India: Women’s Control of Forests Through Community Forest Rights

Source: Sanhati
By Roma

Today natural resources – land, forests, air, mineral and water – are under major attack from neo-liberalism, wherein a few are usurping the rights and access of a significant proportion of the disempowered. Unsustainable economic development and inequitable growth based on an economy dependent on the use of fossil-fuels and extractive industries — which intensified in the last 60 years — have led to a sharp rise in carbon emissions, way beyond what the Earth can absorb. Climate change has become a serious threat to the poor. In India, widespread and significant impacts of climate change have been noticed in many regions. These impacts adversely affect the urban working poor, the lives and livelihoods of the Himalayan and other hill people, fishing communities and other coastal and island communities, small and marginal farmers and agricultural workers, dalits, women, adivasis, forest dwellers, and other disadvantaged and marginalized communities in different regions. Large-scale displacement is taking place in these regions as agriculture is no longer fully viable but no alternative livelihood opportunities are given to people. Elites are also influencing environmental policies further alienating people from their resource base. Their struggle is not only against poverty; it is also a struggle for dignity, identity and culture. It is also the basis for women’s struggle – the struggle for livelihood rights.

However, as the thirst of capital for minerals and fossil fuels intensifies, so has the resistance to protect these vast tracts of land that are under forest cover and inhabited traditionally by adivasis, and other forest dwellers. The opposition against neoliberal policies adopted by the government is led by tribal, dalit, poor and working class women who are the most dependent on forest resources. Now it is clear that the next war against neo-colonial powers will by fought to gain control over natural resources to end the loot that started some 250 years ago.

When there was no concept of the nation state, society was the owner of vast natural resources; at the time women were more free. With the creation of the myth of the nation-state by the British, tribals and other forest dwellers were alienated from the forest. The British created the Forest Department (FD) thus making it the biggest “landlord” of forestland similar to the “landlord system” in agriculture, which passed control and powers to absentee landlords. Community control of forests was replaced with state and individual control that was concentrated in the hands of men only. Thus womenfolk were alienated from the resource base making communities more vulnerable. Powerful sections of society, with the support from the state, then appropriated these resources and poor were forced to sell their labour in the market. The process of marketisation and commodification of forest output was set in motion and livelihood resources were traded to fulfil the demands of industries. Stringent laws like the Indian Forest Act (1927) further maintained people’s alienation from their forests. Women were the ultimate losers in this process; they lost control over forest resources to the market forces once these resources were traded.

The tribal society was based on barter system with a strong virtue of madad (help in local language). The strength of the barter system was reciprocity and replenishment of the natural livelihood resources by the communities but this reciprocity was eroded and destroyed by the British and post-Independence Indian governments.

The present market system forces some people to be exploited as wage labour but it also benefits some others. For example, FD’s monopoly on forest resources created losers out of those most forest-dependent but benefited those who could take advantage of conditions created for higher profits. Women were the biggest losers. According to senior bureaucrat Shri K.B. Saxena, former Rural Development Secy., GoI, “if market comes between the use of natural resource then women will not be able to defeat the heavy nexus of market that is based on exploitation. Women do not have the capacity to deal and fight with these giant market forces.” Based on his experiences from posting in Bihar (not in Santhal Pargana of Jharkhand), “a tribal is exploited eight times in the market – dealings that starts with moneylenders, bankers, brokers, Forest Department, Railways, Police, buyer in the city.” Women living in forest villages previously had access to forest resources and assets and hence were more empowered within the household and society. This power has been weakened by the market. The neoliberal policy agenda has thrown tribals and forest dwellers, especially women in the jaws of a dangerous market economy thus limiting their rights or making them non-existent.

If women get independent rights to forests, it will lead to development and prosperity and the resources and assets will be utilized in a better way. There are two schools of thought in terms of women’s rights on natural resources. One is focused on efficiency and welfare and the other focuses on women’s struggle for equality and social justice. The former attempts to spread a neoliberal agenda whereas the latter is a struggle for equality and social justice, which should be the prime agenda for women’s struggle for right to natural resources. However, the context of women living in forest and agrarian areas is very different. In forest communities, women are independent, possess a fairly high degree of mobility, community linkages are much stronger and there is less male domination. Also, social and community control can be exercised over vast resources.

Women in struggle, especially those dependent on natural resources, are also simultaneously working on alternatives against a profit oriented market economy to advocate the community governance of these natural resources. This even though the fight ahead is tough and involves not only international capital but also patriarchy entrenched in an age-old feudal structure. The conflict in the forested and coastal landscape of the country is of property vs. livelihood rights, private vs. community rights, state governance vs. community forest/natural resource governance. These struggles are democratic in nature, and militant with a collective political consciousness and a clear understanding of the conflict between people and the state. Through their collective struggles, poor women living in forested regions of the state are challenging and putting in jeopardy a greedy and anti-people state that has sold out to imperialist interests. New forms of labour and community organisations are being born of these resistance movements. This is the context in which the present write-up is based. It will discuss the emerging political consciousness of tribal, dalit and other forest dwelling women and bring new debates to the forefront.

