Can political representation improve forest conservation? The Indian experience

Bina Agarwal, Shiva Chakravarti Sharma, Shamindra Nath Roy


Forest conservation is key to mitigating climate change and preserving biodiversity. Many argue that indigenous communities serve as stewards of forests, and can greatly improve conservation outcomes if given control over forest management. Few, however, have examined the conservation effects of political representation by indigenous communities. Potentially, representatives could promote either better conservation or greater extraction for revenue gains.

This paper examines the effect of indigenous political representation on forest cover, using the unique opportunity offered by India’s multilayered enactments, which have granted Scheduled Tribes political control over local forests, in constituencies reserved for them in state assemblies and village councils. Taking Chhattisgarh state as an illustration, the paper draws especially on geospatial technologies to compare the state’s 20,000-odd villages across reserved and unreserved categories, differentiating between Assembly Constituency (AC) reservations and PESA (Panchayat Extension to Scheduled Areas) reservations, the former being at the assembly level and the latter at the village council level.

We find that between 2001 and 2019, Chhattisgarh’s village area under tree cover increased by almost 240,000 ha in aggregate for the 10,554 villages with any reservation (AC or PESA). This was four times the increase in never-reserved villages. Also, for the period 2009-2019, our regressions show that the likelihood of a 5 percentage point increase in tree cover was significantly greater in villages under only AC reservations than in never-reserved ones. In contrast, the likelihood of tree cover rise was lower in villages reserved under PESA alone than in never-reserved villages. Non-village forests also improved more in AC reserved areas. The results suggest a policy win-win for assembly-level political reservations, promoting both social inclusion and conservation. But divergent interests could play out in village-level reservations, stymying conservation. Here, additional incentives to conserve may be needed. 

This is the first study globally to examine the conservation effect of indigenous political representation at multiple levels, covering two decades. It will have relevance for other countries with large forest areas and substantial indigenous populations. 


Forest conservation, political reservation, Scheduled Tribe, indigenous communities, Chhattisgarh, India

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