Mon, Mar 06, 2017 - Page 8 News List

Rights over leaves

Flowers give Indian tribal groups more reason to stay put

By Rina Chandran  /  Thomson Reuters Foundation, DHAMDITOLA, India

A laborer holds a bundle of bidis (shredded tobacco hand-rolled in tendu leaves) in Bhulki village, about 190km south of the northeastern city of Siliguri in this file photo.

Photo: REUTERS

In the pleasant climate of February, it is hard to imagine that day time temperatures in May in the arid Vidarbha region of India’s Maharashtra state can climb to a sweltering 48 degrees Celsius.

It is then that residents of Dhamditola village are busiest, harvesting tendu leaves that are used to roll beedis, the cheap cigarettes with unfiltered tobacco that are flavored in rural areas.

For the indigenous communities who live on the edge of the forest in the western state, the collection and sale of tendu leaves, bamboo and mahua flowers and seeds — used to make liquor and soap — have long been an important part of their livelihood.

But their access to tendu and bamboo forests used to be limited, and they were not allowed to sell the products themselves; instead, they sold them to forest officials, who then sold them to buyers.

India’s 2006 Forest Rights Act (FRA) changed that practice, as it gave indigenous people and forest dwellers rights to manage and govern their traditional forests and resources.

“All those years, these communities had no ownership rights despite having lived in the forests for generations,” said Dilip Gode at the Vidarbha Nature Conservation Society, which works with more than 60 villages in the region to secure rights.

“Now that they have rights, they get good rates and are more in control of the sale of products. This isn’t just about earning a livelihood; it’s also about caring for the forest and the environment,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

More than four million individual claims to forest rights and about 1.1 million community claims were filed under the FRA as of Aug. 31, according to official data. About 1.7 million individual and 47,443 community claims have been settled.

Dhamditola, where squat mud and brick homes with tiled roofs and brightly colored walls line the road, is among the villages whose community rights over nearly 3 square kilometers of forest land were recognized.

In 2013, for the first time, villagers sold tendu leaves themselves and are preparing to sell bamboo next.

With the middlemen removed, villagers have sold more tendu leaves at nearly triple the price by calling for tenders from contractors who sell to beedi manufacturers, said Motiram Sayan, a member of the village council.

They have also received their money on time, which has allowed them to make improvements in the village, he said.

“We would get cheated on prices before, or not receive our payments in time, but we had no other option,” he said.

“It is a tough job to do, but now we have our rights, and there is no middleman, so we get better rewards for our work.”

RISING CONFLICTS

Under the Forest Rights Act, at least 150 million people could have their rights recognized over a minimum of 40 million hectares of forest land, the Rights and Resources Initiative estimated.

But the group, which promotes access to land and natural resources, says barely 1.2 percent of the area has been recorded in the last decade.

Meanwhile, conflicts between India’s states and indigenous communities have been rising as demand for land increases to fuel the country’s rapid economic growth.

Nearly 450,000 families in eastern Vidarbha depend on tendu leaves for their livelihood, conservationists estimate.

Across India, communities have received rights over the management of other forest products such as honey.

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