The Forest (Conservation) Amendment Act 2023: Implications for Tripura’s Ecology and Indigenous Communities

By Pankaj Debbarma

September 16, 2023

Located in the northeastern corner of India, Tripura is a state characterized by its stunning natural landscapes, abundant biodiversity, and a vibrant mosaic of indigenous cultures. Its forests, which have long stood as a testament to the coexistence of humanity and nature, are at the heart of this unique identity. However, the recent introduction of the Forest (Conservation) Amendment Act 2023 (hereafter referred to as the Amendment Act) has cast a shadow of uncertainty over Tripura’s future. This legislation, designed to amend the existing Forest Conservation Act, 1980, raises pressing concerns about its far-reaching implications for Tripura’s environment, indigenous communities, and the delicate balance they share. In this essay, we explore the multifaceted implications of the Amendment Act for Tripura, a state poised at the intersection of ecological preservation and developmental aspirations.

Tripura’s Unique Ecological Context

Tripura, with a geographical area of 10,491 square kilometers, is predominantly hilly, encompassing 60% of its terrain. It shares borders with Bangladesh, Assam, and Mizoram, with an extensive 856-kilometer international border with Bangladesh, which is largely open and porous.

As per the data from the Directorate of Economics and Statistics, the state’s total forest cover is 6,294.287 square kilometers, accounting for approximately 59.99% of the state’s geographical area. These forests play a crucial role in maintaining the ecological balance of the region. They act as natural barriers against soil erosion, floods, and landslides, safeguarding the land and its communities, especially in the hilly terrain of Tripura.

Loss of Protective Cover

One of the primary concerns stemming from the Forest (Conservation) Amendment Act 2023 is the potential loss of protective cover for Tripura’s forests. The Amendment Act introduces a provision exempting forest lands situated within a 100-kilometer range from international borders from the stringent regulations of the Forest Conservation Act.

For Tripura, a state surrounded by Bangladesh on three sides, this provision is particularly concerning. The entire state falls within this 100-kilometer buffer, placing it at risk of losing the protective cover that was previously in place to prevent commercial exploitation and development projects in its sensitive border regions.

The consequences of this potential loss are profound. Tripura’s forests are not only home to diverse flora and fauna but also play a crucial role in maintaining the ecological balance of the region. These forests act as natural barriers against soil erosion, floods, and landslides, which are prevalent in the hilly terrain of the state. Furthermore, they are a source of livelihood for many indigenous communities who rely on the forests for sustenance, traditional practices, and economic activities such as bamboo cultivation.

The removal of protective cover, if not managed carefully, could lead to deforestation, habitat destruction, and irreversible damage to Tripura’s environment. This poses a grave threat to the state’s natural heritage and ecological stability.

Unreserved/Unclassified Forests

A significant concern revolves around the treatment of unreserved/unclassified forests in Tripura. As per available data, unclassified Government Forests account for a substantial area, totalling 2,116.87 square kilometers, which amounts to approximately 33.63% of the state’s total forest area. These forests, while not formally categorized under the Forest Conservation Act, have historically received a certain degree of protection.

The Amendment Act introduces a provision that could potentially dilute this protection. Only lands recorded as forests on or after October 25, 1980, will be considered as requiring forest clearance under the new law. This alteration is especially worrisome as a significant portion of Tripura’s forests falls under the unreserved/unclassified category. These forests are not only vital for biodiversity conservation but also serve as the lifeline for indigenous communities who depend on them for their cultural practices and economic activities such as bamboo cultivation. The potential dilution of protection for these forests could lead to unchecked exploitation and irreversible environmental damage.

Impact on Indigenous Communities

The Forest (Conservation) Amendment Act 2023’s silence on the Forest Rights Act, 2006, is a source of grave concern for indigenous communities in Tripura. The state is home to a diverse array of indigenous cultures, each with its distinct traditions and reliance on forests for sustenance, housing, and spiritual practices.

The Forest Rights Act, 2006, was enacted to safeguard the land and livelihood rights of Adivasis and traditional forest dwellers. However, the omission of any reference to this crucial legislation has left indigenous communities worried about the security of their ancestral lands and the sustainability of their way of life.

