In the midst of a clear blue sky and lush green forest, the redness of the earth seems incongruous. Here lies Bailadila, one of India’s large mines known for export quality iron ore. Since the late 1960s the mineral has been extracted by the National Mineral Development Corporation, a government entity.

Chhattisgarh, a landlocked central Indian state, is rich in minerals. But over the years, its forest cover which stands at 45 percent, has come under threat due to this.

Data provided by the forest department reveals 25,000 hectares of forest have been diverted due to developmental projects from 2001 to 2022. Of this mining is a major factor with 13,925 hectares diverted for it.

Iron ore deposits in Chhattisgarh are found in pristine areas rich in biodiversity. Bailadila is one such place where 2553.424 hectares of forest have been diverted for five mines sanctioned in the forested area. Rowghat owned by the public sector Bhilai Steel Plant is another. Both lie in the sensitive Bastar region of southern Chhattisgarh, a hotbed of over five decades of Naxalite insurgency.

The environmental impact of mining in today’s world plagued by climate change is already known. A changing climate can lead to conflict over sharing of limited resources found both above And Under The Earth. A 2018 Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (Sipri) publication, titled ‘Climate Change and Violent Conflict: Sparse Evidence from South Asia and SouthEast Asia’, stated that though these two regions have been affected by climate change and conflict, only a small number of rigorous academic studies focus on the climate–conflict relationship.

A view of Anjrel village. Here residents fear displacement due to Rowghat mining issue.

According to the Chhattisgarh government’s website on mines and minerals, leases have been granted for known deposits in the state. But social activists active in Bastar alleged in many places these have been acquired without following environmental clearances which has impacted access to forest by indigenous communities, also called Adivasis or tribals, in India. Tribals depend on the forest for sustenance.

To protect tribal interest which suffered marginalisation in colonial and post-colonial India, the Forest Rights Act (FRA) was passed in 2006. The Act allows them as well as other traditional forest dwellers habitation and cultivation rights over forest resources.

Alok Shukla, the convenor of the Chhattisgarh Bachao Andolan, an umbrella body for people’s movements, said there are over 12,000 villages lying within five km radius of the forest in Chhattisgarh where land titles under the Forest Rights Act can ensure people’s continuous link to livelihood based on forest resources.

Bastar has been home to different tribal communities since time immemorial. Their link with the forest is a unique cultural identity. But in the region this is at stake. Activists point out that mines will destroy Bastar’s forests, and with it end the relationship between people living close to natural resources.

Flare-ups have happened to prevent mining companies from gaining ground. In 2015, Naxalites torched 29 vehicles in the Chargaon mines area of Kanker district in Bastar. In 2021 rebels killed a jawan of the Indo-Tibetan Border Police and set vehicles on fire in Bastar’s Narayanpur district to oppose the Jayaswal Neco Industries Ltd based in Nagpur, Maharashtra.

Two Baiga women of Achanakmar. Chhattisgarh has several tribal communities who depend on forests for livelihood.

Agitation is continuing against the Rowghat mines spanning Narayanpur and Kanker since 2009 to protect the Matla Reserve Forest. According to research agency Land Conflict Watch, the project impacts 2029 hectares of land and 700 people.

In India the forest department has been in control of forests since colonial times. This sometimes leads to confrontation with tribals who feel their right over resource collection is under threat.

Many villages dominated by tribes in Chhattisgarh are situated inside dense forests where insurgency holds sway. The insurgents too want control over forests for cover. So, it is a triangular turf war and one that may exacerbate in future as resources dwindle due to deforestation.

As conflict is underway in Bastar due to mining and large-scale destruction of forest, there is another factor at play. The presence of camps to provide security to mine workers in areas lying in sensitive places is not favoured by locals.

Remarking on the situation in Rowghat, Nohrit Mandavi, who is associated with the Chhattisgarh Bachao Andolan, said security camps spell trouble. “The population of Bastar is expressing its anger against them by protesting in several areas. While they have been deprived of land titles under the Forest Rights Act, outsiders have come and settled down.

“People have lost their independence to move around due to timing restrictions. Women feel afraid to venture into jungles for minor forest produce,” Mandavi said.

Across Chhattisgarh tribals depend on important tree species like Mahua (Madhuca longifolia) and Sal (Shorea robusta) for livelihood. Mandavi added when such is the case precious Amla or Indian gooseberry trees have been damaged in Kanker to make way for camps.

Camps have been established to ensure safety of mines in many places. According to information shared by Bastar Inspector General of Police Sundar Raj, over 58 security camps have been established in the past four years in erstwhile insurgency strongholds which have affected the movement, supply chain and recruitment base of the rebels.

These camps are functioning as integrated centres by ensuring road connectivity, power supply, ration, education and healthcare to communities.

In Bastar, the demand for ‘jal, jangal, zameen’ (water, forest and land) has always been at the forefront of Adivasi struggle for a better life. If these things are addressed, protests will subside.

Land titles under the Forest Rights Act is naturally the best way to win over people. But till November 2022, over four claims filed under the Act have been rejected in Chhattisgarh out of more than nine lakh claims received. This was based on the data in response to a Rajya Sabha question.

At a time when agitation is happening over mines and camps, denying land rights to communities may lead to an increase in insurgency. A panchayat level worker said on the condition of anonymity that rejection of claims can possibly lead to violence in a region where land and forest are important livelihood assets for the Adivasis.

“As lands are being snatched away from them there is a state of conflict with the government. Some are siding with insurgents due to fear of the state machinery,” he claimed.

Data shared by Raj shows from 2019 to February 2023 there have been 1,175 incidents of Naxalite insurgency in Bastar. During this period, 180 civilians and 125 security personnel lost their lives.

According to the senior police official, communities are protesting in a few places due to certain compulsions but the government is hopeful of winning them over. Still in a region where basic facilities like education and healthcare suffers under the shadow of insurgency, the Forest Rights Act is getting compromised too. Dantewada resident Mangal Kunjam said development on this head is being claimed only on paper.

Across Bastar, villages like Gudiyapadar, Masauri and Badegudra have received collective ownership over forest through the Forest Rights Act. But in areas where agitation over mining is on, communities fear ownership, either individual or collective, both guaranteed under the Act, may be deprived, and they may be displaced, leading to disconnection from a resource on which they have depended on for centuries.

Chhattisgarh has 45 percent forest cover and much forest has been lost due to mining.

(DEEPANWITA GITA NIYOGI is an independent writer who covered this story with support from the International Women’s Media Foundation’s Howard G. Buffett grant. Views expressed are the writer’s own)