Wildlife & Biodiversity

We need conservation frameworks that empower, incorporate forest dwelling communities

The history of Project Tiger, which completed 50 years this year, reveals systemic exclusion of oppressed caste forest-dwelling communities

By Sandesh Gangurde, Aditya Rawat
Published: Tuesday 08 August 2023
It is crucial to reflect on the impact of Project Tiger on the lives of marginalised forest-dwelling communities in India. Photo: iStock

The world celebrated International Tiger Day on July 29, 2023. For India, this was also the 50th year of Project Tiger and its oft-touted successes. Conservation and environmental projects as huge as Project Tiger have received a lot of attention and are well-resourced. However, ground realities often reveal a stark difference. 

For instance, Project Tiger, with the goal of conserving the tiger population, pursued the creation of sacrosanct protected areas free from human interference, regulated tourism activities and enabled scientific research on tiger habitats. 

Yet it is crucial to reflect on its impact on the lives of marginalised forest-dwelling communities in India. 

The history of Project Tiger reveals the systemic exclusion of the oppressed caste forest-dwelling communities. Initially resettled under the Indian Forest Act, these communities were later affected by the Wildlife Protection Act (WPA) and Project Tiger. 

Read more: Endangered Species Day 2023: Elephants to buffaloes, creatures around us that are in danger

Over time, forest-dwelling communities mobilised and advocated for the recognition of their rights, leading to the enactment of the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act in 2006

Its enactment recognised their rights and was implemented with the aim of undoing the historical injustice that has been meted out against the forest-dwelling communities. However, poor implementation has hindered its effectiveness. 

Further, the government has persistently postponed or rejected the recognition of forest rights in tiger reserves.

In 2017, the National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA), a wing of the Union Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change, prohibited the acknowledgment of rights in critical tiger habitats. However, it is important to note that the NTCA does not possess the authority to issue such notifications. 

And even though this order was withdrawn in 2019, it has yet to have an impact on the ground. To better understand how these policy decisions impact people, we must first try to understand the underlying framework that propounds this exclusion. 

Dominant ideas of conservation

The concept of “fortress conservation,” characterised by the perception of forests as untouchable fortresses, has deep roots in the colonial era. Despite gaining independence, India’s conservation policies have often continued this framework, further alienating forest-dwelling communities. 

By treating the forest as a pristine and untouched entity, these policies have dismissed the symbiotic relationship between local communities and their natural environment, perpetuating the marginalisation of these communities.

Read more: World Lion Day: Asiatic lions used to inhabit most of southwest Asia & India

Brahminical conservation represents a casteist variation of the fortress conservation model. It not only maintains the idea of forests as inviolable but also views oppressed caste forest-dwelling communities as obstacles to conservation. 

This regressive approach uses legislation to criminalise the existence and livelihoods of these marginalised communities, perpetuating systemic injustice. Brahminical conservation overlooks the symbiotic relationship between forest-dwelling communities and forests, perpetuating harmful stereotypes in conservation efforts. 

Relocations and displacements have disrupted the traditional livelihoods and cultural connections of the forest dwelling communities to the land. Their dependence on hunting, grazing, and collecting forest resources is constrained by Protected Areas. 

The non-recognition of the mandated rights of the forest dwelling communities is still some of the most persistent issues within the country.  Therefore, issues of flawed implementation of conservation initiatives and the absence of effective mechanisms to safeguard the rights and well-being of these communities are a cause for concern all over the country.

The “Wildlife Policing” report by the litigation intervention Criminal Justice And Police Accountability Project (CPA Project) highlighted the alarming consequences of conservation, which resulted in the criminalisation of the lives and livelihoods of  forest-dwelling communities in Madhya Pradesh.  

Within the offences recorded by the Forest Department from 2016-2020, close to 78 per cent of the accused belonged to an oppressed caste community. It also  reveals that nearly two-thirds of all animals hunted were part of Schedules III or IV and fish, which are not on any protected list of animals under the WPA. 

The activity of self defence and protection of property by wild boar is considered hunting under the WPA comprising 17.47 per cent of the cases. As tigers are Schedule I animals, this is considered a serious offence under the WPA, but  from the findings, we have seen that hunting “tigers”  does not form a big number in the data. 

To create a truly inclusive and equitable approach to conservation, there must be a shift towards recognising and respecting the rights, knowledge and cultural practices of forest-dwelling communities. 

Read more: Tigers in South Africa: A farming industry exists — often for their body parts

Ever since its inception, Project Tiger has been utilised by the government to create a discord between communities and animals by pitting them against each other. Then the exclusionary framework of brahminical conservation displaces and criminalises the said communities under the guise of conservation efforts in the aforementioned manner. 

Therefore, in light of this, it becomes very pertinent the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act be implemented as efficiently and thoroughly by the states as possible, as the recognition of rights over forest lands and micro-forest produce will naturally help lower the rates of criminalisation and the subsequent financial ruin these communities face. 

Finally, in order to truly facilitate a conservation framework that can empower and incorporate forest dwelling communities, there is a need to rethink the prevalent conservation agenda.

Sandesh Gangurde is a lawyer and Litigation Consultant at Criminal Justice and Police Accountability Project and Aditya Rawat is a final year law student at NLSIU, Bangalore and is currently interning with the Criminal Justice and Police Accountability Project 

Views expressed are the authors’ own and don’t necessarily reflect those of Down To Earth

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