Wednesday, November 14, 2012

COVER STORY | Forest Dept and Tribals: At Odds?


Forest Dept and Tribals: At Odds?

By Zubair Ahmed

Figure 1Forest demarcation map- source FD Hut Bay
Every state has its own forest laws, but Andaman and Nicobar Islands stands apart. Every state has its own Tree Act, once again, we stand different. No tribes in India have been exempted from using forest resources except indigeneous tribe of the Islands.
We still follow the Indian Forest Act 1927 and Indian Wildlife Protection Act 1972.  These Acts provide for the protection of forest, wild animals, birds and plants; and for matters connected therewith and it extends to the whole of India, except the State of Jammu and Kashmir which has its own wildlife act. Andaman and Nicobar Islands do not have its own Forest, Wildlife or Tree Preservation Act. But, the tribes - Nicobarese, Shompens, Jarawas, Great Andamanese and Onges have been exempted from the Acts for utilizing forest and wildlife for their bona fide use.
The Jarawa Tribal Reserve, which is also Forest Reserve, is clearly demarcated with identifiable boundaries. The entire Nicobar Islands excepting the 'Settlement Area' on Great Nicobar Island are Tribal Reserves. By also being Reserve Forests and Tribal Reserves, and given the exemption from the Indian Wildlife Act 1972, the indigenous Islanders are allowed use of natural resources for their bonafide use and not for any commercial use with non-tribals. Therefore by being both Tribal Reserves as well as Reserve Forest it excludes only Non Indigenous Settlers or visitors from any use. Great Nicobar Island has these manifold classifications. Tribal Reserve, Reserve Forest (2 National Parks- Campbell Bay National Park and Galathea/South Bay National Park to the South- both within the core of the Island, excepting the Galathea National Park which extends to the mouth of the river, the beach of which is an important leatherback sea turtle nesting region) and is also a Biosphere Reserve- the only one in the A&N Islands
Figure 2: ANET map, not to scale
The tribes of the Islands are the natural owners of the forests as well as the land where they inhabit. After Independence, the legal custodian of the forests is the Forest Dept. Conflicts between these two guardians - one natural and other legal had been cropping up at different intervals in Nicobar as well as the Nicobari Settlement in Harminder Bay, Little Andaman time and again. The recent incident of transfer of a DFO from Little Andaman has something to do with it. In fact, the transfer had the watermark of an influential timber and sand mining lobby, although, the reason on file is the conflict between the Nicobari tribe and Forest Dept.
Little Andaman is unique for its geographical as well as demographical composition. It's the only Island, where two tribal communities - one Onges and Nicobarese - share same reserve and settlers also inhabit the Islands. Onges were settled in South Bay and now in Dugong Creek after the Tsunami. A settlement of Nicobarese from Car Nicobar was settled in 1972-73 in Harminder Bay, on the Southern side of the Islands. Bengali Refugees from East Pakistan also have settlement from Hut Bay to 28th km at Vivekanadapur. The entire Island was once placed under the Ministry of Rehabilitation as a part of their "Special Area Development Programme." The Administration would not have envisioned any conflict in Harminder Bay, when they settled Car Nicobarese families in 1972-73.
However the recent incident in Little Andaman has raised many questions about the status of forest land and tribal land. Speaking to The Light of Andamans, a senior forest official said that the status of forests in Nicobar is not safe. He said that natural forests are being replaced with coconut plantations. There are no land records in Nicobar, which makes it very difficult for identification of forest land from village land. It is however a fact that when the govt settles Nicobarese into the interior, of course the plantations for livelihood will also come up. Until this happened, all plantations were along the coast which is preferred for coconut in comparison to interior soils/forest.
"Why land rights are not settled properly?' he asked. He blamed the Nicobarese of exploiting the forests and said that good is not happening with forests in Nicobar. Another blunder that the Forest Department did was the creation of a loss making oil palm plantation, as well as monocultures of rubber plantation on Katchal Island. Moreover, why the Forest Rights Act is not implemented in the Islands is a mystery in itself, which comes under the purview of Forest Department.
Figure 3: ANET map, not to scale
However, Agni Mitra, DFO, Nicobars differs. He told LOA that they do not object sand mining for bona fide use of the tribals. "We have a serious problem in Car Nicobar and Nancowry where the village boundaries are not clearly demarcated," he said.
Manish Chandi, a researcher in Central Nicobar says that Nicobarese have their own way of self-regulations with clear demarcation of forest land and plantation space under ownership by various joint families. Forest is used for basic livelihood requirements and is regulated by the Tuhet System traditionally through permissions sought from Tuhet heads or known owners, though with the changes that are coming about via the tsunami rehabilitation confusions are also arising. He also added that in the entire A&N Island territory, only Nicobarese of Chowra plant native trees used for fencing gardens in a sort of shifting cultivation system. And, to extract timber from the Tribal Reserve, they have their own rules and regulations which they strictly follow. When asked, whether Forest Dept has any clear role in Nicobars, he said that Forest Dept has very minimal role in Nicobars, as the land is largely managed by Nicobarese themselves. The Forest Department has a role to protect the forests from non tribals largely as well as to ensure the Forests rights of the indigenous tribes.
