Conservation conflicts

Print edition : May 12, 2001
People, Parks & Wildlife: Towards Coexistence;Tracts for the Times 14; by Vasant Saberwal, Mahesh Rangarajan and Ashish Kothari; Orient Longman; pages 143, Rs.150 (paperback).

THE recent gruesome killing of elephants at the Corbett National Park in Uttar Pradesh has once again highlighted the fact that protected areas are besieged territories where threats to wildlife are ever-present. The knee-jerk reaction to such slaughter is to advocate increased policing by the Forest Department with harsher punishment for poachers, wildlife traders and those who abet them. Yet such a response fails to address the larger context in which poaching occurs. While poaching often involves a mafia with links to local politicians and government officials, it also depends upon the attitude of villagers living in and around protected areas. Why are forest-dwellers either indifferent to the problem of poaching or even willing collaborators in such crimes?

Villagers' reluctance to participate in protecting wildlife stems from a history of top-down conservation, which has systematically denied local populations access to forest resources. While the strategy of forming a network of national parks and wildlife sanctuaries, a system of enclaves where human activities are prohibited, has succeeded in preserving some threatened ecosystems and increasing the populations of endangered species such as the tiger and the elephant, this success has come at great cost. The burden of conservation has been disproportionately borne by those living in and around the protected areas. Often they are already poor and marginalised groups, whose customary rights to use the forest have been curtailed. This alienation has undermined the cause of conservation; without popular local support, the Forest Department has been unequal to the task of protecting biodiversity. Long-standing conflicts between local populations and the state provide fertile ground for exploitation by poachers and powerful industrial interests seeking clandestine access to protected areas.

People, Parks & Wildlife provides an accessible account of the conflicts surrounding protected areas even as it makes a compelling case for changing current management practices to incorporate the livelihood needs of the local population. The different expertise and experience of the three authors of this slim volume complement each other: Ecological historian Mahesh Rangarajan contributes an engrossing account of conservation politics in colonial and independent India, showing the continuities in policies that still remain elitist. The antecedents of the protected areas of today can be found in the hunting preserves of erstwhile princely rulers who set aside forests for their exclusive use.

Shikar was a culturally loaded ritual in which the subjugated Indian royalty could retrieve and affirm its masculinity in the presence of invited colonial masters. Shikar and the large-scale slaughter of previously plentiful animals and birds led to a situation of wildlife scarcity, whereupon certain forests came to be reserved for the aristocracy. The same aristocrats later turned conservationists, exchanging rifles for cameras. This small yet powerful lobby turned to the Central government and was able to secure the support of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi who overruled State governments that were more committed to exploiting forests. Rangarajan's analysis points to the contingent nature of the alliance around conservation and how personalised power and elite networks were able to supersede democratic politics in order to create zones of exclusion. He goes on to show that this alliance is no longer effective given the changed equations between the Centre and the States and the accelerated pressures to extract resources thanks to economic liberalisation. Thus there is no room for complacency that the top-down conservation strategies of the 1970s and 1980s will continue to work.

Exclusionary strategies that drive the management of protected areas in India have been justified on the grounds that nature needs to be "left alone". Environmental sociologist Vasant Sab-erwal's careful analysis of recent ecological studies shatters "the myth of pristine wilderness". Drawing lessons from the dynamics of ecosystems as diverse as the African savanna, the mid-western prairie of the United States, the high-altitude meadows of the Himalayas, and the tropical forests in the Amazon region, Africa and South-East Asia, Saberwal points out that the "natural" landscapes we see today are a product of many centuries of human intervention. "Naturalness" then has incorporated human presence as a part of the ecosystem. Ecological research shows that practices such as setting fire to undergrowth to encourage growth of new vegetation, livestock grazing and harvesting forest produce, which have always been frowned upon by conservationists, are often ecologically sustainable and may even assist in maintaining diversity. The evidence suggests that all human activities are not necessarily incompatible with the conservation of biological diversity. Rather than blanket assertions about human intervention leading to degradation, there is a need to investigate degradation and over-extraction as context-specific processes.

Such a view of natural landscapes as produced, and not necessarily only destroyed, by human interventions has profound implications for how the project of wildlife conservation is conceived and implemented. The creation of protected enclaves for wildlife, cordoned by laws and policies that exclude local populations, is not tenable scientifically. Nor is such a strategy effective in the long run, for it provokes only hostility from forest-dwellers. Conservationists need to find new partners for their agenda, and new alliances to protect wildlife demand dialogue as well as compromise. Hope is now seen to reside in Community-based Resource Management (CBRM), an international model of partnership among Forest Departments, village-level bodies and non-governmental organisations (NGOs), which attempts to manage natural resources for multiple, mutually decided ends, marrying conservation with the securing of rural livelihoods.

Environmental activist Ashish Kothari lucidly sets out the challenges and solutions involved in moving towards the co-management of protected areas in India. He analyses the issue at various levels, moving from the ideological to the material, highlighting the need to overcome entrenched prejudices through dialogue and context-specific research on conservation, while at the same time guaranteeing tenurial security to forest-dwellers whose cooperation is solicited even as their rights are denied. Current schemes such as joint forest management and ecodevelopment, which claim to be participatory, are critically examined. Dealing with the impasse around conservation requires not merely better institutional design for the village-level committee that should be empowered to conceive and implement context-specific strategies, but also calls for changes at the level of national law and policy. The Wildlife Protection Act continues to be an instrument that concentrates power in the hands of the state and suffers from having only two rigidly defined management categories for protected areas. Kothari suggests the need for a more flexible system where forest designations are decided through a participatory process and there is greater flexibility in accommodating multiple management objectives.

While the volume makes a persuasive case for the need for greater community participation in wildlife conservation, it also acknowledges the difficulty in moving towards a framework of "co-management". Kothari cites instances of successful co-management, but these accounts are tiny in scale. While local groups may occasionally direct their energies towards regulating over-extraction, it cannot be assumed that they have an intrinsic interest in doing so. Villagers, rich and poor, may be as interested in profiting from extraction as anyone else. If a group is committed to conservation, it may be opposed by economically and politically powerful strata within the local population with their links to wider markets. Conservation has no natural constituency. While recognising that a commitment to conservation on the part of local communities cannot be assumed as a given, the volume still emphasises that the involvement of these social groups is essential to protect wildlife.

The authors suggest a system of checks and balances where different stakeholders - the Forest Department, NGOs and academics - could collaborate with the local people to stave off the threat to wildlife from unchecked industrial exploitation. Ultimately, such an alliance would have to address the contradictions of the development process itself, where affluent groups with resource-intensive lifestyles secure protected enclaves for wildlife (where tourism is another mode of consuming nature), even as poor villagers are asked to forgo their meagre gleanings from the forest for the cause of conservation. At the macro-level, conservation continues to be an elitist project. This volume concludes by pointing out the close connection between the iniquities of contemporary development as well as conservation policies. Its reasoned tone, careful analysis and political acuity make People, Parks & Wildlife a valuable contribution to the debate around protected areas. The book should be widely read and discussed, especially by those involved with conservation issues.

Amita Baviskar teaches sociology at Delhi University.

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