Sensitive zones

Published : Feb 29, 2008 00:00 IST

INSIDE THE CORBETT National Park, Uttarakhand. CWHs are notifiedwithin existing national parks and sanctuaries to keep them "inviolate".-

INSIDE THE CORBETT National Park, Uttarakhand. CWHs are notifiedwithin existing national parks and sanctuaries to keep them "inviolate".-

Conservations latest buzzword is critical wildlife habitat, or CWH. Introduced within the Forest Rights Act, this term (and its equivalent, critical tiger habitat under the Wildlife Protection Act) is already creating ripples and also confusion. Some communities fear mass displacement, others consider it a potential ally in protecting forests; some conservation groups are excited by the prospect it offers, others predict that it will weaken an already beleaguered protected area network. Where does the truth lie?

Critical wildlife habitats are notified within existing national parks and sanctuaries for the purpose of keeping them inviolate. Once notified, these cannot be diverted for any other purpose. The term inviolate could include areas with no human use to areas with small-scale human activities that are compatible with conservation. The location and extent of CWHs need to be determined through sound scientific criteria.

The Acts also specify that in such areas, relocation of people can take place only if it is established that co-existence between human communities and wildlife is not possible, and if the communities give their informed consent. For the first time in the conservation history of India, forcible displacement of people has been made illegal.

There has been considerable arbitrariness and ad hocery in the matter of location, boundaries and types of protected areas (PAs) declared over the last three or four decades though they have provided tremendous worth in safeguarding wildlife and ecosystem benefits. But the CWH provisions are an opportunity to re-evaluate the network, identify the most crucial sites for conservation and redesign the mechanisms to protect them.

Given that Indias land-use patterns and resource-demands have changed dramatically in the past few decades, it is probable that many areas considered critical for wildlife three or four decades ago are no longer as important. The converse is equally true: many areas overlooked for their lack of wildlife value are today absolutely critical for the survival of many an endangered species. Moreover, we are not sure if the entire range of our biodiversity is adequately covered in the PA network. Are some of our critically endangered amphibians, for instance, getting the conservation attention they need?

The CWH process can lead to more site-specific and species-based approaches, from those that require total freedom from human use to those that actually thrive with human influence. Many wetlands survive because of human use and have suffered when such use has been stopped under a uniform regime of conservation. In the case of the Keoladeo (Bharatpur) National Park, a ban on buffalo-grazing led to the rampant growth of the Paspalum weed, making the ecosystem inhospitable for many species including the Siberian Crane. On the other hand, uncontrolled human activity in many other areas continues to result in degradation. It is a myth that all traditional activities are sustainable.

CWHs also provide space to review the way in which we do conservation. Given that the model of fortressed PAs is being challenged by dispossessed communities and is beginning to crumble without public support, can we use more participatory approaches? Can we provide more powers and responsibilities to local communities to conserve their surrounds? Across the world, collaborative management of PAs (CMPAs) and community conserved areas (CCAs) are emerging as alternatives to the conventional government-dominated PA model.

Implementation of the CWH provisions (and equivalent ones regarding Critical Tiger Habitats, or CTH) is likely to be highly problematic. Of greatest concern is the set of Guidelines on CWH and CTH issued by the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) in October 2007. In these:

1. The criteria for identifying a CWH are vague and scientifically questionable.

2. The participation of forest-dwelling communities in the process of declaration of a CWH is given as optional.

3. State governments are not required to consult independent ecologists and social scientists at all stages.

These guidelines are leading to a haphazard process in many States, especially as they specify very tight timelines. Initial news reports suggest that State governments are rushing to declare critical habitats. Whether these declarations (mostly relating to tiger reserves) have been issued after following due process is debatable.

Local communities in Buxa, West Bengal, have protested against the Forest Department declaring the whole of Buxa National Park and Buxa Wildlife Sanctuary as a critical habitat, thereby raising the fear of mass displacement. Non-governmental organisations (NGOs) in Orissa report that there is great confusion on the ground in places such as Satkosia (declared a tiger reserve in January 2008) with forest officials claiming to have consulted communities and the latter saying no one has approached them.

One major source of confusion is that governments seem to be interpreting the term inviolate necessarily to mean devoid of human use, thereby requiring relocation. As explained above, the term could also include strategies of minimising human use to levels compatible with conservation objectives.

There is also a lack of clarity on the management of CWHs. The Forest Rights Act provides communities a right to claim forest patches under customary use for conservation and management. If these happen to fall within a CWH (or for that matter within any PA declared under the Wildlife Protection Act), who will have the control over the area? What will be the precise relation between the relevant gram sabhas and the Forest Department? If no binding conservation duties have been assigned to forest-dwelling communities, how will they be held accountable? If the Forest Department does not assist communities in conserving their forests, can it be pulled up?

In response to this potential for confusion and conflicts, the Future of Conservation in India Network (FoC) has put forward an alternative set of guidelines for State governments to use. The FoC is a network of ecological and social organisations committed to effective and equitable conservation of biodiversity. The guidelines, prepared for both critical tiger and critical wildlife habitats, highlight the following:

1. In identifying critical habitats, a mix of approaches is needed to secure wildlife and ecosystems. These include areas of no use, minimal use and extensive use.

2. The size of each critical habitat must be based on ecological principles and all available knowledge. Particular attention must be on threatened species. This should also consider the feasibility in situations such as where the rights-holder population is large or the communities involved are particularly vulnerable.

3. The process should be participatory and open to public inputs from the time of identification and planning to the time of implementation. It should involve national/State/local experts, representatives of traditional long-resident and user communities and government staff.

Already civil society organisations and officials in some States have begun to move in these directions. People in the Biligiri Rangaswamy Temple Wildlife Sanctuary (Karnataka), three PAs in Ladakh (Jammu & Kashmir, though the Act is not yet applicable here) and several sanctuaries in Orissa have begun mapping resource uses, important wildlife areas and other land uses.

The CWH process is going to be troublesome and jerky, given the poor state of readiness amongst the bureaucracy and civil society in most parts of the country. But we have a historic opportunity to turn the face of conservation away from conflicts and growing failure and towards building long-term public support based on the integration of conservation, livelihoods and democracy.

Arshiya Bose and Ashish Kothari
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