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Conflicts of Interest over Land Rights, Tenure and Ownership

FILE PHOTO: Champu Khangpok Floating Village, Loktak Lake

In Manipur, there are several instances of conflicts of interest between the State and local communities over the extension of Protected Areas (PAs) in pockets that are primarily inhabited by Indigenous Peoples and Local Communities who have long been the custodians of the land, forests and water bodies.

By Salam Rajesh

Across the globe, as is in India, one of the persisting issues on conflicts of interest between States and local communities is the question on land rights, more fundamentally concerned with forest lands and wetlands traditionally controlled and managed by Indigenous peoples and local communities (IPLCs) as part of their village commons.

Manipur State is no exception to this, wherein there are several instances of conflicts of interest between the State and local communities over the extension of Protected Areas (PAs) in pockets that are primarily inhabited by IPLCs who have long been the custodians of the land, forests and water bodies upon which they thrive for their living and well-being, generations after generations.

A recent notification by the Divisional Forest Officer of Bishnupur District in Manipur, which nullified the legal status of ten villages located within the Tairenpokpi-Tamenglong Reserve Forest area – which the Forest Department says was notified in 1966 – has thrown open the floor for a possible hardliner tussle between the State and the IPLCs over land rights.

The notification by itself is fairly interesting, and definitely controversial, by way of making a strong statement that land which was seen as being controlled and managed by Scheduled Tribes under their customary land holding system was now being classified as ‘State Land’ and the tribes have no land holding rights in these villages which come under the PA network.

The issue is not a new one, considering that during the past 25 years the final declaration of some wildlife sanctuaries – and the proposed Shirui National Park – is pending owing to objections by IPLCs on the ground that the process of FPIC (free, prior and informed consent) was not there, thereby depriving the locals of their rights to be informed on the steps that the State was taking up vis-à-vis the extension of the PA network, and the possible fallout.

To quote an example, the villages located around the proposed Jiri-Makru Wildlife Sanctuary in Tousem Subdivision of Tamenglong District strongly resisted the State’s proposal to declare ‘their’ community controlled and managed forest areas as wildlife sanctuary, specifically in the absence of the FPIC process and the lack of a ‘transparent’ process on land rights issue.

During September 1997 the State’s Forest Department declared the initial notification of the proposed Jiri-Makru, Bunning, Kailam, and Zeilad Wildlife Sanctuaries under the provision of the Wildlife (Protection) Act of 1972. However, the villages located in the proposed PA sites raised their objections citing the State’s failure in providing prior information to them, specifically on the issue of land rights – the rights of tenure and ownership, and the rights to resource use – once the PAs become legally binding.

The issue is not limited to the uplands, whereas, there are several locations in the central Manipur valley areas that are highly contested on the same subject matter. For instance, a notification issued by the Forest Department in 2016 declaring extension of the southern periphery of Keibul Lamjao National Park with the inclusion of the wetland Kumbi Pat has racked up the hornet’s nest with locals coming out in strong objection to the proposal.

Similarly, a proposal by the State Forest Department to declare the wetland Pumlen Pat and its immediate surroundings including Mondum Reserve Forest as Conservation Reserve for the reintroduction of the Manipur Brow-antlered Deer met with stiff opposition from the locals on the same issue of land rights, tenure and ownership of the territory that were controlled and managed by the locals during the past several decades.

The enlargement and extension of the PA network in Manipur, and across India, is part of the larger vision to accelerate the PA network all across the globe in addressing climate issues. The goal to limit global temperature rise is prime, and one of the suggested measures is to go in for nature-based solutions including ecosystem restoration.

The contested issue is on how the goal is being pushed forward by the States, especially when it comes to the question on land rights of the IPLCs. It is fairly well known that most biodiverse areas in the world are in pockets that contain populations of IPLCs, such as in Southeast Asia and Latin America, for instance.

The deliberated issue is that the extension of PA network cannot be at the cost of the IPLCs, where infringement on land and forests in IPLC custody had caused immense tensions on human rights violation, land grabbing, and exclusion of the IPLCs from their traditional land holding system – literally ousting them from their ‘Territory of Life’ upon which they thrive for their living and sustenance.

The ‘Territory of Life’ concept is neither a new one nor politically defined, whereas, the assertion is on recognizing the land and all system of life that for ages were traditionally in the hands of the Indigenous peoples who utilize the resources from the forests and water bodies through a sustained control mechanism developed from their bare understanding of the nature of land and the available resources.

The United Nations had categorically stated that the land and forests under the care of IPLCs have endured the test of time and these are amongst some of the best conserved areas in the world. The understanding is that IPLCs are key to protecting and conserving some of the highly biodiversity-sensitive pockets, ranging from the tropical rainforests to mangroves, peatlands, alpine meadows, savannahs, and even coral reefs.

It is in the light of this emerging assertion that IPLCs play a significant role in protecting the world’s biodiverse regions that the system of enlarging the PA system need to be re-defined in the context of land rights and other fundamental rights of the IPLCs. A system that seeks to displace, and violate the space that IPLCs traditionally thrive upon, needs to be done away with. The key word is “co-managers” and respect for the custodians of forests and wetlands that long had sustained and flourished under careful hands.

A re-visit of the laws and the conventional methods of forest and wetland management need to be worked out, scientifically and based on ground truthing, so that a coordinated working model that suits both State managers and the local people can be put in place, not only to save the forest lands and wetlands from degradation and encroachment, but also to find the pathway for sustainable use of the resources to sustain the livelihoods of the forest and wetland dependent populations while serving to restore the ecosystems fruitfully.

(The writer is a media professional working on environmental issues. He can be reached at [email protected])

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