Forest Rights Act and NTFP
The Tribal and Rural populations have traditionally been practicing various methods of preservation and value addition with a view to extend the shelf-life of various NTFPs that form an important component of resources that support their survival as well economy.
The increasing awareness about importance of NTFPs for the tribal and rural populations has been duly reflected in the various institutional mechanisms and legislation also that have followed the 73rd amendment to the Indian Constitution, the latest in the series being The Scheduled Tribes and other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights Act 2006 (Forest Rights Act for short).
While the PESA 1996 gives ownership of minor forest produce (as defined by concerned States) to the Gram Sabha in the scheduled areas, the Forest Rights Act 2006 gives ownership of minor forest produce as defined by the Act to the forest dwelling scheduled tribes and other traditional forest dwellers to the extent prescribed by the Act.
The Forest Rights Act defines, as one of the Forest Rights, the right of ownership, access to collect, use, and disposal of‘minor forest produce’ which has been traditionally collected within or outside village boundaries by the Forest dwelling Scheduled Tribe and other traditional forest dwellers.
The term ‘minor forest produce’ as per the Forest Rights Act includes all ‘non-timber forest produce’ of plant origin including bamboo, brush wood, stumps, cane, tussar, cocoons, honey, wax, lac, tendu or kendu leaves, medicinal plants and herbs, roots, tubers and the like.
Further, the Forest Right Rules amended in July 2012 has expanded the definition of “disposal of minor forest produce” and it includes individual or collective processing, and value addition too as per Rule 2(1)(d). In short, processing and value addition to minor forest produce is a component of the recognized right of the Forest Right holder.
The preamble of the Forest Right Act mentions that the recognized rights of the forest dwelling Scheduled Tribes and other traditional forest dwellers include the responsibilities and authority for sustainable use, conservation of biodiversity and maintenance of ecological balance and strengthening thereby of the conservation regime of the forests while ensuring livelihood and food security of the forest dwelling Scheduled Tribes and other traditional forest dwellers.
Further, the section 5 of the Forest Rights Act mentions that the holders of any forest right, Gram Sabha and village level institutions in areas where there are holders of any forest right under the Act are empowered to:
- protect the wild life, forest and biodiversity;
- ensure that adjoining catchments area, water sources and other ecological sensitive areas are adequately protected;
- ensure that the habitat of forest dwelling Scheduled Tribes and other traditional forest dwellers is preserved from any form of destructive practices affecting their cultural and natural heritage; and
- ensure that the decisions taken in the Gram Sabha to regulate access to community forest resources and stop any activity which adversely affects the wild animals, forest and the biodiversity are complied with.
The term empowerment, by virtue of its definition, naturally includes the components like provision of appropriate skills, institutional mechanism, and sustainability oriented management inputs for the above and appropriate processing and value addition to minor forest produce can contribute significantly not only to ensuring livelihood and food security of the forest right holders but also to conservation of forest and biodiversity.
Minor forest produce clearly being a subset of NTFP, the importance of skills up gradation for value addition to NTFPs cannot be over emphasized.
The Forest Rights Act, however, throws up some serious issues that need to be tackled to allow security of tenure and establishment of groups that may be targeted to be engaged in value addition on a long term basis.
The village, after the process of recognition of forest rights through FRA implementation is complete, shall have at least 4 categories of minor forest produce related stakeholders. Two of them viz. forest right holders of the categories forest dwelling scheduled tribes and other traditional forest dwellers would be allowed to continue traditional collection as the rightful ones under this Act while the collection and use by the other two viz. ineligible scheduled tribes and other forest dwellers as one and Gram Sabha in Scheduled areas as the other will have problematic interface with the Forest Right holders.
This will get pronounced with time as the monetary value of the minor forest produce under consideration increases.
The above situation has already created challenging situation in the field so far as garnering support of the Gram Sabha right from the stage of ensuring 2/3rd quorum for Gram Sabha meetings for processing the claim cases of the forest Right claimants under the Forest Right Act is concerned. The initial implications of this ground level reality got objectified in the form of non-attendance of desired number of people in the Gram Sabha meetings. This is further aggravated especially in villages with mixed populations.
In this context it is not very surprising that the amendment made in July 2012 to the Forest Rights Rules has brought down the quorum to ½ of the Gram Sabha members.
Further the right of ownership, as per Forest Rights Act, being restricted only on the minor forest produce that has been traditionally collected within or outside the village boundaries, the quantum of minor forest produce which has been collected in the past as labourers by all types of local population, whether on behalf of the Forest Department or Tribal Development Corporations or contractors, remains outside the ‘extent’ admissible to the Forest Right holders as ownership right.
Unfortunately, however, there are instances where forest rights on such minor forest produce is also being recognized under public or political pressure without any clear cut mention of its‘nature’ and ‘extent’. With such cases of recognition of Forest Rights burgeoning in the background of varied stake holders operating in an already fractured village polity, it is difficult to comprehend as to what would be the shape and condition of management, removal, disposal and marketing of minor forest produce in the villages and any uncertainty on such things is going to adversely impact forward linkages including the sustainability of formal institutions that may be created for value addition to non-timber forest produce.
The situation in non-scheduled area villages also becomes complicated when yet another player, the Joint Forest Management Committee comes into the fray. The Forest Department as the custodian of this resource is expected to play a major role in maximization of production of minor forest produce while the Revenue Department has to manage the Nistar distribution as per the Land Revenue laws of various states.
The above detailed complexity needs to stir the decision makers to develop a practical and long lasting solution to the problem of ensuring peaceful coexistence of forests and forest rights, forest dwellers and foresters without which the ultimate aim of sustainability of non- timber forest produce cannot be assured.
The first step should be the development of amicable solutions to the problems mentioned above with a view to create an acceptable institutional mechanism through informed participation of the villagers so that they are aware of the current as well as future possibilities and implications of commercialization of non timber forest produce.
Backed by policy and appropriately designed legislative support, a well focused programme aimed at commercialization of non timber forest produce, which invariably has the crucial component of value addition built into it, can not only reduce poverty but has also the capability of improving the status and participation levels of the women population in a significant way.
Capacity building for value addition has to be the core of the commercialization approach at the village level and it must take into account the traditional as well as modern methods as and where applicable. Household level value addition methods existing currently in the villages may be supplemented by processing at formal institutional levels so that the issues of certification gets built in into the system.
This will also result in conservation of resources as a necessary implication. The medicinal plant products as an important subset of non timber forest produce in this regard can be a resource that can be covered under forward trading too with a direct interface with the Ayurvedic drug manufactures in the country. It can also come up as a good example of value chain for all other commodities.
In short the realization of the full potential of non timber forest produce for the tribal and rural livelihood, food security and economy requires an extremely focused participatory approach driven capacity building movement for developing and adopting cost effective value addition processes, cost effective transportation, market information handling, negotiation ability and the access to credit.
Needless to say, however, the conservation of forest resource has to be undoubtedly the very first step since the Forest Rights in respect of minor forest produce will exist only till the resource base exists.