Whose forests are these? Why are the governments reluctant to implement the laws that give due rights to the forest dwellers? What role has the Forest Department been playing all along ever since its establishment? How do people continue to be pushed to the margins in the name of conservation and protection of forests?

These are some pertinent questions that a documentary ‘Banatu Haqo Kathare: Forest Rights Chronicles’ seeks to air through the voice of the people living in the Lahaul valley of Himachal Pradesh. This 44 minute film premiered on Women’s Day, on March 8, and is available on Youtube.

The film presents the people’s narratives from this trans-Himalayan valley where women’s collectives worked for over three decades to govern forests striving for a shared guardianship of the commons.

Yet the labour they put in to build resilient communities remains unrecognised in the state’s development and conservation policies and programmes.

The people have highlighted the non-implementation of the Forest Rights Act 2006 and its importance as a measure of recognising the role of local communities, especially Mahila Mandals as forest commons’ custodians.

The film opens with the reference to the all important context of forests, hills and women. It reminds the viewers of the role the women played in the famous ‘Chipko Movement’ of the 1970s.

It details the hard life being led by the women in Lahaul valley. The women work hard collecting fodder for animals, and leaf litter that is initially used to keep the cowsheds warm and eventually used as manure once it gets mixed with dung, they also collect pine cones.

The close relationship between pastures, forests and farms is elaborated through the interviews of the people of the area. It is the people who bring out the development of the region from one that did not even have horse paths till mid 1970s, to the present.

The people shared how self-sufficient the place was when all they brought from Kullu was rice, wheat, salt and mustard oil loaded on their animals. At that time they grew wheat, barley and potatoes for their subsistence.

Gradually there was a shift towards cash crops and also towards promoting tourism. But alongside opportunities have come the challenges related to global warming. The frequency of landslides going up in a terrain with loose soil poses a threat of submersion of villages.

The film explains that although Lahaul and Spiti is the biggest district of Himachal Pradesh it is also the least populated with the population density being 2.6 persons per square kilometre. It is an area that remained cut off for half a year, till a few years ago. It has an arid climate. The villages are along the river beds and only 3% of the area is under vegetation.

The need to preserve the forest in this area has been underlined in context of ‘developmental activities’ resulting in more avalanches and landslides.

The film also talks about the role Mahila Mandals have played in ensuring regulated forest use and also promoting agroforestry. It explains the practice of each family being allowed to gather just one sack of juniper wood one day in a year, to prepare incense to protect the dwindling juniper trees.

The historical context has been brought out to recall how even when the king was the owner of the forests, their management was always left to the local communities. The documentary showed that the British had resorted to usurping the forest wealth for developing railways and building ships.

This in turn had led to the setting up of the Forest Department in India, and the forests were classified into reserve and protected categories. Thereafter the rights of the communities were continuously curtailed in the name of conservation.

The people interviewed during the course of making the film have said that a wrong message was given all along that the forests were under threat from the locals. They said that the fact is that it is commercialisation that has led to the depletion of forest wealth.

The people underlined that forests have been usurped in the name of development. The pastoral community has been at a major loss as the Forest Department does not allow grazing on its land saying the animals would consume the new plantation. The pastoralists have countered during the interview, “Where will our sheep graze? This is becoming a dying vocation.”

The activists interviewed in the film explained the failure and success of the desert development plan that was implemented in the area over a few decades. They said that the plan was a failure in areas where plantation was carried out despite there being water scarcity and without collaborating with the villages. It was a success where there was active participation of the villages and water was available.

The people pointed out that while there is no dearth of funds to mitigate the challenges, the problem lies in the fact that the locals have just been reduced to daily wagers in various projects and they do not have any say in decision making. The plight of the landless and Dalits is worse in this context.

The film attempts to send across a message that the Forest Rights Act (2006) that is not being implemented properly is not important just for the tribal population in the plains. It is equally important for the people in other areas of the country.

It has been pointed out that bureaucrats sitting in Shimla feel that the people are no longer dependent on forests. This is wrong as the dependence of people in Lahaul valley can never end on the forests whether it is for raising their livestock, getting water for irrigation, raising rare medicinal plants or the Amchi practice of traditional healing.

The relationship between the rights and duties has been explained by quoting people who say that while they have not been given their rights under the FRA they have been performing their duties sincerely towards the forests.

They have been carrying the burden of sustaining social and economic production. The women in particular have been playing a major role in preserving and protecting the forests.

The film contests that historical justice and social equality are not just a big challenge for the state but for the society as well.

The sentiment of the local communities in opposing the hydropower projects and dams has been well documented.

The people have contended that they are a witness to the havoc caused by such development in the neighbouring district of Kinnaur where natural disasters have become very frequent. “We do not want such a catastrophe,” a woman interviewee said. They have also referred to the scenario in neighbouring state of Uttarakhand.

The film contends that while the government has been capturing forests in the name of conservation and development, the people have been left responsible for ‘jal, jungle, zameen’ (water, forests and land).

To the question of who owns the forests, the answer of the people is that it is the villagers who own them. “Of course the forest is ours. Whose will it be? It is ours,” a woman interviewee says towards the end of the film.

They are left with the question why the governments do not want to implement FRA? The film made by Himdhara Collective is a must-watch for those who want to understand the importance of forest rights for the local communities.