A road to nowhere

By Anil Agarwal
Published: Thursday 30 April 1998

There is a standard rule amongst environmental officials that says that if you want to protect major species like the tiger or eco-systems, it is important to throw the people out of the protected area. But is this idea which originated in the West where nature is seen as wilderness, appropriate to a country like India?

India is a country with a heavy population density and a large pro-portion of the population surviving within a biomass-based subsistence economy for millennia. Human nature interactions have been both intense and extensive. It is today rare to find a pristine eco-system. What we see today are largely 'modified ecosystems', modified over millennia due to intense human-nature interactions. For example, if cattle grazing undertaken by rural communities inside a forest were to suppress certain forms of floral diversity, there would also be impacts on the faunal biodiver-sity that would come live if the human interaction with the ecosystem were to be removed or modified, there would be repercussions throughout the eco-system - some of which could even be negative for the conservation of the existing biodiversity, including the flagship species that we aim to protect.

Given this reality, one would have thought that agencies like the government of India would undertake a serious study of human-nature interactions and their impacts before declaring any area a national park. Only such a study would give a detailed picture of which human interactions are proving to be negative as compared to those which are proving to be positive. Once such an understanding is available, an action plan could be developed in consultation with the people to reduce those acti-vities which affect the biodiversity adversely and enhance those which affect the biodiversity positively. And all this could be possible without any relocation of people and disturbance of their livelihood and survival systems. But such studies which would provide the scientific rationale, if any exists, for relocation have never been conducted by the government of India, which shows how poor is the scientific basis of biodiversity conservation and nature park management in this country. The World Bank officials who responded to the ngo criticism of the World Bank- gef Ecodevelopment project which aims to set up a model for nature park management in India, at the recent Assembly of the Global Environ-ment Facility in New Delhi, argued that ngo s should give the project a chance to work because it was a well thought through, state-of-the-art project. And that the project provides for only voluntary relocation and not forced relocation. Unfortunately, it is hard to believe that this is a well-thought through project because no studies have been conducted to provide a scientific rationale even to think of relocation on a prima facie. The project clearly suffers heavily from Western prejudices in nature park management and fails to take into account Indian ecological realities. All this just goes to show how unscientific this entire eco-development project in particular and nature park management in India in general have become.

Indian conservationists are not providing any leadership in this area either. A recent report in the Indian Express quoted M K Ranjitsinh, a former official of the Ministry of Environment and Forests and currently associated with the World Wildlife Fund saying that human-animal conflicts are growing around protected areas and that this is a major cause of tiger deaths. Another conservationist, Valmik Thapar, is quoted as saying, "Tigers will continue to decrease and may also disappear by 2010, except in a very few remote areas." Though Ranjitsinh points out the delays in compensating local people whose cattle are killed by tigers, and therefore to need to do so fast to reduce resentment, he, however, fails to present a holistic picture of how the human-animal conflicts can be resolved. This is, in fact, a weakness of the World Wildlife Fund in general whose conservation programmes are based in weak science and a weak understanding of human livelihood systems.

It is strange how slow Indians are to learn from their mistakes, especially when the mistakes affect the poor. The police firing in Bharatpur in 1982 is a fine example of how terrible mistakes can be made by the country's conservation machinery. Soon after the Bharat-pur bird sanctuary was turned into a national park, the authorities stopped villagers from grazing their cattle inside the park. On November 7, 1982, police opened fire on protesting villagers and killed six people (unofficially seven). A Bombay Natural History Society researcher in Bharatpur was critical of the move. He argued that grazing was healthy - cattle droppings are good fertiliser, forest fires are prevented when animals eat up dry grass, weeds are checked and insects, food for birds, breed in the droppings. With grazing stopped, grass began to grow unchecked and birds began to avoid those areas. What is amazing is that the Bharatpur example has not been learnt by anyone, even after killing so many people. And because the affected people are poor, even the country's politicians don't care to bring order to the rule books. The tribals of Nagarhole and the Gujars of Rajaji National Park have every legitimate right to fight back. It is the conservationists who should first get their act together.

Anil Agarwal

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