Crisis in the Konkan

Creating biosphere reserves, which reconcile the interests of wildlife and humans, may save the Konkan coast

Published: Tuesday 15 June 1999

-- the 500-kilometre-long coastline between Mumbai and Goa -- the Konkan coast -- still harbours pockets of breathtaking beauty and nature in almost pristine form. Forested slopes of the Western Ghats, dense mangroves in estuaries, coral reefs, fish spawning areas, and a variety of marine flora and fauna.

On the other hand, some stretches of the coast, especially between Mumbai and Alibag, reels under the impact of Mumbai's sewerage and solid waste, industrial effluents and even oil spills from ships. Land has been acquired for industrial estates and hotels in total disregard of its ecological and social impacts. Even nature conservation proposals have only led to opposition, ire and bitterness among locals. They confer little long-term benefits to the residents in terms of income and employment, deprives them of their means of livelihood and lifestyle while threatening the biological base of their life.

With an aim to find a solution to the Konkan crisis, the World Wide Fund for Nature-India entrusted the Pune-based Ecological Society with the task of investigating the current status of the Konkan coast biodiversity, the extent to which local communities depend on it for a living, and then prepare a conservation plan keeping the local residents and traditional communities in mind.

The team prepared a regional plan which proposes five protected areas and 12 locations of social scientific interest with particular management and monitoring structures (see map: Proposed biosphere reserves ). The usual scheme of creating sanctuaries and national parks could not be applied in toto to the Konkan coastline. But the concept of biosphere reserves, which seeks to reconcile the interests of wildlife and humans, was found to be suitable in this region.

The proposed areas are to be managed in such a way as to reinforce conservation of genetic resources, ecosystems and biodiversity. Research and monitoring components are especially important in assessing the impact of pollution, and effects of traditional and modern land-use practices. Wherever possible, local knowledge and traditional practices are to be encouraged. Involvement of local people in the management of these reserves and decision-making process is imperative. The more the dissemination of correct, scientific information, the better is the likelihood of achieving sustainable use of resources. Further, the area of reserves would have to be properly zoned to allow different land-use patterns at different intensities.

This is a much better than those usually prepared by government departments. The scheme proposed here confers a lot of rights, duties and responsibilities on the local people. Are they prepared to accept these? A number of people were consulted and interviewed by the team to ascertain.

Shri Deolkar, a prominent social workers and founder of fisherfolk's organisations, spoke about the many difficulties in achieving this. According to him, the people are basically individualistic and indifferent and even apathetic wherever concerted action is required. However, pressures of modern life and "aggression" by outsiders may rouse them to action. This has been demonstrated by the fisherfolk's agitation against land acquisition by the state government for hotels and holiday resorts. Their agitation against the government's open door policy has now attained a national character with several representative organisations from west and east coasts joining hands to safeguard their interests. Then there are individuals who have taken upon themselves the task of restoring forests on lands owned by them. The task is enormous but has to be tackled if biodiversity is to be sustained, enhanced and used for the benefit of local people.

On the other hand, government organisations must come forward to show that they are responsive to people's interests, aspirations and are prepared to work with them. Nature conservation has to be based on a holistic approach which means consultation, coordination and cooperation at all levels.

Prakash Gole is director, Ecological Society, Pune

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