The Mirror of Manipur || Fast, Factual and Fearless.

Indigenous Peoples Rights in conflict with Protected Area Network


A consultative process involving the local governing body structures is absolutely necessary to avoid conflicting interests during the process of implementing the noble objective of enlarging the green cover, with the explicit understanding that a greater portion of the State’s mountainous terrain is basically controlled and managed by local communities.

 By Salam Rajesh

The Bharatiya Janata Party-led Government in Manipur is currently on a spree of strengthening the existing protected area network and further working on expanding the network to cover maximum land coverage to improve on the State’s forest cover, apparently under the Government of India’s “Green India Mission”, and probably in tune with the United Nations 2030 Agenda on global ecosystem restoration goals.

It is justified that the Protected Area (PA) network has to be enlarged to meet the global targets of increasing the green cover across the globe in addressing climate change mitigation strategies and in contributing to the global target of carbon emission reduction to halt the ever rising global temperature.

In the midst of this endeavour is the bone of contention between State and local communities in the process of executing the Government’s directive towards achieving maximum area coverage under the PA extension targets, more pronounced in the absence of a proper and systematic consultation process involving the Indigenous Peoples and local communities (IPLCs), specifically forest dwelling and forest dependent communities.

Extension of forest area coverage, and wetlands restoration and conservation, are part of the scheme of things very much in line with the global targets on ecosystem restoration. To this end, a more closer scrutiny of the Principles to Guide the UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration needs to be revisited by the State planners and implementing agencies.

Principle 2 (Broad Engagement) of the guideline fairly makes it clear that “Ecosystem restoration promotes inclusive and participatory governance, social fairness and equity from the start and throughout the process and outcomes”, while Principle 7 (Measurable Goals) clearly states that “Ecosystem restoration is based on well-defined, short, medium and long term ecological, cultural, and socio-economic objectives and goals”.

From this observation it may be termed as explicit that in achieving ecosystem restoration goals, there has to be a participatory process that exhibits ‘social fairness’ and which is based on ‘well defined objectives and goals’.

Coming back to Manipur’s agenda, there appears to be loopholes in the process. This is being viewed specifically from the context of the volume of objections from local communities as and when State Forest Department seeks to implement the process of PA extension, and/or in ‘upgrading’ the status of existing PAs.

There are two fundamental principles of engagement when activating regulations that are primarily centered on land, and which is rather complicated when the issue concerns lands that have certain complex issues on land tenure and ownership, and other fundamental land rights of IPLCs.

The processes of PRA (Participatory Rural Appraisal) and FPIC (Free, Prior and Informed Consent) of the IPLCs is definitely required to be followed by implementing agencies when the question of land tenure and land rights come to the fore on the objectives at sight, as in this case the extension of PA network.

The reference can also be made to the Indian Forest Rights Act of 2006, and Rules 2008, which recognizes the rights of the ethnic tribes and other forest dwellers having dependency on forest and waters for many generations. The Act is an important decision of the Government to undo injustice on the tribes and other traditional forest dwellers originally settled in the State since ages.

In the present exercise of the State Government to update the PAs, there is apparently an administrative fault-line wherein although there has been a reorganization of the districts – being upgraded from nine to sixteen – there has been no corresponding reorganization of the forest divisions to suit to the administrative setup of the new districts.

For instance, the Divisional Forest Officer of Bishnupur District issued a notification recently whereby certain villages in the Tairenpokpi-Tamenglong PA were asked to verify their legal status. The villages in question are located in areas falling under Kangpokpi and Noney Districts, and so it becomes questionable as to where do the standing of the notification lies as it overlaps with the administration of other districts.

Contrary to the suggestion that the existing structure of the forest divisions overlapping administrative blocks is functional at the ground, there can be complications administratively when it comes to identification of boundaries, land tenure, and rights to access and benefits especially taking into account forests lands that are traditionally managed and in control by IPLCs as in the mountainous terrain of Manipur.

The other thing to ponder is the status of the Autonomous District Councils and the other local governing body structures – Zilla Parishads, Gram Sabhas, Village Authorities, Tribal Councils – as and when a decision is taken to either update existing PAs or to notify a newly proposed PA.

A consultative process involving the local governing body structures is absolutely necessary to avoid conflicting interests during the process of implementing the noble objective of enlarging the green cover, with the explicit understanding that a greater portion of the State’s mountainous terrain is basically controlled and managed by local communities.

In between these conversations, it is fairly interesting to note that the international organization Conservation International recently set up the Negotiations Program for Indigenous Peoples and Local Communities Research. Its finding primarily shows that the lands of Indigenous peoples and local communities are better managed and experience less species decline than other areas – specifically government protected areas – a finding that is equally agreed to by the UN.

The program fundamentally acknowledges that the IPLCs’ knowledge and practices are essential to protecting nature, and recognizing their territories by establishing formal, legally binding land rights enables Indigenous communities to practice their own systems of resource management, which in turn helps to protect lands and water, and supports global conservation goals.

The international organization Rights and Resources Initiative (RRI)’s report “Reconciling Conservation and Global Biodiversity Goals with Community Land Rights in Asia” (February 2022) puts up the rather strong argument that ‘to effectively and equitably mitigate climate change and biodiversity loss, new conservation modalities are needed to end exclusionary approaches, embrace human rights-based strategies, and advance the recognition of the land, forest, water and territorial rights of IPLCs who customarily own over half of the world’s lands’.

This brings back the discussion on land tenure with specific focus on looking at how ethnic communities have ingenuously addressed food and water security through effective model of forests conservation and management, inter-weaving the needs for livelihoods into the regeneration of forests and wetlands.

The sum of the argument is that to avoid conflicts of interest and to achieve meaningful conservation of forest ecosystems to serve multiple end benefits – livelihoods, ecosystem services, biodiversity services, carbon reduction, springshed rejuvenation, and many others – there has to be a model that makes IPLCs proactive co-partners in the State’s push for protecting and conserving forests, and wetlands, and in increasing the PA network to achieve maximum area under healthy, thriving green coverage.

In doing this, the thrust understandably has to be on finding a pathway that is inclusive, transparent and accountable to the custodians of the ancient forests and wetlands. The new thinking process at the global level on respecting the rights of IPLCs, and specifically on their rights to their “Territories of Life”, is key in achieving the 2030 Agenda goals.

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

You might also like
Leave A Reply

Your email address will not be published.