India’s Culture Of Conservation
The last few centuries have been dominated by human beings, and are referred to by some scholars as ‘anthropocene’, or a period of human domination over the planet. This domination, as we know, has impacted the planet, leading to, among other things, the rapid depletion of wildlife and their habitat. In the last few decades, growing human populations and their consumption levels, accompanied by greater need for water, electricity, metal, food, housing and other luxury items has led to the quick erosion of other species. This loss of species has been guesstimated by various scholars at anywhere between one per hour to one per day.
Does this mean that human beings are not at all concerned about other species and their habitats? This is not entirely true, for human beings have always either set aside areas for protection and conservation of species or followed lifestyles and cultural values that are harmonious with the needs of other species. The earliest known examples in India of areas being set aside to provide protection to the species living in them are from around 300 BC, during the time of Emperor Ashoka. The administration of Emperor Ashoka is known to have had a clear-cut policy of exploiting and protecting natural resources (including wild fauna), with specific officials tasked with protection duty. In the subsequent years, many different rulers followed similar policies. In addition, over 600 different tribes and non-tribe local people who lived in and depended on natural resources and wild flora and fauna for their subsistence, livelihoods, cultural and religious way of life have also been practising conservation in different ways.
One of the best known examples of this is the practice of protecting sacred spaces and elements. These were areas or species left largely untouched because of the religious sentiments associated with them. They could include patches of forest, lakes and ponds, high-altitude valleys or peaks, islands, marine stretches, mangroves, grasslands and nearly every other kind of ecosystem. Such sacred areas were associated with certain deities that resided in them and fear of the deity bringing ill-fortune prevented people from violating the rules of these sacred spaces. Extraction of resources, if at all, happened after following intricate religious rituals. Many of these sacred elements continue to survive even today, although because of changing social and cultural environments they too are slowly becoming eroded.
According to one estimate, sacred sites and species were once extremely widespread across India, covering perhaps 10 per cent of many regions. These included forest groves, village tanks, Himalayan grasslands and individual species such as langur, nilgai, elephant, ficus species, etc. Unfortunately, commercialisation, cultural change, population increase, and development projects have destroyed many of these sites. But though fewer in number and coverage, they are still common. Professor K C Malhotra and other researchers estimate that there may still be between 100,000 and 150,000.
Many of these sacred groves have preserved remnant populations of rare and endemic species, sometimes in their original and undisturbed form, that have been wiped out elsewhere. In general, such areas are quite small (sometimes only a handful of trees), but there are also large ones like the Mawphlang sacred grove in Meghalaya which covers 75 hectares. These could also include large landscapes, also referred to as sacred natural sites/landscapes such as the state of Sikkim, which according to Ramakrishnan, is sacred to the local Buddhist population who believe that in the 7th century ACE Lord Padma Sambhava (a great Indian saint), on his way to Tibet had hidden many treasures or Ters here. Ney-sol, a Buddhist directory of holy places, describes the area below Mount Khangchendzonga in West Sikkim (referred to as Demojong) as most sacred and the abode of Sikkim’s deities. This entire region is also referred to as Yuksam, and includes seven holy lakes surrounding Khangchendzonga, the sacred river Rathong Chu, and 109 hidden lakes. Every landscape of highland, middle land and low land and every river, stream, cave, and big tree is believed to have guardian deities.
Approximately 2,770 sacred groves have been recorded in the Konkan and ghat areas of Maharashtra. Some of them are still managed well, others are under grave threat. These include the famous Bhimashankar and Ahupe deorai in Bhimashankar Wildlife Sanctuary, Durgubaicha Kila and others between Bhimashankar and Kalsubai Harishchandragad Wildlife Sanctuaries. Ajeevali village in Pune district manages a protected site for both spiritual and commercial reasons.
In addition, there have been numerous examples of communities protecting different plant and animal species for religious or cultural purposes. For example, protection of blackbuck, peacocks, protection of freshwater turtles in temple tanks, protection of fish such as mahseer or trout in river stretches, protection of keystone species such as the banyan (Ficus bengalensis) and many others.
When the British first came to India in the 17th century, this element of Indian society left them completely confused. For them, first as traders and then as colonial rulers, forests were meant to be exploited for economic gain; animals (where they existed) needed to be hunted either for food or sport. In 1878, in a small village called Vedanthangal, near Chennai, British soldiers shot some storks in the local wetland. The villagers stormed the collector’s office and made him issue an order that no one would harm the nesting birds in future. This is by no means the only example of its kind; Indian history is peppered with such examples. Among the best known are the Bishnoi, in Rajasthan, Punjab and Haryana who are famous for their self-sacrificing defence of wildlife.
