Protecting India’s conservation offsets

This article first appeared in Science.

India, a megadiverse country and fast growing emerging economy (1, 2), endures a constant tug-of-war between conservation and development. Biodiversity offsetting, an increasingly popular but controversial conservation tool, seeks to counterbalance biodiversity impacts associated with economic development (3). To provide a biodiversity offset, developers compensate for developed land by supporting conservation actions such as reforestation of degraded forests.

To be valid, biodiversity offsets must support conservation that would not otherwise be implemented, not conservation already planned or under way. This is the principle of “additionality”: Only added conservation can counterbalance development (3). In violation of this widely accepted principle, the Indian government has sought to divert offset funds toward established conservation commitments. As a result, development remains uncompensated, and India suffers a net loss of biodiversity (4).

Biodiversity offsetting was codified in India’s Forest Conservation Act (FCA), 1980, which requires projects that cause deforestation to pay for compensatory afforestation (5). Successive government administrations, however, have failed to implement this offsetting mechanism, leaving more than INR 38,000 crores (about USD 5.7 billion) sitting unused in a government account, even as deforestation continues. A proposed new law, the Compensatory Afforestation Fund (CAF) Bill, 2015, which is up for debate in the Indian parliament, seeks to resolve this inertia (6).

India’s FCA, 1980, is explicit about the concept of additionality: “The compensatory afforestation should clearly be an additional plantation activity and not a diversion of part of the annual plantation programme” (5). The CAF Bill, 2015, proposes diverting compensatory afforestation funds to implement the Green India Mission (GIM), a separate afforestation program stipulated under India’s National Action Plan on Climate Change to fulfill its international climate change mitigation commitments (6). This falls under the category of established conservation, and therefore does not qualify as compensation according to the principle of additionality. forest

Initially, INR 6000 crores (about USD 900 million) are proposed for diversion (7). This sum could be used to afforest about 1.2 mha (8). Thus, compensatory afforestation of 1.2 mha will be forgone, in effect, leaving an uncompensated net loss of almost all of the 1.48 mha deforested under FCA since 1980 (9). For effective mitigation of development impacts on India’s forests and biodiversity, compensatory afforestation funds must not be diverted to the Green India Mission. The funds should be used strictly for compensatory afforestation, and the resulting forest cover gains should be measured and reported against a baseline that includes afforestation planned under the Green India Mission. To avoid double counting, there should be separate accounting for the spending on compensatory afforestation and that on the Green India Mission.


  1. Ministry of Environment and Forests, Government of India, “National Biodiversity Action Plan” (2008);
  2. International Monetary Fund, “World Economic Outlook Update” (2016);
  3. B. A. McKenney, J. M. Kiesecker, Environ. Manage. 45, 165 (2010).
  4. M. MaronA. GordonB. G. MackeyH. P. PossinghamJ. E. M. Watson , Nature 523, 401 (2015).
  5. Ministry of Environment and Forests, Government of India, “Handbook of Forest (Conservation) Act, 1980 (With Amendments made in 1988) Forest (Conservation) Rules, 2003 (With Amendments made in 2004) Guidelines & Clarifications” (2004);
  6. “The Compensatory Afforestation Fund Bill, 2015” (as introduced in Lok Sabha) (2015);,%202015.pdf.
  7. Ministry of Environment and Forests, Government of India, “National Mission for a Green India (Under The National Action Plan on Climate Change)” (
  8. Ministry of Environment and Forests, Government of India, “Implementation Guidelines for National Mission for a Green India (GIM)” (2014);
  9. Summary of FCA Projects, Website of e-Green Watch (http://