Discordant notes dash empowerment dreams

THE powerment of people living in and around national parks and sanctuaries seems a distant dream as the divergent views on wildlife conservation of the parties involved belie all hope of consensus. This discord came into sharp focus when environmental activists, wildlife experts and forest officials met in Delhi recently at a seminar, organised by the Indian Institute of Public Administration and the ministry of environment and forests (MEF) to explore the possibilities of joint management of wildlife preserves.

The seminar was a follow-up of a series of meetings held in different parts of the country in the past few months to reassess the current management strategy for protected areas. It sought to formulate a concrete strategy for joint protected area management (JPAM) on the lines of joint forest management (JFM), which has been applied to other forest areas. JPAM aims to establish the relative shares of power, control over resources, responsibilities, rights, and functions of communities, activists and the forest department in protected areas.

Opinions on the management of protected areas, however, range from support for government control of such areas with peoples' participation, to peoples' control over protected areas with the government playing a supporting role. The government's strategy involves finding substitutes for forest-based needs outside protected areas through eco-development programmes.

This has, however, been criticised by some NGOs, who favour a revival of the traditional rights of people. "Eco-development does not deal with people living inside protected areas. It also sidesteps the crucial issue of resource rights," says Ashish Kothari of Kalpavriksh, a Delhi-based NGO. Adds Kailash Malhotra, a social anthropologist from West Bengal, who is involved in joint forest management programmes, "Loss of control over resources has alienated local communities, hampering conservation efforts."
Restrictive regulations Curiously, the demand for legal recognition of peoples' rights often gets drowned in rhetoric, and its proponents hesitate to propose any concrete strategy to involve people in the management of protected areas. "There is still a lot of uncertainty about how to harmonise the disparate claims of wildlife and humans on resources," says Kothari. Besides, the laws in force prove a formidable barrier to giving people a say in the management of protected areas. Under the amended wildlife acts of 1991, restricted grazing is allowed only in sanctuaries, while even this is prohibited in national parks.

Another criticism is that JPAM, like JFM, depends on winning people over by allowing them a share in the direct benefits from forests. Says Rajendra Singh, an environmental activist, "The JFM principle in other forest areas is based on ensuring peoples' cooperation by promising economic gains to sustain their interest in the protection of these areas, and not on the principle of real empowerment and management rights. This inherent limitation of JFM will inhibit JPAM as well."

It will also be difficult to hold out a carrot under JPAM, as benefits from protected areas are not recognised under the law, though in practice these areas are exploited. Says Kiran Desai of the Centre for Environmental Education (CEE), Ahmedabad, "Forcing people to abstain from using national parks has given rise to an illegal system of privileges for a price."

Conservation laws only perpetuate the myth of non-utilisation of protected areas. Both conservationists and officials ignore the extent of dependence of the local people on these areas. In the Bhimashankar Sanctuary in Maharashtra, despite the moratorium on collection of forest produce, non-timber forest produce like hirda, shikakai, honey and moss contribute significantly to the incomes of the villagers, according to says Renee M Borges of the Bombay Natural History Society (bnhs). Borges proposes the "removal of the blanket ban on collection of non-timber forest produce in sanctuaries under the revised Wildlife Protection Act for certain products which might not harm the system". Leave the parks alone
Valmik Thapar of the Ranthambore Foundation, however, says that the parks should remain "inviolate" and 5 per cent of the country's land area under wildlife preserves should be left alone. Satellite imagery of the Ranthambore national park shows that between 1992 and 1994 about 10,000 ha of forest land has been encroached upon for agriculture, Thapar points out.

Given these conflicting perceptions, the recommendations for empowerment by different activist groups vary. The Aga Khan Rural Support Programme, Ahmedabad, emphasises a detailed management plan to ascertain the carrying capacity of Gujarat's Gir Sanctuary and decide the usage pattern. bnhs's plan for Bhimashankar proposes the setting up of a sanctuary protection committee, with peoples' representation, to take decisions about the park and support selective exploitation of forests resources. The CEE plan for Ranthambore visualises empowerment of people as the ultimate goal and suggests recognition of "certain privileges like restricted grazing in traditional grazing areas and collection of minor forest produce" as the first step.

Stan Thekaekara of the Tamil Nadu-based NGO, accord, supports the use of forests for "sustenance" but objects to "conversion of livelihood resources to capitalist resources". Kothari, on the other hand, says that level of use would have to be determined separately for different protected areas. Income-generating activities would have to be supported by other activities, depending on the socioeconomic profile of the communities. Besides, the cooperation of officials is crucial, as laws need to be amended to allow peoples' participation and to garner funds from the MEF for JPAM projects.

B J Krishnan of the Save Nilgiri Campaign in Ootcamund points out that the existing laws are at cross purposes. While the forest policy of 1988 recognises the rights of the forest dwellers, the amended wildlife act of 1991 takes them away. With such ambiguity, it becomes easier for the government to restrict peoples' access without consulting the communities or giving appropriate reasons for doing so.

Foresters, however, insist on maintaining status quo. Says S C Dey, additional inspector general of forests, "People's participation is acceptable as long as it is compatible with conservation ethics and is confined to the protection of forests. People cannot have usufruct rights in protected areas where conservation of wildlife is the central focus."

Some officials have realised that the tension can be reduced considerably if zonation of protected areas is rationalised to minimise disruption of the lives of the local people. MEF officials in the field are liberally interpreting existing laws to concede some grazing and collection rights in the protected areas in order to diffuse tension. The Gujarat government, in a pro-people measure, has relaxed restrictions on grazing for 23 forest villages in Gir national park and given them the status of revenue villages for the development of infrastructure. And, in Ranthambore, the villagers of Mordungri have started protecting the park after being assured by the authorities that they can use land that falls within the national park for grazing.

Praveensingh Pardeshi, district magistrate of Latur, Maharashtra, points out that widespread unrest at the proposed notification -- as a bird sanctuary -- of the state's Bhigwan wetlands, had compelled the authorities to reexamine the proposal. It was found that most of the water fowl were confined to shallow marshy fringes of the backwaters, and waders and flamingoes to the mud bank. Fishing by the local population, on the other hand, was done in the deep waters of the lake. Bird habitats were, therefore, carefully identified on the map and the deeper parts of the lake were excluded from notification.

The government is coming under pressure to grant more privileges to the traditional users of protected areas as these people, who are dependent on forests for survival, are fighting for their rights.