India’s forest cover target influenced by colonial policies rather than scientific basis, says study

  • Since its independence, India has a target of 33 percent of its land under forest cover, which, a latest study reveals, is borrowed from colonial past rather than having any scientific basis.
  • It reveals that the target was primarily developed by Europeans, mainly France, during colonial period and it then quickly spread to British and French colonial territories in Africa and other parts of world including Asia.
  • The study also emphasises that the target may result in difficulties for forest dwellers and tribal communities.

India’s target to bring 33 percent of its total land under the forest cover is more a result of colonial hangover rather than backed by science, said a study which emphasised that this policy can instead make life more difficult for forest dwellers and tribal people.

The study, co-authored by  Diana K. Davis of the University of California Davis and Paul Robbins of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, was recently published in the ‘Environment and Planning E: Nature and Space’ journal.   

It noted that contemporary afforestation goals often assume “arbitrary targets that are rooted in habits of (neo) colonial governance rather than sound science”.

The study also said that it remains entirely unclear, moreover, whether large-scale plantations have positive effects on socioeconomic conditions of communities and noted that a recent systematic review suggests that such efforts have significant negative impacts on local communities in terms of employment, livelihoods, and other intertwined’ social impacts.

“India’s new Compensatory Afforestation Fund Act, passed in 2016, which legislates that if forest is cleared an equivalent amount of land must be afforested elsewhere, is likely to further undermine local control of land and extend the reach of the forest department to the detriment of local livelihoods,” the study added.

Davis, who is the lead author of the study, said they found out that some aspects of India’s forest policy are not entirely scientific. “It does seem from what we uncovered that sadly some aspects of India’s forest policy with regard to forest cover targets are based on things other than what we would consider a sound scientific basis. It is important to note, though, that as with all knowledge, science is constantly evolving and changing,” Davis told Mongabay-India in reply to an email query.

The study also emphasised that for at least two centuries, tree planting has been lauded as an environmental cure-all for ills including “civilisational decline, diminished precipitation, warming temperatures, soil erosion, and decreasing biodiversity” despite the “demonstrated failings” in many environments.

Soon after its independence from Britain in 1947, India came out with its first national forest policy in 1952, which had a target of bringing 33 percent of India’s land under forest cover and since then, the target has remained as it is.

At present, about 21.54 percent of India’s land, which is about 70 million hectares, is under forest cover.

The central government has several afforestation programmes among which the main one is the Green India Mission (GIM), which is also one of the eight missions under the country’s National Action Plan on Climate Change (NAPCC). Launched in 2014, the GIM’s broad objective is to increase the forest and tree cover by five million hectares, as well as to increase the quality of existing forest and tree cover in another five million hectares forest/non-forest lands in 10 years.

The study argued that the “policy rudiments” of the GIM “do not stray far from most forest policies implemented in India since its independence”.  

“Ostensibly aimed at improving forest-based livelihoods, the initiative has all the qualities of past forestry efforts in India, which have historically performed a reverse role: disinheriting forest rooted populations,” the study said.

It noted that the GIM “appears to run athwart recent efforts to extend land rights to politically disenfranchised communities”, specifically tribal groups, “who have historically been forest dwelling or forest adjacent, were only recently granted greater control over their lands under the Forest Rights Act of 2006”.

“Under that act, their ability to manage lands, cut trees, farm, or graze was expanded where they could show continuous historical settlement. The ambitions of the National Mission (GIM), to overwrite local land uses with tree production, stand a good chance of colliding with the rights of such local communities,” said the study.

It explained that the “deeply colonial idea of the need for about one-third forest cover to support ‘civilisation’ was primarily developed by Europeans during the colonial period, based in large part on their experiences in their dryland territories, and then applied in arid and semiarid imperial settings such as Algeria and India.”

Although developed and refined in France and colonial Algeria, the concept of the taux de boisement became widespread in many parts of the world by the mid-20th century and, in India, it has had a particularly long-lasting and widespread impact where it become widely known and appreciated. Taux de boisement can be explained as a concept of percentage of ‘appropriately’ wooded land within any country or territory, or the rate of forestation/woodedness

Therefore, the study said, it is not surprising to find the third Inspector-General of Forests in India, Berthold Ribbentrop, calling for the reforestation of all India to attain the 30 percent taux de boisement in year 1900.  

India has a target of bringing 33 percent of its land under forest cover since 1952. Photo by Suraj S/Wikimedia Commons.

However, contemporary Indian policies that take forward the colonial concepts are not necessarily applicable in the current situation of Indian forests, specially in relation to those living in and dependent on the forests.  

“We do worry that a forest cover rate target of 30-33 percent has a good likelihood of spurring accompanying policies that may make life more difficult for forest dwellers and tribal peoples, or possibly disenfranchise them and, for example, limit access to traditional forest-based resources on which they rely.  This deserves future research,” said Davis.

The 33 percent target may make life difficult for forest dwellers

India’s first national forest policy in 1952 as well as the second national forest policy in 1988 stressed on achieving 33 percent of India’s total geographical area under forest cover. Last year, the Indian government’s Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEFCC) came out with draft of the country’s third national forest policy which too spoke out about the 33 percent target but it is yet to be finalised.

In India, the study said, the target of 33 percent forest cover “became a conceptual ghost that haunted successive generations of forest policy makers, whose goals might have been diverse—a timber economy in 1952, livelihood promotion in 1988, and climate control in 2011—but whose mechanisms represent a disordered form of repetitive compulsion, imposed over and over on arid and semi-arid ecosystems and the local communities who know them best”.

Paul Robbins, who is the co-author of the study, said that “tree-planting and trees themselves are of course critically important to addressing global climate change” but “wishful and arbitrary targets (example: 30 percent), which have proven impossible to meet, are worse than a realistic policy.”

“Moreover, if these occur in a vacuum where the violent causes of deforestation occur (unrestrained mining concessions on community lands) go unaddressed, they only distract from critical issues demanding policy redress,” Robbins, who is director of the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, told Mongabay-India.

In three years (2015-18), India’s environment ministry has approved diversion of over 20,000 hectares of forest land for developmental projects like mining, thermal power plants, irrigation, road and railway projects across India.

Tushar Dash, forest rights expert and activist working with tribal people and forest dwellers in Odisha said, “The idea of forests floated by the forest bureaucracy in India that is based on massive plantations is a false idea”.

“The promotion of commercial plantations and the kind of policies followed under the compensatory afforestation act is negatively impacting the forest dwellers and tribal communities in India,” Dash said.

“Ultimately, the heritage of these environmental policies and the conceits upon which they are built demand decolonisation of both knowledge and policy implementation. We may well find the answers to ‘maintaining civilization’ only when we set aside our saplings and instead listen closely and patiently to the environments and indigenous peoples of the world’s drylands,” the study stressed.


Davis D.K., and Robbins P. (2018). Ecologies of the colonial present: Pathological forestry from the taux de boisement to civilized plantations. Environment and Planning E: Nature and Space 2018, Vol. 1(4) 447–469.


Banner image: 15 states in India have more than 33 percent of their respective total areas under forest cover. Photo by Pradeep Kumar N./Wikimedia Commons.

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