Ever since the time that women have been considered “property” and valued merely for their reproductive role in the households, they have been denied access to resources and property both by the state and family. Though our Constitution promulgates “Equality before law” in Article no 14 and “Prohibition of discrimination on ground of religion, race, caste, sex and place of birth” in Article 15, women have been denied an equal share in natural resources and property including land. While land reform policies were undertaken after Independence, nationalized forests were excluded from reform. Further, due to lack of adequate political will, landlords were the major beneficiaries. Nevertheless, land reform policies, revenue laws and personal laws adopted by the Indian State are based on discrimination against women who cultivate agricultural land, collect NTFPs and are landless. Women are neither recognised as “cultivators” nor “gatherers” of food. Hence there are no provisions in land reform or other laws of the forest [1] to protect their social-political-economic rights over livelihood resources. The State has failed to provide equal rights to women in ownership of all resources and therefore poor women in the unorganized sectors are mobilizing and organizing themselves to secure rights that have been denied to them thus far, take back their livelihoods, and resist the takeover and degradation of forests, land, water and minerals. They are thus more successful than the elite-led environmental lobby in the fight to save ecology, environment and life systems. These struggles are highly visible in Kaimur region of U.P., Bihar, Chengera region of Kerala, Jharkhand, Himachal Pradesh, Assam, West Bengal, Rewa (MP) and the Shivalik regions of Uttarakhand.

The struggle inside the forest area has been led by forest people, essentially by tribals; it has been essentially democratic and women have played important leadership roles. The enactment of the Forest Rights Act, 2006 (FRA) is the result of this historic struggle. The FRA has created a democratic and political space for challenging forest policies – a space that was denied to people ever since British rule in India. While it is still unclear whether people will get their titles or not, it is quite evident that their political assertion will lead them to attain more than mere titles. This political assertion can also be seen in women living in forested areas in the country. For the first time, an Act talks about the rights of forest people and women, both individual and community rights. Though this legislation spells very little for women’s control over forest resources, the inclusion of joint rights to men and women clearly recognizes the dependence of women on forest products for their livelihoods and the women’s role in conserving natural resources. The challenge now lies in using these provisions to the benefit of women forest dwellers so that they may increase their control over forest resources.

The use of “women” and “forests” as synonyms has a material basis. Women spend almost 80 percent of their time in collecting fuel wood, fodder, grass, NTFP (Non Timber Forest Produce) etc from the forest and the sex ratio is higher in forested areas. Women living in forests are not dependent on their families for their survival, instead forests provide food security to them and thus they are more independent. Ramshakal, a tribal from village Manbasa, sonbhadra, UP says, “earlier when we use to feel hungry our parents use to send us to forest but now when a tribal child feels hungry he runs towards house”. This simple statement is very good analysis of how the tribal economy was based on forest and the shift in food security due to lack of control and forest depletion. State-promoted commercial forestry (typically of monocultures) in the last six decades has completely changed the ecology of forests; prevented the growth of grass, shrubs, and herbs; and destroyed the biodiversity, flora and fauna of various regions. This has also rendered traditional knowledge useless.

The FRA has the potential to give an altogether new dimension to conservation, management and governance of forests. Section 3 of the FRA clearly discusses individual and community rights. However, if implemented properly it can potentially increase women’s bargaining power and increase their security. Individual titles issued in the names of both the husband and wife, as mandated in the FRA, have boosted women’s confidence in our experience. While the Act does not discriminate between single and married women, procuring titles for single women in many parts of the country requires a strong movement. However, once achieved, it will strengthen the position of women in households as titles obtained through the FRA are neither inheritable nor transferable. This will allow women to exercise control over land and forest resources.

Women can exercise the highest degree of control through community rights. But due to the connivance of the Forest Department along with feudal powers, corporates, mafias, and bureaucracy this aspect is not being adequately implemented. The Forest Department and the State fear the loss of control of important resources coveted by private interests. The FD, for instance, holds 23 % of the total land mass in India of which only less 9 % of the area is actually forested. Women living in forested areas have realised that they can remedy the lack of implementation by taking control over and organising for their rights. In various forest regions women have banded together and formed associations and organisations in order to challenge the motive for commercial forestry usually in conjunction with international development agencies. They are opposing joint forest management (JFM) programmes that are being imposed on forest people to subvert the FRA. According to Shri S.B. Saxena, women’s struggle is aimed at three levels:

1. Against the government
2. Against the male domination in the society
3. Against the feudal, capitalist and ruling classes.

The struggle of resources is both local and national and therefore all three levels should be targeted and we must prepare strategies accordingly to stake women’s control over natural resources. The conflict is intensifying as they pose a challenge to eminent domain of the State and are reclaiming lost political space by taking dakhal (possession) of land appropriated by the State. The Women’s Forest Rights Action Committee (WFRAC) was formed for the purpose of asserting community rights. In various areas such as Sonbhadra, Khiri in UP, Chattisgarh, Odissa many such community initiatives have opposed commercial planting and instead women are engaging in plantations that are useful to the community. In these areas there is intense ongoing discussion on how to safeguard these initiatives, build up the institutions and influence policies to strengthen community institutions such as cooperatives.