It is believed that in 1730, the king of Jodhpur ordered his men to cut timber from Bishnoi land. The local people, led by Attri Devi, hugged the trees to save them. The king’s men hacked down 263 children, women and men before they gave up! The Bishnoi religion was initiated by Goru Jambeshwar about 500 years ago. Followers believe in a set of 29 principles, hence are called the ‘Bishnoi’. These principles include a ban on felling trees and a ban on killing animals. In particular, they consider the kejari (Prosopis cinereria) and blackbuck sacred species.
In recent times, this incident has become an inspiration for many communities to save their forests from destruction: the Chipko Movement in the Garhwal Himalayas and the Apiko Movement in Karnataka in the 1980s are two important examples.
This is not to say that traditionally, all species and their habitats were protected by all communities in India. However, different communities, cultures and practices together ensured greater protection and conservation of biological diversity. This was combined with the fact that cultural and economic needs were very different then from what they are now.
Despite this rich tradition of conservation, India today holds the distinction of being one of the most densely populated countries, yet being one of the world’s mega-biodiversity countries, but also having one of the highest rates of biodiversity decline.
Conservation, protected areas and the Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972
Declining wildlife populations has been a concern for many since the beginning of the last century. Over the last few decades, protection and conservation of wildlife and biodiversity has gradually emerged as a way to deal with this concern.
What is conservation of biodiversity? Conservation has been defined as “maintenance and recovery of viable populations of species in their natural surroundings and, in the case of domesticated or cultivated species, in the surroundings where they have developed their distinctive properties”. Conservationists believe that conservation can be achieved in a number of ways, but in particular, by following practices of sustainable use and by creating protected areas. Sustainable use has been defined as “the use of components of biological diversity in a way and at a rate that does not lead to the long-term decline of biological diversity, thereby maintaining its potential to meet the needs and aspirations of present and future generations”.
Protected areas have been defined internationally as “a clearly defined geographical space, recognised, dedicated and managed, through legal or other effective means, to achieve the long-term conservation of nature with associated ecosystem services and cultural values”.
Although these definitions have only emerged within the last few years, the creation of protected areas as we understand them today is a concept that took birth much earlier, in 1864, when Yellowstone National Park was established in the United States of America. Following that model, the first modern protected area in India was set up in 1931, then called Halley’s National Park (today known as Corbett National Park, in Uttarakhand). Subsequently, a number of protected areas were created in different parts of the country. Finally, in 1972, the Indian Wildlife (Protection) Act (WLPA) was passed, paving the way for many more protected areas. In addition, the Government of India initiated a number of other programmes for the protection and revival of populations of highly endangered large animals such as the rhino, gharial, elephant, and tiger—the last was achieved through the launch of Project Tiger, in 1973, to save the country’s endangered cat.
The main responsibility for conservation of biodiversity in India, including wildlife, lies with the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) headed by the environment minister based in New Delhi. The ministry initiates national-level programmes, policies and Acts related to conservation of biodiversity. In each state too there is a state minister of environment and state forest department that are responsible for implementing central schemes in the state as well as formulating state-level policies aimed at conservation of biodiversity.
In India, there is no particular definition for a protected area; any area that is considered by the central government or state government to be important for conservation is designated a status under the WLPA and is then legally considered a protected area. Until 2002, the WLPA only had two main types of protected areas—national parks and wildlife sanctuaries. An amendment to the Act in 2002 included two more categories—conservation reserves and community reserves. A further amendment in 2006 added another category called the tiger reserve.
National park: Chapter IV Section 35 (1) of the WLPA
The state government can declare any area a national park if it feels it is of ecological, faunal, floral, geo-morphological, or zoological importance. Following this intention, a process of settlement of rights of communities that reside in such areas is carried out and once all these rights have been settled, acquired, or local communities relocated, the area can be declared a finally notified national park. The most common interpretation of this category is that no human settlement or human access and rights to resources are allowed inside a national park. If a village located geographically inside a national park cannot be relocated then it is legally carved out of the national park boundary. It is important to mention here that no relocation can take place from any protected area without the consent of local people, and without appropriate compensation.
