On 15th and 16th October 2013, Stella James (Fellow, Natural Justice) attended a village meeting held at the Bhudabhuin Community Centre in the Sundergarh district of the state of Odisha, India. The meeting revolved around a discussion of the Forest Rights Act 2006 (FRA), a landmark legislation in terms of granting customary rights over resources to adivasis (tribals) and other forest dwellers. The meeting was attended by approximately 60 persons, from different villages, some people travelling many kilometers by foot through thick forests, walking almost an entire day to attend the meeting.
The meeting was facilitated by Jitendra Sahu, an advocate who has been working in Odisha on successful implementation of FRA in many areas of Odisha. Jitubhai, as he is popularly known, talked about the significant difference between the FRA and previous legislations on forests. In his own words, the crucial distinction is the inclusion of the word ‘right’ between the words ‘forest’ and ‘act’, thus finally marking a departure from the previously parochial understanding of all forest land belonging to the State. He emphasized how adivasis and other forest dwellers are now legally ‘owners’ and ‘right-holders’ of the forests in which they live, and not merely watchmen. Jitubhai also deftly explained some of the main provisions of the Act, without bogging the villagers with too much jargon or technicality, which may have tended to dissuade enthusiastic participation.
Throughout the meeting, the emphasis was on self-determination by the villagers. To aid the filing of claims, especially for community forest resources (CFR) under the FRA, the villagers began the process of charting out a community resource map. The map indicates locations and boundaries of mountains, forest areas, rivers and streams, villages; and also identifies local flora and fauna. The significance of the resource map is that, when completed, it will be a truly accurate representation of the area, since it is being drafted by the community itself, thus ensuring that claim for CFR is equally accurate. Not only that, such documentation will also help create a greater understanding of community resources both within and outside the community, especially among forest officials; as well as a stronger sense of identity for the community when dealing with outsiders. The second day of the meeting was devoted entirely to chalking out a rough map, which will be finalized in follow-up meetings, after consultation with other villagers, and verified by the government.