Better wild than never

By Sunita Narain
Published: Thursday 28 February 2002

IT HAS taken 20 long years for the Indian wildlife community to even acknowledge that human beings exist and that "man-animal" conflicts are growing in and around our national parks and sanctuaries. And, I presume that if it has taken them 20 years to accept something that is pretty much under their noses, then it will take another 20 years to come up with solutions of how people can work with and not against conservation.

Therefore, my comments may seem harsh to many in the wildlife community who can quite rightly boast that they have "grown up" now. The recent meeting of the powerful Indian Board for Wildlife, for the very first time in its history, had an item on "man-animal" conflicts. The prime minister, who chaired the meeting, made the right noises about "protecting the interests of poor and tribals living in or near protected areas". The National Wildlife Action Plan for 2002 to 2016, which has been adopted at the meeting, has a separate chapter on "ensuring peoples' support and participation in wildlife conservation" and accepts the fact, for once, that "the enforcement of wildlife management strategies leads to alienation of people and loss of their support, which compounds the already impaired efficacy of conservation".

Incredible. Look at the enormous cost in terms of loss of animals and people before our wildlife community has recognised something so simple. Our forests are not wilderness areas, like the US, where large areas can be fenced off and protected for a single conservation objective. Our forests are habitats and therefore, wildlife strategies will never work without the involvement of communities who cohabit these lands. Today, we have tension in just about every protected area, where local communities would rather befriend poachers than the forest guard. This is not new. But it is important to recognise that the level of tension is increasing and that unless the government plans to put a gun and guard to protect just about every tree and wild animal, we will not have very much left of our natural habitat in the near future.

In this scenario, I would have expected more than the grudging acceptance of this problem in the national action plan. The plan has three concrete recommendations, besides its many platitudes. One, government must compensate poor communities for the damage caused to life and property by wild animals. Two, a "conscious" effort must be made by government to ensure that "as far as possible" relocation of people living in our protected areas must be done in a "participatory manner". It does say that in addition it should be undertaken on a "voluntary basis" or people should be persuaded to leave. Three, people should be assisted to find alternative income generation and economic options, "outside the protected area".

These may be important breakthroughs given the antiquated nature of our wildlife establishment. But given reality and given the fact that these half-hearted solutions have been tried and tested to have failed, change is imperative.

In the mid 1990s we started the eco-development programme, precisely because we found that local community support was vital for conservation to work. The grand programme, with money and opinions from the World Bank, we said, even then, did not go far enough. It was based on the premise that people were a "biotic interference" in our parks and we needed to find some way to occupy their attention with income generation strategies so that they turn their backs on the park. And leave the serious business of conservation to foresters and wildlife managers.

Five years later there is no learning from the eco-development projects that is even mentioned in the national wildlife strategy. It merely mouths the same prescription.

This when there is a need to innovate. It is clear that we will have to change the terms of engagement so that local communities do not participate in a government programme but there is control and ownership over the idea and its implementation. This is more difficult. And perhaps there is no one prescription for every protected area. Unless we try different strategies, and try them seriously, how will we know what works. We already know what does not work.

There are examples from other parts of the world where rights over tourism or over conservation or even culling of animals have been given to local communities. In India, we have numerous local groups with numerous fascinating proposals to do more of the same and mind-willing we could experiment and even perhaps move ahead with our conservation agenda.

But for this, if I may add, we need to start small. As it stands today, the so-called reconstitution of the wildlife board comprises the same wildlife coterie, which was in the last, and perhaps, even in the one before. Changing policies is not easy. But you start with changing people who drive policy, first.

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