Conservation boomerang

  • 14/10/1995

Conservation boomerang While we can spend a lifetime debating on the issue of conflicts arising around national parks and sanctuaries (protected areas), our forests are still disappearing, the local people dependent on the forest resources are getting more and more marginalised, pressures on these areas are intensifying and ultimately, it is the timber merchants and the wild life poachers who are laughing all the way to the bank.

The workshop on "Conflict Resolution in Biodiversity Conservation" held in Bhopal in the last week of July this year, organised by the Worldwide Fund for Nature (wwf)- India, and the Environmental Planning and Coordination Organisation (epco), Bhopal, focussed on such conflicts, particularly those arising from the non-forest use of forest land. These included the regularisation of encroachment in protected areas and the forest lands outside such areas by the misutilisation of available legal provisions. Perhaps, it was also a rare occasion where representatives of industry were also recognised as key players in this process of debate and discussion.

The timing was just right, too. Even as the issue of the proposed denotification of the Narayan Sarovar Sanctuary in the Kutch district of Gujarat to facilitate lignite and limestone mining in the area, was being discussed, a news report was circulated among the participants that the Gujarat Assembly had finally passed the resolution for the denotification, effectively reducing the sanctuary area to half its former size.

Discussions centered on case studies of protected areas -- Rajaji National Park (Uttar Pradesh), Bhitarkanika Wildlife Sanctuary (Orissa), Pulicat Lake (Andhra Pradesh), Narayan Sarovar Sanctuary (Gujarat) and Melghat Tiger Reserve (Maharashtra). All these areas belong to different geographical regions and represent unique ecosystems. The areas also represent the myriad pressures facing regions of high biodiversity value. The one thing all these areas had in common was that there was some kind of encroachment on them, be it by the tribal people, or immigrants into the region, or industrialists with commercial interests.

A large part of forests in India are encroached upon, specially in the tribal regions. Official sources keep harping on the population explosion and the subsequent pressures on agricultural land as the main reason for these encroachments. They are also quick to condemn tribal people as the biggest encroachers of forest lands. Approximately 7 lakh ha of forest land was under encroachment till the early '80s, and between 1951 and 1980, 43 lakh ha of forest land was diverted to various purposes.

Tribals have been the biggest losers in the course of the nation's so-called conservation programme. Biodiversity conservation has again raked up the whole issue of displacement and the extinguishing of peoples rights. Do these people, on the basis of their long association with the land, have no legally recognisable right over it? One stroke of the pen, declaring an area a protected area, makes them, who have lived in the area for centuries, encroachers. Take the case of the Van Gujjars in the Rajaji National Park. They are being asked to clear out of their homeland, so that the government proposal to notify the area as a national park can come through.

Anees Ahmed a member of the Faculty of Law, University of Delhi, believes, "Certain human rights follow such historical associations of humans with their habitats. Legislation cannot overlook history and the natural rights of the people." In fact, many ngos are demanding the regularisation of such encroached forest lands. There are, however, apprehensions that there will be rampant deforestation once these encroachments are regularised. The issue has often been politicised, only helping in snowballing these apprehensions. The real issue is whether these tribals are encroachers at all. As Anees Ahmed correctly says, "It is ironical that urban occupiers of houses are protected by the rent act against eviction, but the forest laws turned original dwellers of the forest into second-class, almost helpless citizens."

One sixth of the world is now under protection, largely to the exclusion of people. Based on the belief that people are inherently bad for nature, the policy has excluded them from their resources the world over. In Africa, people in 2/3rd of the protected areas -- roughly 5 times the area of Great Britain -- have been evicted. In India this policy, while being instrumental in creating a vast network of 521 parks and sanctuaries, covering 148,700 sq km area, has also been responsible for the forcible eviction of some 600,000 tribals from their homes and their lands. Dispossessed, cheated and extremely angry, the displaced people are now retaliating, and in many places they have actually caused substantial damage to the protected areas. So, is the conservation process actually becoming a threat to biodiversity? Arvind Khare of the Society for the Promotion of Wasteland Development (spwd) says that the creation of protected areas has excluded people from their resources at an alarming rate.