However, Simron Jit Singh, another scholar who has worked among the Nicobarese in Central Nicobar says that there is some sort of ambivalence in the relationship between the Nicobarese and the forests. While forests offer a source for hunting and gathering, the Nicobarese strongly feel that forests do not belong to them. Anything that looks like a forest - which is not a coconut plantation - will be taken over by the Forest Department. In the past, rubber and cashew plantations were taken over in Katchal and Kamorta. After the tsunami, one of the efforts at livelihood diversification was the planting of cashew trees - that the Nicobarese could eventually sell in the market when the trees start fruiting. The agricultural department supplied cashew saplings and asked them to be planted under cash for work scheme. These were planted on the grasslands, with one cashew tree centred between 4 coconut trees. There were two reasons for this. One, they thought that Nicobarese would not support anything resembling a forest for fear of the land been taken away by the forest department. Second, the Nicobarese burn grasslands just at the onset of the rains. It was hoped that if the cashew tree was planted around coconut trees, the Nicobarese would not burn the grassland, as they valued coco trees very highly. However, the assumption was wrong. In the very first season, the grassland was burnt along with it the plantations. 
Simron Jit concluded that the ownership of land is more important to the Nicobarese, even if it is not a forest. And they know that coconut plantations offer them more security in terms of subsistence as well as ownership than forests do. Especially after the tsunami, the forest department imposed a lot of restriction on the use of forests, oddly also to use timber for construction of their homes, and also fallen biomass for cooking. There was big reaction to this, and distrust towards the forest department. Theoretically, this leads to a very common problem elsewhere in India, as in many other countries - the question of land tenure and security. When people don't feel they have ownership of the commons, they tend to misuse it.
"Nicobarese in central Nicobar burn their grasslands for renewing it. It is now observed as a ritual now and has no functional use as more than 90% of the houses are not thatched with grass but tin; grass is a resource for thatch for not just the beehive huts but also long houses of Terassa and Chowra. The ritual is conducted to renew the grass from year to year and still continues with the only function being ritualistic celebration and welcoming the onset of rains and indicating the need to renew kitchen gardens. Managing grasslands with fire is a practice not exclusive to the Nicobarese, but across many tribal systems the world over, which are only now being understood for their ecological role in maintaining these ecosystems" said Manish Chandi.
The issue is totally different in Harmander Bay, where Car Nicobarese families were settled. The existing Onge tribe and refugees from erstwhile East Pakistan was also settled in the same Island. In the ANPATR 1956, the tribal reserve on Little Andaman is reserved only for the Onges. No separate demarcation has taken place for the Nicobarese settled from Car Nicobar. Now, the Tribal Reserve is common for both Onges and Nicobarese. One tribe is primitive whereas Nicobarese, as claimed by the Administration is mainstreamed. There is very clear reflection of Nicobarese domination over sharing of forest resources by the Onges. "Onges are still foragers and more connected with forests for their subsistence, whereas Nicobarese rely on plantations. But, they too go to the same reserve for hunting and fishing," said a staff of AAJVS. "The expansion of the Nicobarese Settlement is totally unchecked and it is widely affecting the ecological equilibrium," he added.
Speaking to LoA, Fred Lavie, Captain of Nicobarese in Harmander Bay Settlement said that they have no idea about the boundaries of their Reserve. "However, we don't go to the Forest area, as the Dept has marked some trees to indicate the Forest Reserve," he said.
"There has been no fresh allotment for the expanding Nicobarese population, even though the settlement has increased manifold," Fred said.
During the initial years of the Settlement in Harmander Bay, on 14 May 1976, SM Krishnatry, Chief Commissioner had met the Captains in Car Nicobar where they sought his intervention in many problems faced by the Nicobarese in Little Andaman. They complained that the land of the families were not regularized. However, they made some commitments which are very interesting. They acceded that they would abide by the Govt. instructions and orders as may be issued to them regarding their territorial limits to which they could go and that they will have to confine themselves to the area allotted to them and should not trespass into the remaining Onge Reserve, not even for contacting Onges or for hunting and they will have to carry out the provisions of the Protection of the Tribal Regulations. They agreed that they will comply with such order.
In Car Nicobar, they enjoyed the land and space and now they were put in a place where they were to abide by the territorial limits and confine themselves to the area allotted to them, and in case of violation, they would have to face the provisions of the Protection of Tribal Regulations. This kind of contradiction in the policy
Everyone echoes same sentiment that without proper demarcation of Forest Reserve from Tribal Reserve, especially in Little Andaman, it would be a difficult task for the Forest Department to act or exercise their mandate.

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