The way forward: How forest laws can stop coal

For more than 20 years Fern has strived to protect forests and the rights of those depending on them. In that time, the evidence that recognising and strengthening local communities’ customary land tenure can prevent deforestation has grown. This is true whether forests are being destroyed for timber, agriculture or coal.

India: an inspiring and cautionary tale

In India the fight against coal is also a fight to save forests.

Coal is a cornerstone of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government’s development strategy and the country’s biggest source of primary energy. In 2014 coal production in India rose by 6.4 per cent, more than anywhere else, and each month, on average, a new coal mine opens: part of a relentless drive to double coal output by 2020 and bring electricity to the 300 million people currently without it.

Yet those behind this push for coal have a problem. Much of the country’s coal lies under remote, dense forests.

According to the Wall Street Journal24, more than half of the country’s 285 billion tons of coal reserves are beneath forests, while our study - using GIS coal data from Greenpeace covering 13 coalfields in central India - shows that more than 250,000 hectares of forest in India is threatened by coal mining. Given the limitation of the data, the real figure is vastly higher.25

India's coal rush triggers climate change fears, by AJ+

So far, arguably the greatest single bulwark against wiping out forests for coal has been India’s Forest Rights Act (FRA). Its successes have reverberated through India’s corridors of power, sparking an unprecedented crackdown on those seen as “threatening India’s energy security”.26

The FRA - or to give it its full name, the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers Rights Act (Recognition of Forest Rights Act, 2006) - seeks to redress historic injustices inflicted on India’s forest dwellers, in particular so-called ‘tribals’, by granting them occupation rights in forest land. Its supporters call it “a weapon of democracy in forests”.

This weapon was deployed to great effect in the struggle between the UK company Essar and the Indian government on the one hand, and local people on the other, over the former’s plans to create an open cast coal mine in the Mahan forest, in Madhya Pradesh.

Mahan is a contiguous 20,000 hectare forest covering some of India’s highest quality coal and the mine block within it, said Greenpeace, would have devastated the forest and the biodiversity it supports, as well as the livelihoods of thousands of people, while having a dire impact on animals, water and air in the region.

Under the FRA, mining could only proceed if a majority of villagers in the area agreed - and the Mahan villagers passed an official resolution blocking it.27

In March 2015, after a protracted five-year struggle, the Indian government confirmed that the Mahan forest mines would not go ahead. But while they conceded the battle, they were not ready to concede the war.

Instead, the government clamped down ruthlessly on those opposing coal, harassing Greenpeace activists, freezing its bank accounts and cancelling its status as an environmental NGO. They have also moved to try to weaken the FRA and other major environmental laws.28

Greenpeace film in the battle to preserve the Mahan Forest

Greenpeace is not alone in being attacked for attacking coal.

Ramesh Agrawal, a former social worker from Chhattisgarh, home to around a fifth of India’s coal reserves, was shot in the leg by gunmen who broke into his internet café, after he helped villagers use the Right to Information Act to get the environmental permit for what would have been the state’s largest coal mine overturned.29 He had started campaigning after witnessing how forests and farms around the state were being destroyed for coal.

Nowhere more than India demonstrates how strong forest laws enshrining forest communities’ right can stop coal. And nowhere else reveals so vividly the challenges involved.

Fern’s touchstone: forest people control their own resources

Global consumption of coal may be falling, its price plummeting, and major financial institutions divesting from it - but ‘the end of coal’ is far from nigh.

A January 2015 study showed that 88 per cent of the world’s known coal reserves need to stay in the ground “to avoid dangerous climate change” and keep global warming below 2 °C, the de facto target of global climate policy.30 Stronger forest laws and giving communities greater control over the forests in which they live can help to achieve this.


23 India is the world’s third biggest coal producer. See: Key World Energy Statistics, 2014, International Energy Agency.

24 The Wall Street Journal does not provide a source for this figure.

25 Greenpeace supplied Fern with the polygon coal mining data used to reach the figure of 250,000 hectares of forest under threat. In 2012 Greenpeace used this same mining data, which they attained under India’s Right to Information laws, in its report How coal mining is trashing Tigerland. They estimated that 1.1 million hectares of forest was at risk through coal mining. Our figure is less because we have used different forest cover data and more limited forest cover descriptions. Both the Fern and Greenpeace studies show the need for higher resolution forest data than is currently available – and both are undoubted underestimates of the amount of forest at risk from coal in India.

26 CoalSwarm, ‘the collaborative information clearing house for the worldwide citizens’ movement to address the impacts of coal’ has detailed the opposition to coal across India on its Sourcewatch wiki site, a joint project with the Centre for Media and Democracy. Read article >

In June 2014 a leaked secret briefing from India’s Intelligence Bureau stated: “While [Greenpeace’s] efforts to raise obstacles to India’s coal-based energy plans are gathering pace, it has also started spawning mass-based movements against development projects and is assessed to be a potential threat to national economic security.” The full briefing is here: Read article >

27 For detailed accounts of the Mahan Forest case and the Indian government’s crackdown on Greenpeace, see: In India climate change takes a back seat to coal powered development, ClimateWire, October 16, 2015, and India’s war on Greenpeace, The Guardian, August 11, 2015.

28 Greenpeace is presently fighting for its survival in seven court cases.

29 Ramesh Agrawal was awarded the prestigious Goldman Prize in 2014 for his environmental activism.

30 Professor Paul Ekins and Dr Christophe McGlade state that the overwhelming majority of the coal reserves in China, Russia and the United States must remain unused. See: The geographical distribution of fossil fuels unused when limiting global warming to 2 °C, January 2015.