well as community forest resource rights) in all villages, dismantle the systems of Forest Department autocracy, and shift to democratic management. In the absence of these measures, April 27th will be remembered as a day when the state gave in to one village’s historic struggle – while betraying thousands of others.

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