The WFRAC was aided by the National Forum of Forest People and Forest Workers and NTUI but has established its own independent identity. The organisation has inspired women from other forest areas to actively participate in forest struggles. Our agenda therefore needs to be focused on the following:

  • Equal rights to natural resources should be provided to women in all revenue and forest laws. In this context amendments to existing laws or new legislations are required.
  • The amendments in the Hindu Succession Act, 2005 that have allowed daughters an equal share in ancestral property have not been reflected in the laws of individual states as land is a state subject. State land laws should thus be suitably amended.
  • Women should be recognised as collectors, gatherers, peasants and producers. This should reflect in development schemes implemented to benefit them and their children. An important component includes that of education. Women’s traditional knowledge should be recognised and enhanced.
  • Land reform legislations and forest laws should be linked with traditional health systems. Women should receive encouragement and training for para-health medical practitioners.
  • Women should be encouraged to play leadership roles in new institutional forms that protect livelihoods and natural resources, and ensure economic and environmental justice.

Case study: Reclaimation of land and plantation of forest by women in Kaimur

Hundreds of traditional trees useful for people like neem, lemon, sehjan, amla, jamun, mango, chironji, and mahua were planted symbolically in subdivision and District Court premises on 4th July 2011 by thousands of tribal women and men to protest against the plantation drive by Forest Department funded by Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA). This plantation programme by tribal was taken in massive scale under the banner of National Forum of Forest People and Forest Worker and locally-based Kaimur Kshetra Mahila Mazdoor Sangarsh Samiti in all the lands that were reclaimed by tribal in Kaimur region of Sonbhadra, UP, Jharkhand and Bihar in last few years. This Rs. 500 crore JICA project contravenes the provisions of the FRA and is viewed as an attempt by the Forest Department to retain control over forestland.

The movement to reclaim forestland in the entire Kaimur region was undertaken by tribal and other forest dwellers even before the FRA was passed. After five successful years of this movement, forest people have been growing crops, and extracting forest produce even in drought years. This has brought food and livelihood security and they have given up working in the fields of feudal lords who were using them as bonded labourers. They have thus been able to fight the exclusion by the Forest Department and the exploitation of landlords; this has had an impact in reducing poverty and increasing their assets. Women played an important leadership role in fighting the repressive state machinery and feudal forces to assert their constitutional rights.

After achieving a stable production of food grains, forest dwellers of the region have pledged to plant trees to protect livelihoods and the environment. In as many as 20 clusters where forestland has been reclaimed, women have planted more than 10,000 trees this year to protest the JICA plantation drive overseen by the Forest Department. The JICA programme involves the formation of JFM committees consisting of feudal and upper caste households in the village thus working against the FRA. The JFM committees are engaging in plantation work in the same lands for which forest people are filing and/or have received claims under the FRA. Forest people have openly challenged these FRA committee. This class war is being instigated in every village in forest region by FD in order to protect its landlordism. The FD does want to loose its landlordism therefore it is leaving no stone unturned to defeat the Forest Rights Act.

A massive rally was taken out by tribal women on 4th July 2011 to assert their community rights over forests. Dressed in red and green saris, each woman brought a sapling as they traversed the entire township of Robertsganj, the headquarter of district Sonbhadra. The women assembled in the premises of the District Court, which is also the office of the Deputy Collector. The sapling were planted in a big park inside the premises. The mood of the women was very festive and they sang beautiful songs. The action spread the message in the entire region that forest people will assert their rights over their community forests and will not allow any company, Forest department or others to take control of their forests. The women also challenged the State that if their community rights were not recognized then they will themselves draw maps, identify the boundaries of forestland and takeover possession from the Forest Department. According to Sokalo Panika, a tribal women who was present at the gathering, “the plantation done by FD is total failure. The plantation is being done on papers and JFM is money making committee”. Rajkumari Bhuiya another tribal women said, “the plantation done by the JFM committees are of no use to the community. They plant commercial varieties that are not good for the environment also”.

The tribal and dalit communities have started serving notices on behalf of FRA to these JFM committees to stop such plantation otherwise action will be taken against sec 7 of the Act, which notes that anyone working against the Act shall be punished. The women served these notices in a ceremonial way that shocked the Forest Department and the administration that are not serious about FRA implementation. Notices were pasted outside every government office starting from JFM committee to Forest Range office, to police station, the offices of the Collector and Deputy Collector. Copies were also sent to State Principal Secretaries of Forest, Revenue and Tribal Department; Chef Secretary, Chief Minister, Environment Minister and Tribal Affairs Minister. They have also sent notices to newspapers to stop writing in favour of the Forest Department. As Mithailal Gond, a tribal leader said, “earlier we were being served noticed by the Forest Department to vacate our land. Now we have got the right and power under the FRA. Hence we will now serve notices to these departments for illegal activities.”

Roma is affiliated to the National Forum of Forest People and Forest Workers


1. There is no law basically to protect the rights of people whose livelihood are based on natural resources. The law in forest, fisheries, and mining are geared against people and extracting revenue from these natural resources.

Leave a Reply