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The 2002 Amendment to the Indian Wildlife Protection Act (1972) -- the bible of the conservation movement -- calls for a new category of protected areas, a 'Community Reserve' (cr). Recognising communities can take positive action to conserve natural resources, the law calls for according official recognition to such efforts. Does this mean community-based conservation has finally come of age in India? Will this new category translate into an effective regime for biodiversity conservation with real power to local communities?
There is no doubt that communities can conserve. A few years ago, I was staying in a tea estate in North-east India. Local villagers there had, in cooperation with the management, protected surrounding forests for over 100 years. Yet they had no powers to protect their forest against poachers and the timber mafia, as the land was privately owned. The estate had hornbills, leopards, and over 200 species of birds. Examples such as this abound. In Mendha village in Maharashtra, Gond tribals protect nearly 1800 hectares of forest. In Kolavipalam, local fisherfolk protect sea turtle eggs and nesting sites. In Kokrebellur in Karnataka, the endangered spot billed pelican are known as the 'daughters of the village' as they come once a year to nest on the trees on the village commons. None of these areas have been officially declared as 'protected areas'.
But will the declaration of a cr provide the much-needed support and institutional backing? Or will another State-dominated machinery impose itself on healthy, grassroots-style conservation? In this regard, some safeguards have been introduced. The law calls for a 'Community Reserve Management Committee' (crmc), the 'competent authority to prepare and implement management plans for the Reserve and to take steps to ensure the protection of the wildlife and its habitat in the Reserve'. Its representatives will be nominated from the local village panchayat or gram sabha.
So far so good. But if this policy were to translate into action, all sorts of complications arise. First, the law states that once an area is declared a cr, all provisions which apply to a sanctuary then apply to the cr. Conflicts of villagers with the forest department on the use of resources inside protected areas are legion; how will a cr ensure the same conflicts are not repeated?
Then, what about financial control? Would the crmc be provided with funds to ensure effective management, or be expected to generate funds? If the latter, isn't there a danger that a community might give out logging or mining rights, thereby compromising functions (conservation, ecosystemic) the reserve may traditionally have fulfilled?
But the most crucial question is: what kind of criteria must be fulfilled in order for an area to be declared a cr? In this regard, the law is silent. Perhaps rightly so; it is difficult to lay down any specific criteria for the sheer diversity of places that can be declared a cr in India. But this should not stop policymakers and the proponents of community-based conservation from some soul-searching on the essential ingredients of community-based conservation.
To my mind, the first and most crucial element for community-based initiative to be a success is security of tenure. Will a cr provide security to the people to use wildlife resources? If it does not, crs will fail, for where would be the incentive to conserve? In the existing system, one may argue, communities do enter the sanctuary and collect ntfps, fodder and fuel. What new benefits will a cr provide? The success of a cr, then, would lie in its ability to free local people to manage, govern and create their own rules for use of resources. The critical distinction here is between 'benevolent concessions' and actual ownership. Also, communities must, for instance, be small-scale to allow for effective organisation; have a significant dependence on wildlife and value the cultural significance of that wildlife.
The scope of cr is tremendous. But crs may also fail miserably, if badly implemented. If we want to take this concept seriously, we need to know the dynamics of working with communities. Policies can only provide a framework. For practical implementation, we require to constantly work with communities, monitor the process. We finally have a progressive law. It is now up to us to just get out there, roll up our sleeves and make this work.
Bahar Dutt is a conservation biologist who works on issues of sustainable livelihoods