The Forest Rights Act: What’s in it for Conservation?

Are conservationists addressing substantial threats to biodiversity or are they perhaps influenced by other issues such as charisma and contingency? On one hand, some conservationists give undue attention to large attractive animals and to obvious immediate threats such as poaching. On the other, they are also constrained by what they, as an interest group, can politically achieve. In developing countries like India—where the focus has been, and continues to be, on economic growth—conservationists tend to be relatively powerless. At a national level, conservationists are low on the agenda of both politicians and bureaucrats, who do not believe that environmental conservation helps growth. Thus many conservationist battles are fought against the absolutely powerless and marginalised. Instead of gaining popular support from these constituencies, such battles have furthered the rift between people and the environment. This enhances the perception that conservation is really for, and of, the elite.

Conflicts and constituencies

Nothing exemplifies this better than conservationists’ recent battles over the Scheduled Tribes and Other Forest-Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006 (RFRA), where they pitted themselves against forest dwelling communities and tribal interest groups. The RFRA presented an unprecedented opportunity, and political and administrative framework, for conservationists to join force with forest dwellers all across the country, but what followed were large volumes of vitriolic press and misinformation about the extent of ‘prime forest’ loss. Much of the opposition to the RFRA has come from conservationists who favor inviolate pristine areas. For this reason they strongly advocate relocation of communities. Some of these communities do have negative impacts on their environment, but surely no more so than the conservationists who are fighting the RFRA, and certainly far less than large industrial interests. And while many conservationists are fighting these industrial interests, so are forest dwelling communities, sometimes at the cost of their lives. There is a need to build different constituencies of support. The RFRA does, in fact, allude to such constituency building when it states in its preamble that inclusion of responsibilities (and not just rights) of sustainable use and biodiversity conservation will ‘strengthen the conservation regime of forests’.


But conservationists (henceforth protectionists) oppose the RFRA, among other things, over the issue of relocation. And this despite procedure laid in Section 4(2) of the Act. This section allows for resettlement of rights in critical wildlife habitats, with a rider that certain procedures are followed. These include completion of rights vesting, establishing irreversible impacts of activities of rights-holders on wildlife, ruling out of co existence options, preparation and communication of resettlement packages, and written Gram Sabha consent on resettlement. Finally, forests thus emptied of people shall not be diverted for any other purpose.

Despite the RFRA trying to allocate land and overcome ambiguity over current tenancy, protectionists continue to claim that the alternative to land allocation and tenancy ambiguity is relocation. It is not clear that relocation helps conservation. There are few examples where it has been fairly and effectively implemented. Bad relocation almost invariably results in social and political disempowerment and further marginalisation. Relocation studies from Southeast Asia show that once people are moved out of an area it becomes open to the introgression of other vested interests including political and industrial interests. Protectionists, on the contrary, argue that continued or legitimate presence of people would actually facilitate introgression by vested interests such as land and timber mafias.


Protectionists who oppose the RFRA are the same people who spend considerable time and money educating the public on conservation—an effort they consider significant and perform well. Yet they do not realise the counterproductivity of opposing the legitimate interests of forest dwelling communities who have the most to gain from environmental protection—theirs is a sensitivity born of necessity. Protectionists are ignorant of the fact that such contradictory efforts will only turn millions of people against nature or conservation.

Community aspirations

The common goal of conservation and natural resource dependent communities is the long term survival of the resource. But there is an assumption in the RFRA that communities will remain forest residents—the RFRA do is not just seek to rectify ‘historical injustice,’ but,also to ‘strengthen the conservation regime,’ an aim that has futurist overtones whereby communities continue to reside in forests and conserve them. As protectionists have emphasised, many forest dwellers are on the same economic and social path that most urban and rural dwellers are. In the long run they will surely choose, or at least aspire, to move on from forest areas and assume consumerist identities like the rest of us. But for the time being one needs to pay attention to studies that have shown, time and again, that tenurial rights play a significant role in the sustainable use of resources by communities as long as they depend on them. The terms on which people leave the forests, and the sharing of ownership and benefits, may ultimately be critical.

Converging for conservation

Unlike certain protectionists who have been viscerally opposed to the RFRA, the responses of academicians and activists who engage with conservation have been more constructive. They seek to ensure that the RFRA has positive consequences for both forest dwellers and the environment. They genuinely believe that the goals of conservation have much in common with the concerns of livelihoods of local communities, and that, working together, these common goals can be achieved.

This article has been modified from a previous article in Tehelka Magazine with inputs from Siddhartha Krishnan.

This article is from issue


2008 Dec