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India: A Forest Dweller Fights for Indigenous Rights to Traditional Lands

Saraswati Dhruw was four years old when she began joining her mother on predawn expeditions into the dense forests of central India’s Chhattisgarh state to gather fragrant golden mahua blossoms.

The flowers can be boiled and eaten or fermented to make a liquor.

Mother and daughter also collected non-timber forest products such as the seeds of the sal tree, prized for its medicinal qualities, or the leaves of the tendu, used to make traditional Indian cigarettes.

Selling them supported her family.  In return, the family cared for and protected the trees that provided their livelihood.

Then reserves were created in the name of environmentalism. Many Indigenous lost their incomes and traditional way of life. This underscores the importance of engaging frontline communities in policymaking.

Saraswati’s first job was with a local community-based organization. Initially, it was simply about earning a salary. But she quickly became excited to be working for the rights of fellow Indigenous forest dwellers forced out of their traditional homes when the government declared their lands nature reserves.

An estimated 275 million people in India depend on forests for at least part of their income, according to the World Bank, which notes that Indigenous forest dwellers are among the poorest and most vulnerable people in India.

Despite making up only about 8 percent of India’s population, forest dwellers also comprise about half of those displaced by ambitious projects.

These unintended consequences are a key reason that it is crucial to engage local communities.

As a girl, Saraswati felt herself and her family to be without power. She didn’t know then that she would eventually help protect the rights of all her neighbors in her home village of Nagari.

Saraswati Dhruw stands by a Thai reservoir during the inaugural _Building Bridges_ convening (Photo Credit Masha Hamilton)
Saraswati Dhruw stands by a Thai reservoir during the inaugural _Building Bridges_ convening. (Photo credit Masha Hamilton)
  • A herd of deer play in the shade of trees in India (Photo Credit Praniket Desai)
    A herd of deer play in the shade of trees in India. (Photo credit Praniket Desai)

Marginalized Forest Dwellers Unite Behind the Forest Rights Act

Her dedication to her work led to her first victory for a village in 2004. But an even larger victory came in 2006 when she helped organize thousands of traditionally marginalized forest dwellers, and the government approved the Forest Rights Act.

“For others, a forest is just trees. For us, it is life,” Saraswati said. There were times “when officials tried to undermine me as a woman. But if you are doing the right thing, you shouldn’t fear anything.”

Saraswati facilitates a community meeeting about forest dwellers' rights over their traditional lands (Photo Courtesy of Saraswati)
Saraswati facilitates a community meeting about forest dwellers' rights over their traditional lands. (Photo courtesy of Saraswati)

Rather than being a “problem” that needed to be cleared out of the way to create “protected lands,” the Forest Rights Act acknowledged that tens of thousands of communities have been protecting their forests for generations.

It recognized their “right to protect, regenerate, or conserve or manage any community forest resource, which they have been traditionally protecting and conserving for sustainable use.”

Evolving Perspectives, from Local to National to Regional

With a track record of success, Saraswati turned her attention to Nagari, the village of her birth. She had to educate her community from the ground up to make them advocates in this cause, and it took several years.

On Aug. 9, 2021, World Indigenous Day, her village won their struggle and was granted rights over their traditional lands. She spoke at the ceremony, which was televised live. Congratulatory texts and emails poured in from Nagari.

“I had earned their respect,” she said. “It was the best day of my life.”

Forests help mitigate the impacts of climate change, and women in forest-dwelling communities often hold profound knowledge of resources and conservation practices, from no-till cultivation to targeted irrigation that conserves water.

Saraswati receives a certificate of recognition for her organization's work to help implement the Forst Rights Act iner district (Photo Courtesy of Saraswati)
Saraswati receives a certificate of recognition for her organization’s work to help implement the Forest Rights Act inner district. (Photo Courtesy of Saraswati)

India’s Forest Rights Act provides women with a platform to share their perspectives, through representation on the village council, and offers a legal space for women to secure land rights in their name.

Saraswati, now 42, the mother of a young daughter and president of a local community-based organization (Khoj Evam Janjariti Samiti,) said her work taught her to think nationally, but attending the Building Bridges workshop taught her to think regionally.

“When I’m back home, I want to share with my community how others are struggling with challenges, and coming up with their own solutions,” she said. “There are lessons in what we’ve discussed here. If we come together, we can make change.”

More from this series


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Indonesia: Educating Island Farmers About Climate Change

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