Under cover of the pandemic, stealth land grabs are ongoing in India

Indigenous women are on the front lines of resistance against forest evictions.

Christine Löw
6 July 2020, 1.34pm
Image: Sabrang India

This article is part of ourEconomy's 'Decolonising the economy' series.

The outbreak of the coronavirus and the regulations that have been installed by governments worldwide to protect citizens, life and vulnerable groups effect everyone – but not every person or community in the same way. It is not yet clear, if indigenous groups in India, often living in remote areas with lack of information and restricted access to health care are particularly threatened by Covid-19 or more resilient to its spreading if they devise innovative coping mechanisms (such as self-isolation and protective health measures) .

However, research shows that land plays an important role and that indigenous groups who have access to their natural resources can survive the crisis better due to food security and live self-sufficiently through the lockdown . At the same time, forest related NGOs suspect that the pandemic might be used by governments as a cover for extending top-down development projects benefiting multinational companies, intensification of resource extraction and expanded restrictions on basic citizenship rights for forest and marginalized communities.

If the Covid-19 pandemic and accompanying measures can be used by emancipatory political movements for broadening debates about social-ecological feminist transformations of society, it will be pertinent to include the struggles of women-led rural groups against the privatization and commercialization of natural resources at the forefront.

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On 13 February 2019, the Supreme Court of India decreed to evict or resettle forest dwellers whose forest ownership rights are not recognised under the 'Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act' (FRA) of 2006. Evictions of more than a million people were to take effect within four months. Following protests by forest movements and civil society groups, the order was suspended on 28 February 2019 and in a hearing about the rightfulness of the rejections on 12 September 2019, the Court clarified that its ‘interim orders’ under which evictions of rejected claimants were put on hold, will continue. Until today, the Indian Supreme Court has not published a decision.

Although the ongoing mass protests in the streets resulted in deferment of forced eviction, it did not mean that the danger had been fully averted. Until today, protesters at large marches continue to defend the rights of the forests, of forest dwellers and the FRA . Especially Adivasis (indigenous communities) and other forest-dependent women (female pastoralists, peasants, fishers and Dalit women) who live in resource rich areas, were at the forefront of these rallies. They demanded democratic rights, dignity, and freedom for their forest-bound way of life. At the same time, their resistance stands as a firm 'no' to the patriarchal colonial-racist design of the Indian state, its institutions and hegemonic models of 'national development'.

The long history of struggles for forest rights

Forests have long been political: under British colonial rule (1850-1946), timber was a lucrative business. In 1864, forestry authorities prioritised forests as a supplier of timber and disregarded land and property rights of indigenous communities living in the forests. Indigenous expertise concerning the complex ecosystem of forests, their sustainable use and conservation, the preservation of biological diversity and the interlinkages of soil quality, water balance and climate regulation was disregarded. Rather, Adivasis were considered ‘encroachers’ and harmful to forests and forest protection. The Indian Forest Act of 1878 legalized commercialized logging, which was tantamount to the expropriation of forest dwellers. Existing customary rights, norms and practices were ignored, privileging access to forests and resources for exploitation.

In 1980, the Forest Conservation Act reduced forests to a purely economic utility, thereby marginalising and criminalising forest dwellers, their land rights and traditional resource management. Until today, a narrowly defined conception of ‘conservation’ is in place. It frames rearing, care and conservation of forests in disconnect from its inhabitants that are living in, from and with it. Conservationist NGOs refer to this frame, calling right holders 'encroachers' and claiming that granting more rights to forest dwellers would lead to deforestation.

In contrast, feminist scholars such as Sagari Ramdas and Priyanka Bhalla point out that Adivasi women's relationships with forests are diverse and interlinked: forests are used for cultivation, grazing, food production, collecting wild fruit, vegetables, roots, medicinal herbs, firewood and building materials, for stockpiling seeds, berries, mushrooms and for celebrations, funeral ceremonies and other ritual practices. It is precisely this combination of productive and reproductive activities that is constantly undermined by the Indian state (especially through forestry authorities such as the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change/MoEFCC and its regional Forest Departments) – a legacy and continuation from the colonial era to present neoliberal sovereignty.

From the FRA to new forms of forest governance: more gender equality?

In the context of more than 150 years of struggle, the adoption of the FRA in 2006 was a milestone: for the first time, injustices experienced by forest dwellers through the expropriation of forests and resources were acknowledged. It was stated that their property rights were to be restored and forest-dependent persons were made eligible to file both individual and collective property claims. Basic democratic structures at village level were designated to have decisive say in the acceptance or rejection of legal claims.

