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From Tehelka Magazine, Vol 5, Issue 39, Dated Oct 04, 2008
wildlife & people

Living In Wilderness

By displacing people to protect wildlife, we are fighting conservation’s greatest allies, says ASHISH KOTHARI

INDIA CAN be proud of its wildlife-protected areas (PAs). Nearly five percent of the landmass accounts for 600 national parks and sanctuaries, notified under the Wild Life (Protection) Act 2003 (WLPA). This network has been instrumental in retrieving many species from the verge of extinction, and conserving some of India’s last remaining natural ecosystems.

Yet, it is clear that the PA system is in trouble. The crisis of a Sariska Tiger Reserve without tigers, and a Karera Great Indian Bustard Sanctuary without bustards (more on that in a minute) is a very real, if complex, crisis. However, the most serious challenge is the public and political support that PAs are rapidly losing. Conservation policies have systematically, often violently, played havoc with the lives of people living within and around PAs. The problem is, while they appease the powerful in Delhi, they also continue to create enemies out of millions of people who could have actually been conservation’s greatest allies.

Most PAs in India remain habitats that communities have used for centuries. Estimates in the early 2000s indicate that there are anywhere between three to four million people living within PAs. Several million more live outside them, while depending on the resources within. While a majority are poor and socially marginalised, PA policies have been predominantly insensitive to the rights and needs of these people, and have, in many cases, further impoverished them.

The WLPA 2003 does not permit any extraction of forest produce for ‘commercial’ purposes (in contrast to ‘bona fide’ use). The terms ‘commercial’ and ‘personal bona fide’ are not defined. Undoubtedly, when conservationists in New Delhi formulated this provision, they had in mind large-scale industrial extraction of bamboo and timber which are serious threats to wildlife. But having left it undefined, even the small-scale collection for local livelihood come under its purview.

Available studies suggest the total number of displaced people could be something closer to half a million. Conservation policies and programmes have almost never involved local people in the conceptualisation, planning, and management of PAs These twin failures — not meeting people’s needs, and not involving them — are not only causing widespread human suffering, but also backfiring on conservation itself.


THE BILIGIRI RANGASWAMY Temple Wildlife Sanctuary (BRTWLS), in Karnataka, is also home to a few thousand Soliga Adivasis who live in harmony with the forest. In 2003, their use of forest produce — amla, medicinal plants, honey, etc — was prohibited under the NTFP ban. Over 60 percent of their income was compromised, causing villagers to migrate in search of labour. In 2007, the NTFP ban had created enough alienation to cause a lack of interest in reporting forest fires or helping to douse them, which they used to do earlier. Additionally, local researchers reported that several dozen trees in the sanctuary had been chopped by outsiders, who in previous years would have been stopped by the Soligas with a stake in protecting the forests and its wildlife

At the heart of this lies a belief that has characterised India’s conservation policy all along: Wildlife cannot co-exist with humans.

There is no denying that many species need ‘inviolate’ areas, spaces where human presence is absent or minimal. However, the jury is unclear on how large these spaces need to be, and just what should be considered a “minimal” human presence. After all, for thousands of years, in almost all the areas currently inside tiger reserves, humans co-existed with the tiger and other species. What is new in today’s situation is, firstly, a highly lucrative demand for tiger parts; secondly, a serious fragmentation of the tigers’ habitat by development and infrastructure projects of various kinds, and thirdly, enhanced habitat use by communities. Simply removing villagers is not a solution to either. The issues could be tackled innovatively, through a mix of changes in resource use behaviour and relocation rather than a uniform policy of relocation. Indeed, in thousands of examples across India, communities have regenerated forests and grasslands, and helped revive wildlife populations by voluntarily restricting their activities, undertaking rotational grazing and declaring areas off limits for their own use. There is no reason why forest officials and NGOs cannot work with communities inside protected areas to encourage such a response.

Coexistence as a strategy is not an option anymore. It is an absolute necessity. Even if a few hundred villages agree to relocate, many hundred more will remain inside PAs.

Several PAs face threats from mining activities, dams, industries, expressways, ports, SEZs, etc. In the last few years, under pressure from a government intent on reaching the10 percent economic growth rate, environment agencies have rubber-stamped hundreds of mega-projects with enormous destructive potential. Local populations, who otherwise could have been major allies in resisting such ‘development’ projects, are not particularly cooperative because they have mostly only suffered at the hands of PA authorities. Additionally, often huge amounts of money are being poured into ‘buying off’ people from within communities, enticing them with promises of jobs and untold riches.

The Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006 is being looked upon as an important welcome step towards reversing historical marginalisation of the indigenous tribes and other forest-dwelling people of India. The Act mandates a process for determining “critical wildlife habitats” inside PAs, and assessment of whether people’s activities within such habitats can be in consonance with conservation. If “irreversible damage” is established, communities can be relocated with their informed consent. The Forest Rights Act (FRA) however, is not clear if the rights could over-ride the steps necessary to achieve conservation. Specific conservation responsibilities have not been placed on the right shoulders. The precise relationship of the FRA with the Wild Life (Protection) Act, 1972 (WLPA, which governs PAs) is unclear, leading to possible confusion on the ground on what action can be taken if a right granted under the FRA violates the WLPA. The provision of ‘development’ rights within forest and PAs could lead to fragmentation, unless taken through appropriate impact assessment procedures.

Interestingly, the 2006 amendment of the WLPA, which mandates the involvement of local people in the determination of critical habitats, has specified (similar to the FRA) that “inviolate” areas need to be determined in a participatory manner, and that relocation from such areas needs to happen only with the informed consent of communities. A group of NGOs under the title of the Future of Conservation network, have proposed detailed guidelines on the processes that should be carried out for establishing critical tiger and wildlife habitats, with the principles of using the best available traditional and modern knowledge to ensure democratic and equitable decisionmaking. Whether such a process is finally infused into wildlife conservation in India, will only be told in the next few years.

Ashish Kothari is with Kalpavriksh Environmental Action Group, New Delhi

From Tehelka Magazine, Vol 5, Issue 39, Dated Oct 04, 2008



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