Conserving wildlife as if democracy matters

Since 2006, the environment ministry has demarcated and declared thirty-nine Critical Tiger Habitats—the core of our tiger reserves. Every one of them, wrote activist CR Bijoy recently, is illegal. To understand this extraordinary allegation, we need to step back in time, to our most recent “tiger crisis”.

One morning in the summer of 2005, our country woke up to the news that the national animal had disappeared from Sariska, a well-funded tiger reserve close to Delhi. Public shock and outrage followed, and the government set up a Task Force to look into why the tiger had declined and what could be done to reverse this.

While the Tiger Task Force toured the country, meeting and speaking with a variety of people to understand why India’s premier conservation programme, Project Tiger, had failed, some conservationists were busy with another set of debates. These concerned the upcoming Forest Rights Bill, which proposed to confer rights to adivasis and forest dwellers over lands they lived on and the forest resources they used. The bill ran afoul of conservationists and foresters who feared that recognising people’s rights would jeopardize the already fragile protection of forests and wildlife. They also felt that these rights over forests and resources within would worsen the pressure these habitats already experience from firewood harvest, cattle grazing, collection of forest produce and other local livelihood activities.

Recognising the rights of forest-dwelling communities is key to gaining their support for conservation

But, existing forest and wildlife conservation laws such as the Wild Life (Protection) Act of 1972 (WLPA) already provided for the recognition and settlement of some of the rights of local communities. So, why was a new law being drafted with very similar provisions??

For a rather simple but disturbing reason: while creating most wildlife sanctuaries and national parksForest Departments had not implemented the available provisions to recognise and settle the rights of local people. As a result, for several decades, millions of people in our forests and wildlife reserves have lived in the fear that they could be declared trespassers and removed from their lands anytime.

Seeking to correct this miscarriage of the law, adivasi groups campaigned for change and the Forest Rights Act (FRA) came into effect in 2006. This law effectively took away the sweeping powers of government departments to settle rights and greatly empowered the gram sabha.

Interestingly, several of the concerns that adivasi rights groups raised also figured in the Tiger Task Force report. It noted that people sharing lands and forests with the tiger often suffered because of selective implementation of the laws that protected the tiger. And this in turn eroded local support for the protection of the tiger and its habitat. The report stressed that without taking local people’s concerns into account, ongoing conservation measures risked failure.

Until this point, conservation policy in India was enforced from top down. That it was possible—and in fact necessary—to build conservation ground up, seemed a dangerous new idea. But to succeed in India, conservation could not continue to remain a middle class concern for which the rural poor paid the price. If we were to end the hostility local communities felt towards the current manner of implementing wildlife conservation, they would not only have to become partners in conservation, they would also have to benefit from conservation.

The opportunity to do conservation in this democratic participatory way existed from the beginning but unfortunately we chose backdoor means. Instead of creating conservation policies by involving all concerned people with their differing opinions, conservationists believed it would be easier to do this with government officials and people in power. And despite efforts to change things by amending conservation laws, this trend continues, allege activists like Bijoy.

The Wild Life Protection Act was amended in 2006 to make conservation more fair to local people. Now, the WLPA and FRA both make it mandatory to recognise and settle the rights of local communities and obtain their written consent before declaring a tiger reserve. Yet, Forest Departments have declared several new tiger reserves with scant regard for the ongoing FRA’s rights settlement process. Nor has informed consent of rights-holders been obtained, prompting activists to term these reserves “illegal”.

This stand-off between conservationists and tribal rights groups is tragic and undermines both their goals.

It was not wildlife and conservation laws that stalled Vedanta Aluminium in Orissa’s Niyamgiri forests but the company’s failure to satisfy the requirements of the FRA. With such a legal precedent, conservationists have had to grudgingly acknowledge that while the FRA is mainly meant to uphold the rights of forest dwelling people, doing so could also help save their forests.

Similarly, the amended WLPA has strong provisions for safeguarding local people’s rights even while securing the needs of endangered tiger. Both these laws have been crafted with necessary safeguards for both disempowered people and wildlife. What they need is a sensitive and complete implementation through new and creative partnerships.

Going forward, the rights of the forest dwellers must be recognized just as much as the needs of wildlife must be secured. The way we chose to do conservation for the last four decades years is not only undesirable, it is simply illegal today. If we want a conservation that is not only effective but also sustainable, we have no option but to bring in greater democracy in the way we implement conservation.

Many conservationists continue to lament that the Forest Rights Act closes the doors on conservation of forests and wildlife. This is perhaps true. But, to be sure, what is closing are the dim back-alleys and backdoors to conservation. Even as the shutters come down on these shortcuts, the front-gates of conservation have opened wider than ever before. And it is entirely up to us which entrance we choose to take as we move forward to conserve our wildlife.

– M D Madhusudan & Pavithra Sankaran (An edited version appeared in the Times of India dated 4 March 2011)

3 thoughts on “Conserving wildlife as if democracy matters

  1. Very thoughtful and well written. I do hope there are more instances like the vedanta issue where local people fought it out. I do wonder though what the implications of fra are for the north east where seventy percent of the land is controlled by the communities themselves.

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