Creating more and more protected areas and formulating anti-people draconian laws is then, definitely, not the answer. The Wildlife Protection Act, 1972, and its amended version, which came in 1991, pushed forward by Delhi-based conservationists, has totally ignored the interests of the local people whose dependence on the forests and its resources is critical. For instance, Section 9 of the Act prohibits any hunting and trapping of wildlife listed in the Act. But this law has been used more to harass and cause hardship to the local people than to curb illegal felling and poaching which continues unabated in many of the protected areas.

Even in case of livestock, a blanket rule prohibiting grazing in national parks has proved detrimental to the cause of the protected areas itself. In Bharatpur National Park, a recent study of the Bombay Natural History Society has proved that grazing was an integral part of the wetland ecosystem.

The protected areas, rich in biological and cultural diversity, also hold in their bosoms other wealths, like minerals. Not surprisingly, then, these have caught the eye of industry. The regime liberalisation, which seeks to enhance industry has boosted the demand for these resources even more, and commercial pressures groups would exert themselves in trying to pry open as many of these as possible.

These pressures have been instrumental in the recent spurt of denotification of parks and sanctuaries. The denotification of Darlaghat Sanctuary in Himachal Pradesh in 1991 to allow the entry of a cement factory is one such instance. There are also proposals to denotify a part of the Melghat Tiger Reserve and Bhitarkanika Sanctuary for similar purposes.

Increasingly now it is being seen that industry's demand for the opening up of some of the protected areas is being backed by the local people. This is not surprising, as industry is offering them not only employment opportunities, but also bringing with it all the basic amenities, like schools, roads, and hospitals. Conservationists may frown at this persistent exposure of traditional lifestyles to the urban-commercial ways of living, but they must also question what this conservation policy has, in return, given to these people, apart from high rhetoric!

While the conservationists are slow to admit that this standing-on-its-head protection policy has, in a way, failed, industry is fast realising the importance of projecting itself as a environmentally conscious social citizen. In the discussion revolving around Narayan Sarovar in Gujarat, officials from the Sanghi Industry, which has been permitted to undertaking mining in the sanctuary, put forward their case extremely coherently. They asked for the sanctuary area to be rationalised for its better management (for which they pledged commitment). They also promised the simultaneous improvement in the socioeconomic condition of the local people, and increased revenue to the national exchequer, through ecofriendly, "sustainable" utilisation of resources available in the region.

The realisation is evidently sinking in finally, that isolating people has been the outcome of an extremely myopic and ecologically irrational conservation policies. The demand for people's participation in the management of protected areas is, therefore, now gaining ground. Even hard core conservationists, who have been spouting the cause of wildlife, are now talking about a more participatory biodiversity conservation programme. But what kind of participation are they talking about? "You participate in what I say?" Or, is this demand based on a fundamental belief that the resource users perhaps are the best resource preservers, and that their traditional knowledge, based on centuries of close association with the land, can be used for a more sustainable and people-friendly conservation process? From the discussions at the workshop, it seemed that the no one was prepared to go further than just mouthing platitudes. Till such changes are not actually formulated into policies, the present laws will continue to be misused against the people, and still prove to be ineffective in preserving our protected areas and wildlife. And in this wrangling between the people and the authorities, commercial interests will be the eventual gainers.

Justice Leila Seth, member, wwf-India in her concluding remarks at the workshop related an incident from American history. A group of Americans were asked, "Who does this piece of land belong to?" They replied, "The land belongs to us"! When the same question was asked to a group of American Indians, they replied, "We belong to this land!" A conservation policy based on this ethic of traditional communities alone could provide an answer to the present dilemma.

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