In recent years a conflict situation has been created in vast areas of rural India as a result of a clash between the perception of subsistence cultivators and forest departments. These cultivators say that this land is their basic source of livelihood and they can’t survive without it. On the other hand the forest department says citing land records that this is legally forest land and it is now needed to plant trees. Cultivators reply in many cases that the land was actually distributed to them by the revenue department and they have worked hard to make it cultivable.

Legislation to protect rights of tribals is pending in the parliament and it is hoped that this will protect several such small peasants from eviction. But even if all goes well and this law is enacted, it will provide relief to only a part of the subsistence peasants threatened in this way. Only those officially classified as ‘scheduled tribes’ will be protected. Even among them, those having claims before a stipulated year will be protected.

This still leaves a large number of subsistence peasants in an extremely fragile and precarious situation. Something should be done to protect their livelihood too.

This can be achieved by initiating a scheme of tree-farming for these farmers. As the forest department’s main concern is to bring more land under tree cover, it should have no objection to a scheme which achieves this objective while protecting the livelihood of people at the same time.

The main features of such a scheme will be the following:

  • Till such time that the forest department does not intend to start afforestation on this land, existing subsistence farmers will be allowed to continue their subsistence farming without any disturbance.
  • Once an afforestation plan for a site is ready people there will be informed not to plant the next crop. The standing crop will not be harmed in any way.
  • No one will be evicted by force. They will be given an offer by the forest department that they can stay on this land if they agree to become partners in a scheme to plant and protect trees.
  • In this scheme subsistence farmers will remain on their land but they’ll use this land to plant trees instead of agricultural crops. Till the tree growth is small, they can grow some agricultural crop as well, but this will be phased out as trees mature.
  • As long as they agree to plant and protect trees, there families will get legal rights to land. They will have inheritable rights to, use and sell all non-timber forest (including fruits, flowers, leaves etc.) obtained from these trees (and their undergrowth) in a sustainable way.
  • Economic support to plant and protect trees will be provided by the forest department.
  • Till trees reach an age at which non-timber forest produce can be harvested, these families will get adequate economic assistance from forest dept. and from poverty alleviation schemes.
  • These families will give a legal undertaking not to cut any green trees and not to harm wild life in any way. (But of course they’ll have the right of self-protection if attacked by wild animals).
  • These families will assist forest officials in any drives against poachers and smugglers to protect wild life as well as to extinguish fires. For any such assistance they’ll get some economic compensation.
  • Groups of such families will be helped to form village units. These villages will be entitled to all development and democratic rights which are available to other villages.
  • A family can be evicted if guilt of cutting trees and harming wild life is firmly established. Eviction will be not just in the hands of officials. Democratic bodies of these forest-villages will have an important say in this.

In this way it is possible to create a system in which afforestation work can proceed rapidly while improving the livelihood prospects of people, not disrupting livelihoods in any way.