People or bust

By Anil Agarwal
Last Updated: Thursday 11 June 2015

Kenya and Sri Lanka are an ocean apart. But they are also wide apart from each other in their strategies for wildlife conservation. While the former is moving towards involving the community, the latter remains stuck in anti-people conservationist strategies. In order to protect the world's biodiversity, the Sri Lankan government, like the Indian government - talks of solidarity amongst South Asian official bullies! - has decided to destroy its own cultural diversity, which is just as important to protect as biodiversity.

On November 10, 1983, Sri Lanka created a new national park, which made the Wanniya-laeto, also known as the Veddahs, people who have lived on the island for over 28,000 years, illegal citizens in their own land. Till the Sinhalese arrived, about 2,500 years ago, the Wanniya-laeto, who now number only 2,000, were all over the island. The Committee for Human Rights established by the American Anthropological Association (AAA) a few months ago, has sent its first letter of protest to the Sri Lankan Prime Minister against the treatment of the Wanniya-laeto people, who can no longer continue in their traditional ways as forest-dwellers. Says Wiveca Stegeborn, a graduate student at Syracuse University, "Over the centuries, the Warmiya-laeto have graduallyretreated and retreated, until now they have no place to go except this last patch of jungle that's now been taken away from them in the name of making it a game park." The Wanniya-laeto havebeen forced out of the jungle, they havespilt into several far-flung villages, where they cannot follow their traditional ways. They have become dependent on government welfare or have to undertake the most menial labour.

For the first time, the AAA is turning activist and joining other groups to protest against the executing of the Ogoni leaders in Nigeria and the seizing of Yanornami Indian tribal lands in Brazil and Venezuela by gold miners. One reason for the new activism amongst anthropologists is the realisation that the rate of disappearance of cultures has become a serious problem. Says one anthropologist at the University of Washington, "At least a third of the world's inventory of human cultures have disappeared completely since 1500 AD." Many anthropologists also feel indebted to these threatened people. As Tom Greaves, chairperson of the Committee for Human Rights puts it, "When you live for months in a community, when the success of your field work depends on the generosity and patience of people who probably didn't invite you but who took you in any way, a bond of friendship and mutual obligation results. When they encounter abuse, we feel a need to act."

Sadly, the Sri Lankan government is not only mindless and stupid - like India, if I may add - but is essentially playing out a game that the West wants it to play. First, the Europeans came to inhabit the Americas and indulged in a brutal cultural massacre. Then in the 20th century, some descendants of these criminals discovered biodiversity and wildlife conservation as areas of concern and began to educate the stupid Third Worlders on the importance of saving the tiger even if it meant destroying the people. These goons got institutions like World Wide 'Fund for Nature and numerous others to flourish all over the world and then backed up the brown conservationists by sending their Prince Philips to meet the local Prime Ministers and Presidents, which, naturally, impressed them no end. Of course, these sahibs and their bureaucrats could not come up with any humane, and culturally and nationally relevant strategy to save the wildlife and the people on their own. They could not even think ahead about how ineffective would their strategy be in the long run.

Well, at least, that arch conservationist country, Kenya, is learning a belated lesson. Stung by all the criticism of Richard Leakey, who arrogantly put elephants above the Masai and finally got thrown out for political differences with President Daniel Arap Moi, the government has encouraged 840 Masai families to set up the country's first community wildlife sanctuary - the Kimana. Community Wildlife Sanctuary (KCWS). The KCWS borders the famous Amboseli National Park and is owned by the Masai people. All tourist revenue goes to them. The first week brought a mere 17 tourists and us $170. Paul L Ole Nangoro, KCWS chairperson, estimates that the park must earn us $130,000 in the first year to win over his, communities doubters. Already, the Masai are changing their attitude towards the much hated wildlife - lions which kill their cattle and elephants which destroy their crops. Two months ago, 40 warriors assembled to kill a pride of lions that had devoured 15 goats. But Nangoro and his colleagues convinced them that it was not a good idea because of the benefits that the sanctuary would bring to them over time.

The Community Wildlife Service - as the Kenyan programme is called - aims to enroll nomads and farmers in conservation programmes, for profit to the local people. In principle, I don't see any reason why the programme will not succeed, provided the government ensures that it is widely publicised so that tourists throng. Besides, Western firms heavily dominate Kenyas tourism industry and these will ultimately be threatened by the community sanctuaries, The government will thus have to keep a strict control over the industry. I am sure the people will play their role, but whether the government will play its expected role hilly is still to be seen.

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