Forest Degradation: An Indigenous Way Of Life On The Brink

Ayushi Chandra

India’s current forests cover an estimated 78.29 million hectares. Forests play a very important role in shaping the cultural, religious, economic, social, and political systems of indigenous and tribal people. These communities live in close vicinity with the forests and are entirely dependent on forests for their livelihood. Due to environmental exploitation and degradation, these communities suffer more as it’s their homes that are being destroyed. 

Degradation and exploitation of natural resources are rapidly outpacing the ability of the planet to absorb damage, meaning environmental damage is constantly happening and the rate of deterioration is increasing globally. The major causes of environmental degradation are industrialization, deforestation, overconsumption, urbanization, etc. 

These activities have prompted situations that have turned out to be extremely harmful for the inhabitants of the environment but the ones who are most affected are the indigenous people and tribal communities. 

Indigenous peoples are practitioners of a unique culture and they share a strong connection with the environment. These indigenous people play a very vital role in conservation of biodiversity. 

They live in close vicinity of forests and have managed well in keeping their localities safe from external harm. Comprising less than 5% of the world’s population, indigenous people protect 80% of global biodiversity. 

According to the National Forest Commission Report (2006), 41% of the total forest area is already degraded, 50% is prone to fire and 70% of the forest has no natural regeneration. The livelihoods of these communities are inextricably linked to the forests. They are dependent on forests for basic needs. 

Excessive industrialization and urbanization have contaminated water, air and soil, creating serious problems for such communities. they have been worst hit by large scale exploitation of their natural resources. This rapid onset of environmental degradation is hampering the basic right to life and the livelihood of society whose ways are on the brink of extinction. 


Forests as a source of income – These communities are highly dependent on it for their income. They not only depend on the forest products for their own survival but also for commercial purposes, which would help them fetch them some income. Forests also employ the local community; they are an important contributor to the economy of the forested landscapes. 

The income they get from the sale of forest products constitutes about 40-60% of their total income. Forests still act as a means of food security for many of these communities. Degradation of forests, shortage of products for sale, loss of employment and many other factors affect the lives of the communities and have become a cause for their loss of income. 

Deforestation – There are many causes of deforestation such as forest fires, excessive grazing, construction, urbanization, etc., which results in the displacement of tribal and rural communities from their natural environment. Since 1950 it is estimated that 50 million people have been displaced from their local lands because of various developmental projects. More than 40% are the tribal communities. 

Another effect of deforestation is the decline in annual rainfall causing water scarcity in the region. 

Climate Change- The amplified impacts of climate change are rising sea-levels, extreme weather conditions and wildfires, putting the lives of tribal people in jeopardy. This has forced them to evacuate their ancestral lands, which they have inhabited for centuries. Floods due to rising sea levels, soil erosion, forest fires, industrial activities, etc. impacts of climate change will continue to worsen the situation. 

The changing climate has put resources at risk, which will affect both sustenance and dependence on natural resources as well. 

Loss of biodiversity- Climate change is one of the major reasons for the loss of biodiversity. Between 1854-1942, the tree cover had gone down from 43% to 23%. In the following 36 years, the decline further dropped from 23% to 12%. The most affected regions are the Himalayas, Central India, Eastern and North-Western Ghats. 

Many Himalayan species are migrating to higher altitudes due to changes in temperature, some species have also become extinct and many are in the endangered category. The environmental conditions alter the ecology of the area resulting in animal migration timing and seasonal appearance, resulting in the disruption of the ecological cycle as a whole. 


It is estimated that around 300 million people depend upon forests for their survival. Apart from this, a significant percentage of India’s indigenous people live in forests. Forest dependent communities have been fighting for their lands and resources for a very long. 

With the enactment of the Forest Rights Act (FRA), 2006, there was some hope that the rights of such communities would be recognized but lack of awareness and poor implementation have marred the effect of the Act. 

Besides the Forest Rights Act, other policies aim to conserve the forests and rights of the communities. The National Forest Policy (1988), was once such policy, that emphasizes on meeting the needs of the people and involving them in management of the forest, focusing on the maintenance of biodiversity, restoration of environmental stability and ecological balance. 

Another is the National Environment Policy (NEP) 2006, it recognized that private entities and forest laws have gained control over the inhabited lands of local communities and have disempowered them, such disempowerment has led to forests becoming an open space for exploitation. 

Under FRA, every tribal village should have a Forest Rights Committee. The primary aim of this committee is to enlighten people of their rights, privileges and constitutional guarantee. 

So far, FRC is functioning well and has helped a lot of communities in claiming their homes and lands. But this is not the case always as these people are mostly illiterate, government officials take advantage of their situation and make them put their thumbprints on paper without their knowledge. 

With so many policies and laws, it is still difficult to look after the rights of these people there are many challenges yet to overcome. 


India is so rich in biodiversity; indigenous communities have helped in the conservation of the same. Indeed, biological diversity cannot be conserved without cultural diversity, Traditional laws, customs and practices reflect both an attachment to the land and responsibility for preserving traditional lands for use by future generations. Therefore, it is important to keep a check on environmental exploitation and make efforts to prevent it from happening.

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