Wildlife sanctuary: Chapter IV Section 18 (1) of the WLPA
The state government may declare any area a wildlife sanctuary if it feels it is of ecological, faunal, floral, geo-morphological, or zoological importance. Following this intention, a process of settlement of rights of communities that reside in such areas is carried out and once all rights have been settled, acquired or local communities relocated, the area can be declared a finally notified sanctuary. Human settlements can be allowed to remain inside a sanctuary and access and rights to resources can also be allowed after a process of settlement of rights.
Conservation reserve: Section 36A (I) of the WLPA
The state government, after having consultations with local communities, can declare any area owned by the government, particularly 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 and their habitat. Rights of local inhabitants are not to be impacted in any way whilst creating a conservation reserve. Settlement of rights process not required.
Community reserve: Section 36C of the WLPA
The state government may declare any private or community land outside a national park, sanctuary or conservation reserve as a community reserve for protecting fauna, flora and traditional or cultural conservation values and practices, where the community or an individual has volunteered to conserve wildlife and its habitat. Rights of local inhabitants are not to be impacted in any way whilst creating a community reserve. No settlement of rights process is required.
Tiger reserve: Section 38V (4) of the WLPA
Constitution of a core zone and buffer zone: The core zone is also referred to as critical tiger habitat and usually constitutes areas of national parks and sanctuaries where it has been established that such areas need to be kept inviolate for the purpose of tiger conservation. Buffer or peripheral areas surrounding the critical tiger habitat or core areas require less habitat protection. Buffer areas are meant to ensure the integrity of the critical tiger habitat with adequate dispersal for tiger populations.
Apart from the protected areas mentioned in the WLPA, the Scheduled Tribes and Other Forest-Dwellers (Recognition of Rights) Act, 2006 (FRA) provides for the creation of a stricter category within existing protected areas, called critical wildlife habitat (CWH).
Section 2(b), Section 4 (2) (a-f) of the FRA
Critical wildlife habitats are such areas of national parks and sanctuaries that are required to be kept inviolate for the purposes of wildlife conservation.
As of 2011, there are 663 protected areas in India covering 4.83 per cent of the total area of the country. These include 99 national parks, 516 wildlife sanctuaries, four community reserves, 44 conservation reserves, 39 tiger reserves. No critical wildlife habitat has been declared anywhere in the country.
There are also areas that are protected either through other national Acts or under international conventions and treaties. Some of these include:
Biosphere reserves created under UNESCO’s Man and Biosphere Programme with the objective of protecting larger landscapes and seascapes surrounding existing protected areas. These areas are considered sustainable use areas.
World heritage sites are areas of universal natural and cultural value, declared under an international Convention for the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage (http://whc.unesco.org/en/about). This status is usually given to an already designated protected area.
Important bird areas are identified to give special attention to areas that are significant for bird conservation. These areas are identified by Birdlife International, an organisation based in the UK, with the help of national conservation organisations. These areas may or may not be covered under the country’s protected area network.
Wetlands of significant biodiversity value can be declared Ramsar sites. These sites are declared under an inter-governmental treaty on wetlands called the Ramsar Convention which was signed by countries at Ramsar, in Iran, in 1971. As of today, 160 countries have signed this convention which provides the framework for national action and international cooperation for the conservation and wise use of wetlands and their resources. This is the only inter-governmental treaty that deals with a specific ecosystem. Nineteen wetlands have been declared Ramsar sites in India, covering an area of almost 648,507 hectares.
Medicinal plant conservation areas (MPCAs): The MPCA programme is a national effort initiated in 1993 by the Foundation for Revitalisation of Local Health Traditions (FRLHT), Bangalore. Under this programme, MPCAs are identified with the main objective of conserving medicinal plants in their natural habitat and preserving their gene pool. The programme aims to achieve the following objectives:
- Conserve viable populations of prioritised native medicinal plant species in their natural habitat.
- Conduct studies on biological and ecological aspects of medicinal plants in order to develop appropriate conservation approaches.
- Sensitise and enable local communities and resource managers to manage MPCAs for effective conservation.
- Design and develop strategies and mechanisms for long-term conservation of medicinal plants.
MPCAs are established in different bio-geographic zones and micro climates covering maximum habitat diversity and viable populations of prioritised medicinal plant species available in specific states. These are identified and managed in cooperation with state forest departments and local people.
