Conservation scientists are deeply concerned and fearful about the potential approval of controversial legislation in India’s Parliament. The proposed amendments to the flagship 1980 Forest Conservation Act have triggered nationwide protests and are believed to have severe consequences for India’s forests and indigenous communities.
Addressing Climate Change or Posing a Threat?
The government, led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, argues that the amendments will aid in combating climate change by facilitating tree planting and “eliminating ambiguities” in the rules governing how officials legally define forests and regulate their use. However, researchers and activists believe the changes will lead to irreversible transformations in India’s landscape. They fear the legislation will open up forests to development, harm biodiversity, and undermine the rights of Indigenous people.
Criticism from Conservationists
The legislation has faced strong criticism since it was first proposed in 2021 by Modi’s government. Conservationists oppose provisions that would remove protection from vast swaths of forest that have not been officially recognized in government documents. They argue that the proposal would also make it easier to mine in protected areas and develop infrastructure related to ecotourism, including zoos and resorts.
Concerns from Human Rights Activists
Human rights activists have decried language that would reduce the need for developers to consult with or gain prior consent from forest-dependent communities, including Indigenous groups. They also raised alarm about provisions allowing the government to waive reviews of projects that are within 100 kilometers of India’s border and deemed critical to national security. In some border states with high biodiversity, that exception would cover nearly all forested land.
Labeled as “Ecocide”
The legislation has been described as “ecocide” by conservation biologist Ravi Chellam, CEO of the Metastring Foundation, which makes policy-relevant data publicly available. He says, “People are gobsmacked by the brazenness of it all.”
Request for Consultation with Experts
Over 400 ecologists wrote last month to India’s environment minister, stating that the legislative changes amount to “not just an Amendment but an entirely new Act.” They requested the minister to delay any vote pending consultation with experts.
Hasty Legislative Process
Despite opposition and criticism, on 26 July, Parliament’s lower house took less than 20 minutes to pass the bill with almost no debate. As Science went to press, Parliament’s upper house was expected to follow suit.
Dismal Outlook for Indian Forests
The legislative rush has left many conservationists demoralized. Ghazala Shahabuddin of the Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment laments that “Things are already very bad with Indian forests,” and now, “whatever little we have remaining is under threat.”
Predicted Loss of Legal Protection
Analysts estimate that nearly 200,000 square kilometers of forest will lose legal protection under the bill. Forests managed by local communities, which rarely enjoy formal recognition, are particularly at risk. The law is predicted to “ride roughshod” over the rights of people who live in and use these forests, as per the ecologists who signed last month’s letter. For example, it “does not provide any clarity” about how officials should consider existing land rights claims filed by Indigenous groups, says Pranav Menon, an anthropology graduate student at the University of Minnesota and legal adviser to the Van Gujjar Tribal Yuva Sangathan, a youth-led Indigenous group.
Environmental Participation at Stake
The law continues a legislative trend of “reducing people to just rubber stamps,” says Shahabuddin, noting that Parliament has taken other steps to weaken public participation in environmental decisions.
Balancing Forest Conservation and Climate Change
India’s environment ministry argues that the regulatory changes will support efforts to plant new forests and use trees to fight climate change by absorbing and storing carbon. They assert that any loss of existing forests will be compensated by creating new plantations elsewhere.
Caution Against Monoculture Plantations
However, Chellam warns that “The devil is in the details,” and the replacement of diverse forests with single-species plantations could harm both biodiversity and the climate. “Functional, dynamic ecosystems will do a far better job of carbon sequestration than species-poor tree plantations,” he says.
Legal Challenges Ahead
Once finalized, the new law will likely face legal challenges. Debadityo Sinha, a climate and ecosystems specialist at the Vidhi Centre for Legal Policy, predicts that “The Supreme Court will be flooded” with lawsuits questioning the law’s constitutionality. One advocacy organization, the Environmental Support Group, is already arguing that the measure was “proposed in fundamental violation” of rules requiring coordination with India’s Ministry of Tribal Affairs.
A Glimpse into the Future
In the meantime, researchers and conservationists are bracing for the worst. The policy changes are “so short-sighted,” says Chellam. “Everyone is aghast, not just about their lives, but about the lives of future generations of Indians.”
The proposed amendments to India’s Forest Conservation Act have sparked nationwide protests and widespread concern among conservationists, researchers, and human rights activists. While the government touts the changes as necessary for combating climate change and promoting tree planting, critics argue that they will lead to irreversible damage to India’s forests and the rights of Indigenous communities. The legislative process has been criticized for its lack of consultation and hasty decision-making. As the law faces its final stages of approval, the fate of India’s forests and biodiversity remains uncertain, and legal challenges are anticipated. It is a critical moment in the country’s environmental history, and the world is closely watching how this unfolds.
The government, led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, argues that the amendments will aid in combating climate change by facilitating tree planting and “eliminating ambiguities” in the rules governing how officials legally define forests and regulate their use.
Critics and activists fear that the proposed amendments will open up forests to development, harm biodiversity, and undermine the rights of indigenous people. They oppose provisions that would remove protection from large forest areas not officially recognized in government documents and also express concern about reduced consultation with forest-dependent communities, including Indigenous groups.