States must Protect the Rights of Forest-Dwelling Communities

On 13 February 2019, the Supreme Court of India ordered the eviction of millions of forest dwellers from their lands. Shortly thereafter, Oxfam India issued a statement urging state governments to recognise the rights of these communities to “life, dignity and livelihood”. The story received international coverage, including by the Guardian.

The order was the result of an action initiated by wildlife conservationists, seeking a ruling to invalidate the Forest Rights Act 2006 (the “Act”). This acknowledged the injustices committed against the forest dwellers and recognised their rights over the forest land, including areas under special protection for purposes of conservation, and to manage and conserve the resources therein.

The conservationists alleged that indigenous dwellers in 20 states had encroached illegally on certain areas within the forest lands, endangering conservation efforts. They argued that individual families should be evicted unless they were able to evidence their claim to remain in accordance with the Act. The Supreme Court has ordered the states concerned to evict those whose claims were unsuccessful, which according to the Ministry of Tribal Affairs would total around 18.92 lakh tribal and other forest-dwelling families, before the next hearing on 27 July 2019.

In its statement, Oxfam India noted that in several states, there had been a “systematic rejection” of many claims without any indication of the reasons for the decision or an opportunity to appeal. Moreover, it stated, wrongful rejections are still under review and automatic evictions are not envisaged under the Act. It appealed to all the citizens of India, including rights activists and civil society organisations, to urge the authorities involved to recognise the rights of the forest dwellers to “life, dignity and livelihood” and to uphold the principles of the Act. This call to action was reiterated by Oxfam India’s CEO, Amitabh Behar, in a video in which he characterised the order as a step in completely the wrong direction and urged the states concerned to take the facts to the Supreme Court. Please share the statement and this video to support this call for justice.

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