How villagers in North-East are rewriting the Forest Bill

The recent Forest Conservation Amendment Act created a stir with its amendments to the definition of forests and changes in processes related to the conversion of forest land for other purposes. The bill differs from a 1996 Supreme Court order that guaranteed permit clearances for all forests on government records, and limited those protections to reported or declared forests only. It also eliminates the need to obtain permits to clear forests within 100 kilometers of the Mediterranean region – a move that has serious implications for the future of forests in the Northeast, where increased investment is pouring into their economic development.

Forests in northeastern India account for 23.75 percent of the country’s total forest cover. However, the region is facing the highest rate of forest loss in the country. Between 2011 and 2021, the Northeast has lost more than 3,000 square kilometers of forests according to the Forestry Survey of India. Of this, nearly a third occurred between 2019 and 2021. This forest loss was driven by increasing development pressures and economic pressures on communities neighboring forests. The region is at the crossroads in its development trajectory and the need for a sustainable development framework that conserves forests – the lifeblood of a very rural population of smallholder farmers. However, communities are already driving change, walking the fine line between their own economic growth and protecting the forests that sustain their soils and water systems.

Communities take the lead

Communities in the Northeast have a long history of forest-related conservation practices. In Schedule VI countries such as Nagaland and Manipur, communities often follow traditional land management practices that designate certain forest areas as community protected forests. Meghalaya is famous for its sacred gardens. A 2006 World Bank study of forests in northeastern India found that states, where community councils retain clear authority over forests, have more effective forest conservation practices—and, as a result, higher and richer forest cover.

In Fakim ​​village in Nagaland’s Kiphire district, these traditional forest management practices are alive and thriving. The community owns private land for agricultural work or animal grazing and these lands are strictly defined by the Community Protected Forest Area. Entry to the Community Reserve Forest is partially restricted, requiring prior notification from the village council. Both deforestation and hunting are prohibited and hefty fines are imposed on those caught in the act. Any harvesting of produce or firewood is on a small scale for personal or community use.

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The area has seen an increasing number of community conservation activities, motivated by traditional beliefs and customs. Community members have stepped forward as local leaders, to take an active part in these environmental conservation and management projects. Elsewhere in Nagaland, the community in Khonoma Village has established the Khonoma Nature Reserve and Tragopan Sanctuary to protect the endangered Blyth’s Tragopan bird species and ecosystem. The community is actively involved in forestry efforts, with regular anti-poaching patrols and awareness campaigns for both locals and tourists, building an environmentally sensitive tourism model in the long term.

Emerging local heroes

In Assam, members of the Bodo and Mising communities in Sonitpur and Jorhat districts have been restoring degraded forest lands through scientific habitat restoration. Many of these areas are located near elephant habitats or corridors and have faced increased conflict between elephants. Communities such as those in Bujiguli village in Sontpur realized that restoring nearby forest areas would create greater habitat for the elephants and restore vital food sources for them, reducing their need to venture into the village and its fields. In the nearby village of Sekoum, restored forest has provided shelter to a herd of migrating elephants, and agroforestry has increased incomes by 40 percent.

In Arongo village in Arunachal Pradesh, Anoko Mega, recipient of the 2022 Balipara Reconstruction Foundation grant, is determined to create a Green Corridor – a pathway to restore the endangered Helok Gibbon and reconnect their fragmented habitats. He started an agroforestry process with crops suitable for the area while ensuring that the forests remain intact and thriving to accelerate the replenishment of lost biodiversity in the area.

Young people also step up to take the lead. Chikali Owumi, a 29-year-old resident of Sokhai Village in Nagaland in Zunibuto District, is a prime example of a young woman who is passionately dedicated to preserving biodiversity in her community. The community in Sukhai, along with a few neighboring areas, has established a Community Protected Area under the Tezo Valley Biodiversity Protection Area. The village has also recently rehabilitated the forests, after they witnessed depletion due to logging, which led to desertification of the soil and reduced productivity. Driven by her passion for protecting the natural heritage of the village, Chikali took the lead in running a community nursery for seedlings to continue forest restoration. The community has collectively restored 120 hectares of forest and is keen to restore more land in the future.

These stories show how forest development and conservation can go hand in hand and are not inherently in conflict with each other. Like these, there are dozens of others in the region who have decided to take matters into their own hands to conserve the environment and biodiversity, recognizing the invisible but important role nature plays in their well-being and livelihoods. The forest bill creates new challenges for these efforts, particularly in areas close to the LOC. The Northeast—and India, more broadly—needs a better forest bill: one that creates a coherent management strategy to preserve ancient forests, restore degraded lands and support community conservation practices aligned with scientific principles. To get there, India needs a new paradigm of sustainable development, one that sees its forests as a source of wealth and a lifeline for its communities.

The author is the creator of Naturenomics™ and Rural Futures in the Eastern Himalayas. He is also the Founder and President of the Balipara Foundation and a member of the governing body of the Northeast Initiative Development Agency.