Community conserved areas in India
Given above are examples where the Indian government or national and/or international non-government agencies have taken steps towards the conservation of biological diversity. In addition to these, there are thousands of areas in India where communities are either carrying on an age-old practice of regulated use, management of resources and protection of species and habitats or have evolved such systems in recent times for a variety of reasons. Such areas have become known as community conserved areas (CCAs) in India, and indigenous and community conserved areas (ICCAs) internationally. ICCAs have been defined as “natural and/or modified ecosystems containing significant biodiversity values, ecological benefits and cultural values, voluntarily conserved by indigenous peoples and local communities, both sedentary and mobile, through customary laws or other effective means”. These include the protection of trees on which migratory and local birds roost and nest, village irrigation tanks being used by wild birds and animals, coastal areas where youth groups are involved in the protection of turtles and their nesting sites, forest areas being used and protected by local people, parts of rivers where no fishing is allowed, and many more.
The range of mechanisms used by communities in CCAs is fascinating. At virtually all sites, the community has come up with rules and regulations, and penalties for anyone violating these. Usually, also, there is a system to protect the area, such as forest protection committees, youth groups, wildlife protection groups, women’s committees, even gram sabhas (village assembly) as a whole. Most importantly, strong leadership from within the community, and often a catalytic or supportive role from outside, has been crucial in successful conservation by communities.
Since these sites are not officially recognised sites, and often happen informally at many places, it is difficult to estimate a number for them. However, there are likely to be thousands of such sites still existing and new ones being established by rural and urban people all over India. A document published in 2009 had details on about 150 such sites from across India and listed nearly 300 about which much information could not be gathered. Subsequently, many more examples have come to light.
- One of the largest protected areas is Khonoma Tragopan and Wildlife Sanctuary, spread over 20 sq km, where hunting and resource extraction is completely prohibited. In another 50 sq km surrounding the area, minimal resource use for home requirement only is allowed. The village has also declared a total ban on any kind of hunting over the village’s entire 125 sq km area; recently, seasonal and need-based hunting has been allowed.(http://www.kalpavriksh.org/images/CCA/Directory/Nagaland_CaseStudy_KhonomaVgeKohima.pdf)
- In Bongaigaon district of Assam, the villagers of Shankar Ghola are protecting a few hundred hectares of forest which contain, among other things, a troupe of the highly endangered golden langur. (http://www.kalpavriksh.org/images/CCA/Directory/Assam_CaseStudy_ShankargholaVgeBongaigaon.pdf)
- At Khichan village (Rajasthan), villagers provide safety and food to wintering populations of demoiselle cranes which flock there in huge numbers of up to 10,000 birds. Several lakh rupees are spent by the residents on this, without a grudge or a grumble. (http://www.kalpavriksh.org/images/CCA/Directory/Rajasthan_CaseStudy_KhichanVgeUdaipur.pdf)
- In Goa, Kerala and Orissa, important nesting sites for sea turtles such as Galjibag and Rushikulya beaches have been protected through the action of local fisherfolk. (http://www.kalpavriksh.org/images/CCA/Directory/Orissa_CaseStudy_RushikulyarookeryGanjam.pdf)
- Of the 2,240 sq km stretch of the Gori Ganga river basin in the upper mountains of Kumaon, 1,439 sq km is under the management of village van panchayats. This area forms an important corridor between the Nandadevi Biosphere Reserve and the Askot Wildlife Sanctuary which are critically important for highland biodiversity. (http://www.kalpavriksh.org/images/CCA/Directory/M-24 per cent20 Uttarakhand.pdf)
In addition to conservation initiatives such as the ones mentioned in the box, there are also countless instances of natural ecosystems and wildlife populations having been saved by local communities from certain destruction. As examples, several big dams that would have submerged huge areas of forest or other ecosystems have been stopped by people’s movements. This includes proposed dams like the Bhopalpatnam-Ichhampalli in Maharashtra and Chhattisgarh, which would have submerged a major part of the Indravati Tiger Reserve, Bodhghat in Chhattisgarh, and Rathong Chu in Sikkim. Many such movements have saved areas that are equal in size, if not sometimes bigger, than official protected areas.
Quite a few sites conserved by communities have been recognised to be of such wildlife value that they have been declared wildlife sanctuaries or national parks by state governments. In Punjab, lands belonging to the Bishnoi, with considerable blackbuck and chinkara populations, have been declared the Abohar Sanctuary. Likewise, several heronries in southern India, such as Nellapattu, Vedanthangal and Chittarangudi, are now wildlife sanctuaries.