However, the implementation of the FRA is still poor in most states, especially since local forestry authorities continue to undermine or sabotage the law. In 2009, a study on Andhra Pradesh revealed that village assemblies (gram sabhas), in which a 1/3 quota for women should apply, often took place in distant locations, making it difficult for women to attend. This considerably hampered participation of rural women and resulted in little to no consideration of their specific concerns in the decision-making body. At the same time, the study shows that most individual ownership claims were submitted on behalf of women and received positive decisions. However, the area of forest property granted on average comprised only 1/10 of the claims, making it insufficient as a means of livelihood. This exposes the FRA’s inherent gender inequality: claims by Adivasi women were dismissed with minimal concessions, while their legitimate demands were not taken seriously. As a result, an essential goal of the FRA, gender equality among forest dwellers, became negatively subverted.

For some years now, a change in forest governance can be observed: natural resources are used for environmental and climate protection explicitly 'integrating' rural women. An essential element in this regard is the 'National Action Plan on Climate Change' (2008) on the importance of forests for climate adaptation, which includes the Green India Mission (GIM). GIM aims to afforest 5 million hectares, to increase the income of 3 million forest-dependent communities with a focus on increasing women’s engagement in decision making, and to store 50-60 million tons of CO2 annually through trees by 2020.

GIM represents the core institutional mechanism for India's REDD+ ambitions. REDD+ is a market-based UN programme for'"reducing emissions from forest destruction and forest degradation and for the conservation of forests and sustainable forest management', which envisages compensation payments from industrialised countries to developing countries for the absorption of carbon emissions through afforestation or reforestation.

Forest-dependent women are in theory given a key role: they are the ones to implement top-down REDD+ projects 'on the ground'. An earlier strategy within this new forest governance was to give Adivasi women incentives to grow pongamia trees as an energy supply on their food-crops land, selling emission certificates rather than food crops. In parallel, the women were told that they could sell the stored CO2 through UN-emission reduction certificates and generate a higher income by including climate protection. However, this led to malnutrition, hunger and reduced soil fertility. As Ramdas has shown in her fundamental article on gendered forest spaces, women were unable to generate the predicted regular income from the sale of CO2 certificates due to high volatility of the market for climate certificates. At the same time, the Indian state continues to sell or lease large areas of state-owned forest to transnational corporations that produce for export (flowers, cashew kernels, mango or teakwood). To make things worse, state expropriation and displacement forces women living in and from forests to work on commercial plantations as contract labourers.

Feminist solidarity and rights to the commons

The latest strategies for forest governance are characterized by commercialization and legitimized by references to environmental protection and gender justice. REDD+ measures, carbon storage, biodiesel production and reforestation projects promise new sources of income for the Indian state. They materialise 'modern' forms of rule and disenfranchisement of forest-dependent groups and manifest a specific oppression of indigenous women. The benefits of forests, hitherto mainly suppliers of wood, are expanded through their function as CO2 off-setter and provider of 'ecosystem services' . Once again, the environment and labour power of forest dwellers are becoming a commodity – labelled with the promise of the 'green economy'.

Following the World Bank's 'Gender Equality as Smart Economics' approach, rural and disadvantaged women are forced to become climate certificate sellers, plantation workers or biodiesel producers. They are integrated in global labour, credit and technology markets with no change in the unequal logics and patriarchal/sexist power structures of these markets. Current publications of the BJP government under Narendra Modi (e.g. concerning climate protection, strategies against forest destruction and deforestation, especially with regard to 'vulnerable' women) clearly outline that neo-liberal forms of governance over nature, forests and gender relations are gaining traction. Certainly, it is not by coincidence that rural subaltern women are once again on the front lines organizing and mobilizing resistance, struggling for a gender-just, sustainable production and way of life.

From a decolonial-feminist stance, Adivasi women’s struggles are part of a broader opposition and contestation of the expansion of capital interests in natural resources, the increase of authoritarian patriarchal measures from states and the instrumentalization of gender and empowerment for economic gain. Thus, in alliance with scholars such as Silvia Federici, feminist transnational solidarity makes it imperative to support fights for the protection of the commons in the Global South. Ecological struggles of women (and in a broader context: rural communities), that seem to be local, are indeed interconnected globally. At the same time, these struggles must be fought alongside feminist movements in other places while staying vigilant for complex intersectional power relations, among women as well.

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