Protecting the Eden

By Anil Agarwal
Published: Thursday 31 October 1996

Participation is a lovely word. For long it has been twisted around to mean anything according to the whims and fancies of the user of the word. A recent study on participatory approaches to wildlife management currently being tried out in Africa, called Whose Eden? presents a wonderful list of nine different types of people's participation ( pp ). The simplest -- and if I may add, the most fraudulent -- approach to pp , it says, is akin to "I speak, you listen". The second approach is, "I have decided what I want to do. Now I want to consult you. If I like something you say I will incorporate it in my plan. But it is my choice." A third approach is, "I have got a plan of action. I have some money. I am prepared to pay you to do a few things." On the contrary, the true approach to pp would be to set up an institution consisting of the appropriate communities and stakeholders and support that institution to develop the plan of action and undertake day-to-day management.

This issue has come up because Indian ngo s have recently had a good experience of what pp means to the World Bank ( wb ). Several ngo s have strongly criticised the ecodevelopment project being jointly funded by the wb and the Global Environment Facility ( gef ) to improve the management of seven selected national parks which are today under threat. It is true that wildlife management in India is in a state of crisis. India's flagship species, the tiger, may well disappear soon; a major problem being, that wildlife managers in India neither involve the local people in the management of these parks, nor ensure that the financial benefits arising out of these parks flow to the local communities.

Though there is very little well documented evidence to show that these communities have been the key culprits in the killing of animals or in habitat degradation, they are nonetheless the first ones to face severe restrictions on their livelihoods when nature parks are set up. As a result, all over the world, local communities get alienated and turn against these parks. They support timber smugglers and animal poachers to wipe off the wildlife.

The ecodevelopment project could have provided the much needed space for the institutional innovations that are desperately needed for people's participation. But the project leaves all management decisions to the bureaucracy, while people's participation is left more or less in the same mould as "I speak, you listen". The project merely gives some monetary sops to the communities to move out of protected areas, even though the project document talks a lot about people's participation. With all this money pouring into the fund-starved wildlife bureaucracy, it will get further empowered to carry on with its dictatorial approaches. And thus stifle the innovative, community protected area management systems being developed by ngo s like the Rural Litigation Entitlement Kendra ( rlek ) in Dehra Dun with the help of the affected community, the nomadic Van Gujjars.

The wb task manager for the project, Jessica Mott, held a meeting in Delhi and Bangalore to talk to ngo s. In Delhi, the Centre for Science and Environment ( cse ) and rlek decided to attend the meeting in order to keep the dialogue going but were faced with an obdurate wb staffer. The essence of Mott's position was, "Well, here I am to speak to all of you. But the project has already been cleared by the Bank's executive board. So there is very little I can do. Everything is there in the project document. If the forest department does not respect what is stated in there, no money will be disbursed." So who will decide whether the forest department is doing what it is supposed to do? wb officials? I suggested that the wb should insist that the forest departments get the gram sabhas (village assemblies) of the local villages to give written approval of their satisfaction with the project before giving money to the forest bureaucracy. That would be true people's participation. There was golden silence from Ms Mott.

In fact, Ms Mott then began to give two pieces of pretty wonderful, gratuitous advice. Firstly, she said that Indian ngo s must learn to work with their bureaucracy, as if she throught that ngo s in this country did not know how to. And, then, began to say that "people's participation is only a means to an end and not the end in itself. I belong to a democratic society but I don't care whether my sewer works or not." I found that most preposterous. Because people's participation, as an essential element of democracy -- especially in an issue which affects the very habitat, survival and livelihoods of poor communities -- is to my mind as much a means as it is an end. Mott does not worry about sewers because they work pretty well in Washington, dc . Let a sewer get choked with human filth spilling all over the place, then we will see what she does. It was clear the ngo consultation was in the same mould described above: "I have already made up my mind. But do tell me whatever you want. I cannot promise anything." That much for ngo involvement.

The final word went to Mastuk, the red-bearded Van Gujjar present at the meeting, who asked Mott, "Madam, your organisation is called the World Bank. Is only the forest department a part of this world and we are not! Why don't you give us the money and let us take care of the nature park?" The Van Gujjar woman elected to the local panchayat (village council) said the same thing. Again, there was resounding silence.

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