HYDERABAD: In its bid to push ahead with promoting oil palm cultivation, the state government has decided that it will target Podu lands, covered by the RoFR Act (Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act) in forest areas for raising oil palm plantations.
Though several questions remain on the suitability of an imported plant species such as oil palm in forest areas, and in the face of the Supreme Court in the past prohibiting rubber plantations on RoFR lands in the northeastern states, the government has issued orders to allow Podu land right holders to begin palm oil plant cultivation.
In its orders on September 26, the environment, forests, science & technology (EFS&T) department said that the state government wanted oil palm cultivated on a mission mode in 20 lakh acres, and the target for this year, 2022-23, was to accomplish it in 2.5 lakh acres. The orders also make it clear that the government wants to ‘promote’ oil palm cultivation on lands for which Scheduled Tribes and others were issued rights under the Recognition of Forest Rights Act, 2006.
It was back in March that agriculture minister Singireddy Niranjan Reddy told the Legislative Assembly that the government was exploring means to allow oil palm cultivation in RoFR lands. And, following the September 26 orders, on September 30, orders were circulated to all forest department offices ‘for information and necessary action.’
This concerted push to ‘promote’ oil palm cultivation inside the forests, appears to have been rushed into without taking into account the environmental impact of having such plantations. Asked if any study was conducted, or undertaken to look into the impact of introducing an alien plant species, special chief secretary of EFS&T department, A. Santhi Kumari, who signed the September 26 orders, replied in the negative.
On whether the state forest department has data on how much of forest land inside the state’s protected areas – wildlife sanctuaries, national parks, or the two tiger reserves – fall under the RoFR lands, she said the department did not maintain such data. Questions related to RoFR lands, or their use, she suggested, could best be answered by the tribal welfare department, which is the nodal agency for implementation of the RoFR Act.
A former member of the National Board for Wildlife, and managing trustee of Wildlife First, a conservation advocacy NGO, Praveen Bhargav maintained that oil palm cultivation cannot be allowed on RoFR lands.
“The Ministry of Tribal Affairs (MoTA) has already clarified [MoTA’s letter No. 17014/02/2007-PC&V (Vol- VII) (pt.) dated 6.5.2010], addressed to the government of Tripura, that rubber plantation is a commercial activity, which should not be allowed on forest land over which the rights have been recognized under the Act. Therefore, this clearly applies to oil palm plantations as well and thus cannot be permitted,” he said.
Bhargav added, “It is a well-established fact that oil palm cultivation affects biodiversity and is a destructive practice which is not remotely connected with natural heritage.”
The Forest Rights Act (RoFR) cannot be read and interpreted in isolation as has been done in Telangana. This is because Section 13 clearly mandates that the RoFR Act is in addition to and not in derogation of any other law that is in force.
Under Section 5 there is a duty cast upon forest rights holders to protect wildlife, forest and biodiversity and preserve the land from destructive practices that affect cultural and natural heritage. Any Rule (s) that is framed cannot be in excess of the law and will be void to that extent.
The Supreme Court in WP 109 of 2008 on 13.02.2019 had directed all states to ensure action against rejected claimants but had provided one last opportunity to review the rejected claims. Telangana and other states are also under orders to submit data on rejected claims, including geo-referenced polygons to the forest survey of India for satellite imagery analysis. The matter is listed for hearing on November 10 and any deviation or non-compliance is bound to be viewed seriously.
- Praveen Bhargav, former member National Board for Wildlife, managing trustee Wildlife First...