Continued decline in biodiversity
All this might suggest that wildlife and their habitats are well protected in our country. This is not the case. The rate of degradation has risen consistently over the last few decades.
There are many reasons for this decline, one of the most important being the conservation policies themselves. These policies have had limited success in arresting biodiversity degradation, and in many cases, have worked against their objective by alienating communities that reside in and around areas which are meant to be conserved or protected. They have done this by not taking into account two very important aspects: firstly, they did not take on board the longstanding conservation traditions and practices of local communities (and thereby lost an opportunity to enhance, support and revive community conserved areas and species); secondly, they ignored the significant economic and cultural dependence of people on ecosystems and species declared protected. The following sections deal with how this has happened.
History of conventional conservation in India
To be able to properly understand conservation policy in India today, it is important to look at the roots of these policies and laws. Many of the laws we continue to follow were either formulated in colonial times or are based on the same principles and practices that our colonial rulers followed. The colonisation of India by the British in the 19th century brought about a watershed change in both consumption of biodiversity and its conservation. British officers and Indian rulers (who were under their patronage) engaged in extensive hunting for sport. Although Indian society was attuned to hunting for food, this level of hunting was not matched in any phase of Indian history. In addition, the British encouraged the policy of extension of agriculture to be able to maximise taxes from peasants, and the extermination of carnivores that preyed on herbivore species that were preferred for hunting by the elite. Meanwhile, the British also took control (in a process referred to as ‘nationalisation’) of most forests in India which they needed to earn revenue from timber and other forest produce. And they restricted the use of these forests, grasslands and other areas by local people who they believed were destroying the forests.
The forest department was established in 1965, and the Indian Forest Act came into existence. With this Act, the environment which held tremendous cultural, economic and political value for forest-dwelling communities was now totally under the control of the British.
By the early-20th century, the wild animal (particularly mega fauna) population began to decline and with that a new interest group emerged. These were the ‘conservationists’, mainly rulers and hunters who were concerned about depleting wildlife populations. Most of these people had no connection with the common masses, nor did they understand their needs, knowledge and practices. Local people were largely considered the greatest threat to wildlife populations as they shared the same space and resources as wildlife. To create the first national park, existing villages were shifted out and people on the periphery were no longer allowed to enter the park.
Impact of official wildlife conservation policy and practice on people and on conservation
As we have seen, wildlife sanctuaries, national parks and tiger reserves are considered to be three important kinds of protected areas under the Wildlife (Protection) Act (WLPA). While, under the law, certain human activity is allowed in a wildlife sanctuary no human activity is allowed in a national park or a tiger reserve. As of 2011, about 5 per cent of India’s territory is covered by protected areas. On the one hand, these areas have saved many ecologically critical areas and threatened wildlife species from being wiped out by dam projects, mining, urban expansion, and agricultural expansion. What is important, however, is that this 5 per cent of area is also inhabited by people, some of them ancient adivasi and tribal communities. Available information indicates that 3-4 million people live inside India’s protected areas, most of them belonging to communities that have lived in these areas before the protected areas were notified. All these people (and many millions more who live in regions adjacent to protected areas) are dependent on local resources for fuel, fodder, medicines, non-timber forest produce, fish and other aquatic produce, livelihoods, water, cultural sustenance, and many other critical resources. Since these people are also now connected to the market economy, cash income, even if the barest minimum, is important to them. In many of these areas, collection of non-timber forest produce contributes to more than 50 per cent of each household’s annual cash earnings. Such subsistence or commercial activity is often recorded in government documents as a concession but rarely as a right; many are not even recorded and are hence considered illegal. Because of lack of documentation, many of these people are considered encroachers even though they have lived here for generations.
According to the WLPA, before any protected area is finally notified, a process of settlement of rights must be carried out and livelihoods and habitation rights either allowed or acquired by providing compensation or alternatives. A number of issues (such as badly kept land records, unrecorded rights of people who have inhabited these areas for generations, and the genuine needs of new occupants) have prevented the completion of this process in most protected areas in India. Because of a Supreme Court order in 1996, many state governments quickly tried to settle these rights without carrying out comprehensive assessments of the rights, thereby depriving thousands of people of their due rights or allowed rights in protected areas. This has led to numerous conflicts on the ground; many are still not accepted by state governments till date.
