Gram sabha takes action against bamboo cutting by a contractor in Malkangiri, Odisha: Post CFR filling Changes in the Management of the forests

lots of cut bamboo in the forest of Sudhakonda village.

Forest communities have been the custodians of forests for centuries, indicating their capacity to manage forests. The Forest Rights Act (FRA), 2006 also legally acknowledges this fact by providing them the right to manage forest products and make sustainable forest management plans. One of the primary reasons for the low rate of filed CFRR (Community Forest Resource Right) titles among forest communities is the lack of awareness about the Act and its capability to transform their lives. Realising the impact of FRA and the emergence of potential conflicts on the ground level, we present a story from our pilot region Malkangiri, Odisha, regarding the change in operations after CFRR titles filing.

Initially, the forest communities of Malkangiri needed to be made aware of their rights over forest products and forest lands, which will fetch better livelihood by engaging in the sale of Seasonal Forest Products (SFPs) directly at scale, especially bamboo in Malkangiri. Before CFR filing, most communities were working as wage labourers to facilitate the sale of bamboo for licensed regional contractors.

In pursuit of enhancing the lives and livelihood of forest communities, the Initiative on the Forest Economy (IoFE) team started working towards filing CFR titles in March 2022 by conducting a series of meetings with government officials, gram sabhas, and workshops for CFRR awareness, inventory mapping, etc. Within the next six months, communities managed to file the CFRR titles, which enabled them to form a forest management plan. Collectively, Forest Department, Integrated Tribal Development Authority (ITDA), and gram sabhas(GS) decided to create a bamboo management plan instead of a forest management plan. Hence, Gram sabhas were anticipated to participate in the bamboo sale in the coming season.

In February 2023, a contractor started cutting bamboo in the claim filed CFR area of Sudhakonda gram sabha, not being aware of the change in the right of bamboo harvesting post-CFR title filing. This area was leased out by Forest Department (FD) under a coop system last year. Legally, it should have been cancelled by FD after the submission of the CFRR claim and a resolution passed by the 4(1)(e) committee a few months back. Due to unawareness of the change in management rules as per filed CFR titles, the Forest department had not cancelled the contractor’s pass to cut the bamboo. This brought a conflict between the contractor and gram sabhas.

Around 7,000 bamboo were cut in the forest of Sudhakonda. Gram Sabha raised the complaint to concerned authorities, including DFO, District Collector, Forest Range Officer, and Tehsildar for cutting the Bamboo the contractor without consulting Gram Sabha against FRA, 2006 section 4(1)(e) and amendment act 2012 section (5). After a call by the Gram Sabha to the Forest Range officer, Kalimela, FD stopped the cutting of Bamboo, and the contractor left from Sudhakonda.

Gram sabha leaders arranged a meeting with DFO and District Collector the next day. Both officials agreed that GS has the right to sell bamboo. Gram Sabha Secretary, President, and other community members loaded all the cut bamboo from the Sudhakonda forest in tractors and trucks and kept them in their own custody. As per statements of Gram Sabha, all bamboo will be sold as per the market price of Bamboo to the company/ traders or anyone from which Gram Sabha will be benefited through their saving bank Accounts.

The IoFE team has taken the below-mentioned strategic approach to mitigate stress in communities and move towards strengthening the local governance of communities: (a) Operational legal training of elected leaders (Two male and two female – Proposed for Maha Gram Sabha formation (MGS) federation) on the provision of rights and responsibility of GS under FRA after the submission of Claim before 20th Feb 2023 and primary mobilisation for Maha Gram Sabha formation. (b) MGS federation formation on 22nd Feb to lead the governance aspect of forest management, protection, and regeneration of resources, (c) Start enumeration for other Seasonal Forest Products (SFPs) to reduce the dependency on Bamboo. Interns will start the Mahua inventory by collecting the details of the average volume fall from one tree, the number of Mahua trees in the region, etc, (d) Initiate listing of 200 villages for scaling the work, and the team will share the list with the GIS team for inventory mapping.

Gram Sabha met and discussed changes in the forest management system as per FRA, 2006, with all the concerned stakeholders, i.e., the Forest department, ITDA, the District collector, the contractor, and communities. Now, everyone has the clarity that only GS has the right to harvest bamboo, and contractors can directly buy from GS at mutually decided prices.

The incidence brought out the learning about the possibility of conflict of interest among stakeholders (contractors) prior to CFR titles and CFR-claimed communities in forest regions of the country. As FRA and its implementation is still a new process for most forest communities and concerned authorities, the role of all stakeholders, including government officials, NGOs, academia, and active participation of communities, is inevitable to clear the ambiguity that revolves around CFR titles. Community forest rights recognised under the FRA are important for securing the livelihoods of the forest communities and for strengthening local self-governance of forests and natural resources.

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