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Pitting communities against conservation

By Pankaj Sekhsaria

The inclusion of two new categories of protected areas in the Wildlife Protection Act, in 2002, raised hopes that more areas would be drawn into the protected areas network, with the full participation of local communities. But concerns are being raised that the new categories could actually undermine community initiatives, creating serious conflicts on the ground

The history of wildlife conservation in India is littered with instances of conflict between the State and local communities. Particularly those communities that live in and around wildlife sanctuaries and national parks -- protected areas that have been created under the Wildlife Protection Act (WLPA) of 1972. Conservative estimates put the figure at between 3 and 6 million people who are dependant on the land and resources of protected areas for their basic survival.

Denial of this right is bound to result in some form of conflict. The most prominent of these in recent times was the incident in Muthanga, in the Wayanad Wildlife Sanctuary in Kerala, where tribals claiming their right to the land were killed in police firing.

Such conflicts result from both the conceptualisation of conservation law and policy at one level and the obvious issue of their implementation.

The WLPA is a law that is essentially exclusionary. It does not acknowledge the history of communities living in and around 'protected areas' and therefore does not allow their participation in conservation initiatives. In many ways these communities are considered primary enemies of conservation; they then become the entity that wildlife and wilderness areas need to be 'protected against'.

Efforts have been on for some time to bring about a change in the law. A section of conservationists and social activists have consistently argued that for conservation to be meaningful and successful it will have to take in the thousands of communities that live in and around areas that are rich in wildlife. And that for this the law needs to acknowledge these efforts and also allow the participation of communities in conservation initiatives.

The efforts seemed to have borne fruit when, after a long and detailed process, the WLPA was amended in late-2002 with the inclusion of two new categories of protected areas -- 'conservation reserve' and 'community reserve'. The move was hailed in many quarters and hopes raised that more areas would be brought into the protected area network, with the help and full participation of communities living in and around them. Almost a win-win situation.

Almost immediately there were proposals for the declaration of areas as either conservation or community reserves. In Gujarat, for example, the forest department (FD) suggested that it wanted to declare the Wadvana wetland, located about 50 km from Vadodara, a community reserve. More recently, the Assam government suggested the same category for the Hakama Beel (lake) in the state's Dhubri district. In Goa and Orissa, community reserve status was suggested for the turtle-nesting beaches of Morjim and Rushikulya respectively. In Manipur, the forest department came up with a list of areas that could be turned into community reserves. And the Sikkim forest department suggested the creation of conservation reserves in high altitude alpine regions of the state.

But is all this possible? What exactly does the amended law say? How will it be implemented and how will it be made operational on the ground? What could be the implications?

In an effort to take the understanding forward, analyse the new situation and answer some of these questions, Kalpavriksh, the Wildlife Trust of India (WTI) and the Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS) came together in February to organise a national workshop on the subject.

The meeting began with an acknowledgement that there could be potential in these categories to support and recognise the conservation efforts of communities across the country. And that this was finally the long-awaited legal backing that both communities and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) had been asking for. The workshop involved long and intense discussions on the new categories and their provisions, including, through the use of actual examples, potential sites for declaration. However, as the meeting progressed and the specifics of the amendments were discussed it became clear that the hopes were far off the mark.

What emerged was a disappointing, even worrying picture. Participants at the workshop concluded that in their present form the categories and their provisions were ineffective and largely unusable in the case of most community conservation initiatives. This was, in fact, notthe enabling legislation that had been hoped for. Strong concerns were raised that the new categories, rather than help and support community initiatives, could in many cases actually undermine them and create serious conflicts on the ground.

Take the example of community reserves. To begin with these can only be declared on lands that are 'not owned' by the government and only those that are with the community. The provision enables the forest department to have a say in what happens on the land. It's like allowing the state government a foot in the door and lands of the community, where they had none earlier. Another clause makes the category even more redundant. Once declared a community reserve, the community cannot make any change in land use without permission from the state government. The only say the community would have would be as members of a state government-appointed Community Reserve Management Committee, which will be the authority responsible for conserving, maintaining and managing the community reserve. The question is obvious. If indeed the land has to be conserved, and communities are playing that role anyway, why create a framework that undermines the communities' ownership, authority and initiative?

It is also clear that the details of the new categories are not in consonance with the realities on the ground. A large number of community conservation initiatives (generally called community conserved areas [CCAs]) are actually on government land, be they forests, grasslands or wetlands. There are various institutional arrangements and situations in which these CCAs operate, including, for example, sacred tanks and sacred groves that exist all over the country; heronries (bird-nesting sites) like in many parts of southern India; traditional van panchayats in the hills of Uttaranchal; and newer initiatives like joint forest management. Most of these can simply not be declared community reserves, as the land does not belong to the communities.

The category that does apply then is the other one -- the conservation reserve. The Community Reserve Management Committee will manage these areas. The community has virtually no say or power in this committee.

The statement issued at the end of the February workshop spelt it out clearly. "If it is assumed," it read "that these categories were brought in with the following two intentions: a) to initiate a participatory conservation programme in areas rich in biodiversity but also supporting large human populations; and b) to legally support areas where local communities have already initiated some action towards conservation; then, in both kinds of situations, the two categories fall way short of achieving the stated objective and for most existing efforts of community conservation may even be a step in the wrong direction. There would be an extremely limited number of situations in which they may be applicable and beneficial."

The fundamental issue here is that the state simply refuses to trust communities to conserve and protect, even in areas where there is a long history of successful initiatives by such communities.

Just by naming a category 'conservation' or 'community' reserve does not mean things will change. What is needed is a willingness to alter the existing power structure; reposing faith in the people who have made the initiative worthy of inclusion under the category in the first place. It is not the change in nomenclature that is important. What one needs is a change of heart and attitude.

Any indications of that, unfortunately, are simply not visible.

Conservation reserves and community reserves of Wildlife (Protection) Amendment Act 2002

Conservation reserves : "The state government may, after having consultations with the local communities, declare any area owned by the government, particularly the areas adjacent to national parks and sanctuaries and those areas which link one protected area with another, as a conservation reserve for protecting landscapes, seascapes, flora and fauna of their habitat."

"The state government shall constitute a conservation reserve management committee to advise the chief wildlife warden to conserve, manage and maintain the conservation reserve."

Community reserves : "The state government may, where the community or an individual has volunteered to conserve wildlife and its habitat, declare any private or community land not comprised within a national park, sanctuary or conservation reserve, as a community reserve, for protecting fauna, flora and traditional or cultural conservation values and practices."

"The state government shall constitute a Community Reserve Management Committee, which shall be the authority responsible for conserving, maintaining and managing the community reserve."

"The committee shall consist of five representatives nominated by the village panchayat or where such a panchayat does not exist by the members of the gram sabha and one representative of the state forests or wildlife department under whose jurisdiction the community reserve is located."

(Pankaj Sekhsaria is an environmentalist with Kalpavriksh, a Pune-based environmental action group)

InfoChange News & Features, September 2004