In some states, efforts have been made towards relocating villages from inside protected areas to other areas. Though a few have been fairly successful, most have caused serious social, cultural and livelihoods disruption among local communities. This has resulted in a lot of discontent and anger among local inhabitants and has invited criticism from citizens’ groups.
The fate of people living inside protected areas has therefore remained unresolved for over two decades. Living with constant uncertainty, not knowing whether and for how long they will be allowed to stay in the area, and constant harassment over the collection of forest produce, has led to a serious dislike for protected areas among local communities.
In addition to the policies, the attitude of government agencies implementing these policies and lack of interest and vision add to the already complex situation. People’s distrust is so strong that there are often conflicts between local communities and forest agencies (responsible for conservation) in community conserved areas where the goals are seemingly identical. For example, when the ecological value of community conserved areas is realised, they are often declared by the government to be protected areas. In some cases, this has helped stave off outside threats, but in many cases it has transferred the responsibility of conservation away from the villagers to government agencies that do not always have the resources or the zeal to carry out their duties. As a result, these areas have suffered neglect and decline. In most cases, the declaration of a sanctuary has led to significant restrictions on local populations, and consequent conflicts. Conflict with these agencies also arises when villagers have been protecting or want to protect areas that the government allocates for industrial or commercial purposes.
One of the greatest challenges faced by community conserved areas is that the government does not recognise these efforts and offers very little support. As a result, local communities that can and should be one of the strongest allies in conservation have turned hostile to the concept of conservation as envisaged and implemented by the government.
Impact of a conflict situation on wildlife and biodiversity
Over the last couple of decades, local communities have begun to organise and empower themselves. Protests against conservation policies in general, and protected areas in particular, are gaining ground. In such situations, there are always political leaders waiting to take advantage of the discontent. Demands for doing away with protected areas, or with unpopular wildlife restrictions, are increasing. Acts of subversion, of deliberate violation of conservation laws, and of quiet collaboration with poachers and timber thieves are already evident. Even with the best of intentions, inadequately staffed and funded forest departments charged with protecting India’s wildlife are unable to cope with this situation. The general environment of hostility and mistrust between forest authorities and local people has thus worked not only against the interests of local people but also against the interests of wildlife and biodiversity.
In some situations, the direct ecological impact of this kind of policy can be quite negative. Kumbalgarh Sanctuary in Rajasthan has reportedly been ravaged by fire because the grass has not been cut. On the other hand, other areas of the sanctuary are severely degraded because of unregulated resource use. This suggests that blanket bans do not necessarily make ecological sense. It also shows that all human activity is not necessarily compatible with conservation; on the contrary, many are not.
Need for political engagement and local dialogue
It is absolutely essential to fully understand local situations and arrive at a solution in participation with everyone concerned, most of all local residents who will be the most impacted. This belief, that conservation and social justice can be best achieved through dialogue and political decentralisation, is steadily gaining momentum both in India and internationally.
In this environment, local people’s movements (supported by NGOs, civil society groups and others) aimed at regaining control over land and common property have been gaining strength for over four decades now. Human rights groups fighting against injustices against local people are also beginning to talk about local people being politically empowered as well as empowered to protect and conserve their surrounding resources. This essentially means that local people will play a much larger role in decisions related to land and the surrounding natural resources, including how they must be protected.
Social action and human rights groups view the passage of the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest-Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006 as an important and welcome step towards reversing the historical marginalisation of India’s tribal (indigenous) population and other forest-dwellers. The Act mandates the vesting of 14 kinds of rights over forestland and forest produce with two categories of communities: scheduled tribes (ie indigenous people who are listed in a schedule of the Indian Constitution), and other traditional forest-dwellers defined as those who have been living in forests for at least three generations.
The provisions of the Act relevant to protected areas are of special interest. The Act specifies that all rights need to be identified and established regardless of the status of the forest, therefore also those inside protected areas. Furthermore, it mandates a process for determining “critical wildlife habitats” inside protected areas, and an assessment of whether people’s activities within such habitats can be in consonance with conservation. If “irreversible damage” is established, communities can be relocated with their informed consent and after ensuring the readiness of relocation and rehabilitation. Gram sabhas (village assemblies) have also been empowered to protect wildlife and biodiversity, and to keep destructive activities out of the forests over which they have been given rights.
There are currently a number of international and national processes, policies and movements aimed at inclusive conservation. But a lot is needed both from the state and local people to move towards truly decentralised governance and conservation of wildlife and biodiversity. (Infochange)
By Neema Pathak Broome