The omission of the Forest Rights Act in the Amendment Act raises fears of potential land alienation. Without legal protection, indigenous communities may find themselves increasingly vulnerable to land grabs and forced eviction. This could disrupt not only their traditional way of life but also their economic stability, as many of these communities rely on forest-based activities for income generation.

Environmental Consequences

Tripura’s rich biodiversity is a source of pride for the state. The forests are home to numerous species of flora and fauna, some of which are endemic and found nowhere else in the world. The potential dilution of forest protection measures under the Amendment Act raises concerns about deforestation, habitat loss, and the disruption of fragile ecosystems.

The consequences of environmental degradation are far-reaching. Loss of habitat can lead to the extinction of vulnerable and endangered species, disrupting the delicate ecological balance. Furthermore, deforestation can contribute to soil erosion, leading to increased incidents of landslides and floods in the hilly terrain of Tripura. These environmental consequences could have long-lasting effects on Tripura’s ecological balance and biodiversity, jeopardizing the very essence of the state’s natural beauty.

Community Concerns

The people of Tripura have already expressed their concerns about the implementation of certain development projects in the region. With the potential relaxation of forest protection regulations under the Amendment Act, these concerns may intensify. The government could proceed with projects without adequately addressing the reservations and rights of local communities, potentially leading to social unrest and conflicts.

Many residents of Tripura believe that obtaining the consent of gram sabhas (local village councils) in forest areas should be mandatory before implementing any developmental project. Proper rehabilitation and compensation for forest dwellers should also be ensured where eviction is unavoidable before project implementation starts. The Amendment Act’s provisions regarding these aspects remain ambiguous, causing further unease among indigenous communities.

Economic Implications

The forests of Tripura have not only been a source of cultural identity and sustenance for indigenous communities but have also contributed significantly to the state’s economy through activities like bamboo cultivation and other Non-Timber Forest Products. The potential loss of forest cover and alteration of regulations could disrupt these economic activities, leaving local communities in a precarious situation.

Bamboo, in particular, has been a cornerstone of the state’s economy, with Tripura being one of the largest bamboo-producing regions in India. Indigenous communities have been engaged in bamboo harvesting, processing, and sale for generations. According to the data, bamboo brakes cover a sizeable area, forming a “Sub climax” resulting from shifting cultivation from time immemorial.

The potential consequences of the Amendment Act, including habitat destruction and deforestation, could have a detrimental impact on bamboo cultivation and other forest-based livelihoods, leading to economic instability and poverty among indigenous communities.

The Forest (Conservation) Amendment Act 2023 carries profound implications for Tripura, touching upon environmental preservation, indigenous rights, economic stability, and the delicate balance between development and conservation. The potential loss of forest cover, especially in unreserved/unclassified forests, poses a significant threat to the state’s natural beauty and ecological integrity. Indigenous communities, who have historically been the stewards of these lands, fear the erosion of their rights and traditions.

The recent opposition to the Amendment Act by the Mizoram Assembly further underscores the widespread concerns surrounding this legislation. It demonstrates the growing chorus of voices from various states, environmentalists, and indigenous communities, all of whom are deeply apprehensive about the potential implications of the Amendment Act. Mizoram’s resolution further reinforces the need for a careful and inclusive reconsideration of this legislation to ensure that it aligns with the interests of the states, their residents, and the conservation of their precious natural resources.

It is imperative that Tripura’s leadership engages in transparent discussions with its residents, taking into account the concerns raised by both environmentalists and indigenous communities. Striking a balance between development and conservation is a delicate task, but one that is essential for ensuring a sustainable and harmonious future for Tripura and its diverse inhabitants. The Amendment Act’s implications should serve as a rallying point for informed and inclusive decision-making to preserve the state’s unique heritage for generations to come. Tripura must carefully navigate these challenges, considering its ecological, cultural, and economic wealth, to forge a path that benefits both the present and future generations. In doing so, it can set an example for responsible development and environmental stewardship in the region.

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