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Who"s the safekeeper?

COMMUNITIES AND CONSERVATION: NATURAL RESOURCE MANAGEMENT IN SOUTH AND CENTRAL ASIA' Edited by Ashish Kotharl and Neema Pathak, et al-Sage Publications, New Delhi, 1998, Rs 325

Published: Tuesday 15 December 1998

The Gujjars depend on the fore (Credit: Rustam Vania / cse)IT HAS been made patently clear that government designed and implemented conservation projects flounder if local communities are not included in the decisionmaking process. It is the indigenous people who live close to natural resources, and who directly depend on them for meeting their daily requirements. Therefore, it is they who bear the brunt when conservation projects go awry. Unless these people realise that they have to act collectively and take some tough decisions, life is only going to get tougher for them. Beyond a point, simply making a noise will just not do.

There has been a gradual shift in natural resource conservation strategies from government controlled mechanisms to community regulated systems the world over. Communities and conservation... is a compilation of papers presented at a United Nations'Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) -sponsored regional workshop on "community-based conservation: policy and practice" which focuses on South and Central Asian countries.

Loosely defined as conservation where local communities are involved in decision- making, community-based conservation takes various forms. The catalyst may be the community itself, the state or a non-government organization (NGO).

But community-based systems do raise a number of questions that need to be addressed before any success can be ensured. This is what the first section attempts to address. Why community-based conservation? How? And then the million dollar question, "Is it really sustainable?"

Experiences from India, Maldives, Mongolia, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka have been recounted. The book goes on to discuss the issues that emerge from each country's experiences. What is common between all these countries is that there is a clear absence of policy initiatives and a reluctance on the part of the government to involve indigenous communities. The experience in Sri Lanka has shown that community participation alone is not enough. NGos and the government are essential to attain the goal. Legal documents are not in place. Sometimes, even the time of intervention by the various players is important. A model linking land and people where biodiversity is valued, accountability ensured, conservation efforts suitably rewarded and finances generated is proposer for India.

The book focuses on studies and experiences from India, leading one to believe that it is here that community-based conservation efforts abound and are thus a huge success. Barring one, all other seven case studies are of Indian origin. It is not clear whether this is due to a lack of community-based conservation in other countries. Nevertheless, the cases make interesting reading, spread as these are from efforts in the Chinnar Sanctuary in Kerala to the Nanda Devi Biosphere Reserve (NDBR) in the UttarPradesh Himalaya.

The NDBR is a case that most vividly brings out the result of making "natural resources out of bounds". The people living in the buffer zone of this reserve have their hands full. The points of conflict are many. Villagers find most of their channels of earning a livelihood blocked. In villages where the grazing lands fell into the core zone, a strictly no entry area, villagers had no option but to give up some of their animals. Barring mushrooms, removal of non-timber forest produce is banned. Wild animals are killing livestock -and destroying crops.

The case studies highYig@xt tne importance'Di ecxucating communities which live closest to natural resources, the necessity of judicious utilisation. It also provides some useful tips to policy-makers: take along with you the people whose resources you claim to protect, base your decisions on their needs and suggestions and, when these communities flounder or seek assistance, step in.

In areas rich in natural resources, unless the people are actively involved, have a stake and take it on themselves to conserve, any formula that seems to have a chance of success may fail miserably.

Natural resources are not infinite. They need to be used judiciously. The human race - be it stockholders or the official custodians of resources - has to consider itself as part of the environment. Environment is not there to be plundered at will. There has to be harmony, or at least a semblance of it.

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