The recent Forest Conservation Amendment Bill has caused a stir with its amendments to the definition of forests and changes to processes around diverting forest lands for other purposes. The bill diverges from the Supreme Court order of 1996 which ensured permissions for clearances have to be sought for all forests on government records, restricting this protection only to notified or declared forests. It also eliminates the need for permissions to clear forests within 100 km of the LOC – a move that has serious implications for the future of forests in the North East, as increasing investment pours in for its economic development.

Forests in India’s North-East account for 23.75 per cent of the total forest cover in the country. The region, however, faces the highest proportion of forest loss in the country. Between 2011 and 2021, the Northeast lost over 3,000 sq. km of forest according to the Forest Survey of India. Of this, nearly a third occurred between 2019 and 2021. This forest loss has been driven by growing development pressures and economic pressures on forest-fringe communities. The region is at a crossroads on its development pathway and the need for a sustainable development framework that preserves forests – a lifeline for the region’s highly rural population of smallholder farmers. Even so, communities are already driving change, walking the fine line between their economic growth and protecting the forests that keep their soil and water systems healthy.

Communities taking the lead

Communities in the Northeast have a long history of forest-linked conservation practices. In sixth-schedule States such as Nagaland and Manipur, communities often follow traditional land management practices designating certain forest areas as community reserve forests. Meghalaya is notable for its sacred groves. A 2006 World Bank study on forests in North-East India found that States, where community councils retained clear authority over forests, had more effective forest conservation practices – and as a consequence, higher and richer forest cover.

In the village of Fakim in Kiphire district Nagaland, these traditional forest management practices are alive and thriving. The community has private lands for agricultural work or for the grazing of animals and these lands are strictly demarcated from the community reserve forest area. Entering the community reserve forest is partially restricted, requiring prior intimation of the village council. Both deforestation and hunting are banned and huge fines are imposed for those caught in the act and any harvesting of produce or fuelwood is on a small scale for personal use or for use within the community.

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The region has seen an increasing rise in the number of community-based conservation activities, motivated by traditional beliefs and customs. Community members have come forward as local leaders, to take an active role in these projects to save and manage the environment. Elsewhere in Nagaland, the community at Khonoma village has created the Khonoma Nature Conservation and Tragopan Sanctuary to protect the ecosystem and the endangered Blyth’s Tragopan bird species. The community actively participates in forestry efforts, with regular anti-poaching patrols and awareness-building campaigns for both locals and tourists, building towards an ecologically sensitive tourism model for the long-run.

Emerging local heroes

In Assam, members from the Bodo and Mising communities in Sonitpur and Jorhat districts have been restoring degraded forest lands through scientific habitat restoration. Many of these areas lie close to elephant habitats or corridors and have been facing increasing human-elephant conflict. Communities like those in Bogijuli village in Sonitpur understood that restoring nearby forest areas would create larger habitats for elephants and restore vital food sources for them, reducing their need to venture into the village and their fields. In the nearby village of Sikom, the restored forest provided shelter to a herd of migrating elephants, and agroforestry has increased incomes by 40 per cent.

In Arungo village in Arunachal Pradesh, Anoko Mega, recipient of the Balipara Foundation Rewilding Grant 2022, is resolute in creating a green corridor - a pathway to reclaiming the lives of the endangered Hillock Gibbon and reconnecting their fragmented habitats. He began with the process of agroforestry with suitable crops of the region while ensuring the forests remain untouched and thriving to expedite the regeneration of lost biodiversity of the region.

Young people are also coming forward to take the lead. Shikali Awomi, a 29-year-old resident of Nagaland’s Sukhai village in Zunheboto district, is a prime example of a youth who is passionately dedicated to the preservation of biodiversity in her community. The community in Sukhai, along with a few nearby areas, have created a community-conserved area under the Tizu Valley Biodiversity Conservation Area. Recently, the village has also taken up the restoration of forests, after seeing its depletion because of timber logging, resulting in soil desertification and the reduction of soil productivity. Driven by her passion to protect the village’s natural heritage, Shikali took the lead in running a community nursery for saplings 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 development and the preservation of forests can go hand in hand and are not inherently oppositional to each other. Like these, there are scores of others in the region who decide to take matters into their own hands to preserve the environment and biodiversity, recognizing the invisible but important role that nature plays in their well-being and their livelihoods. The forest bill creates new challenges for these efforts, particularly in areas close to the LOC. The North East – and India, more broadly – needs a better forest bill: one that creates a cohesive management strategy to preserve old-growth forests, restore degraded lands and support community conservation practices aligned with scientific principles. To get there, India needs a new sustainable development paradigm, one that sees its forests as a source of wealth and a lifeline for its communities.

The writer is the creator of Naturenomics™ and Rural Futures in the Eastern Himalayas. He is also the founder and president of Balipara Foundation and a member of the governing body of the North-East Initiative Development Agency.