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Nature Conservation

posted by Madhav Gadgil

The Nature Conservation programmes in the country are at cross-roads. There are two main streams of thinking, one distrusting the good sense of people at the grass-roots and reposing faith in the bureaucratic machinery and the other calling for empowerment of people and giving them a key role, backed by authority, in nature conservation. Even so knowledgeable a scientist as Dr. Salim Ali subscribed to the anti-people perspective without examining the issues in depth. The Bharatpur wetlands, famous for the large heronries in the rainy season and the enormous flocks of migratory birds visiting in winter, was one of the first wildlife sanctuaries to be created after independence at the instance of Dr Salim Ali in the 1950s. He had worked for years at Bharatpur, banding thousands of migratory birds. Bharatpur had been subject to grazing by buffaloes and other uses such as collection of khus grass by local people for centuries, and had remained a biodiversity rich habitat. However, Dr Salim Ali felt that the habitat would greatly benefit from a cessation of buffalo grazing and was supported by experts of the International Crane Foundation. These recommendations led to the declaration of the locality as a National Park in 1982. The rigid regulations applicable to a National Park called for total cessation of livelihood activities of local people, so buffalo grazing was banned without any alternatives being offered. There were protests; seven people were killed in the firing that followed, but the ban was enforced. This intervention led to a totally unexpected outcome. It turned out that buffalos were keeping under check a water loving grass Paspalum. When grazing stopped this grass grew unchecked, rendering the wetland a far worse habitat for waterfowl, the prime objective of the National Park management. The numbers of visiting Siberian cranes have also been declining. Residents of the village Aghapur adjoining the National Park have an intriguing suggestion in this regard. They believe that Siberian cranes earlier had better access to underground corms and tubers, their major food, because the soil used to be loosened while digging for khus roots that has been halted on declaration of National Park. On the contrary, we are now witnessing spontaneous conservation of biodiversity through setting up of new sacred groves by communities that have been granted Community Forest Resource rights.

The anti-people perspective also led to the enactment of the Eco-fragile Lands Act of Kerala which has been responsible for the fears that conservation can only imply coercion and extortion. It is alleged that the EFL Act is draconian, allowing the bureaucracy to arbitrarily declare any lands in the proximity of PAs as “ecologically fragile” without citing any scientific reasons. It thereby vests such lands with the government, extinguishing all individual rights and titles without any compensation, leading to eviction of 8,000-plus farmers from 37,000 acres without compensation. Even tribals and marginal farmers have lost land and protests against it have been muted. Gramsabhas were not involved in the identification of these lands, and forest officials decided on lands to be taken over without any field visits. Farmers were not given notice; there was only a gazette notification. It is also alleged that the powers have been used by corrupt officials to extort bribes, and that the same process of extortion has been launched again with the publication of the Western Ghats Ecology Expert Panel report. Of course, WGEEP report clearly warns against such conservation by imposition. However, since the report was not available to the public, it was easy to mislead people and claim, as the Bishop of Idukki did, “If the recommendations of the WGEEP report are implemented, lakhs of people living in the area will lose all their freedom and will be forced to vacate the area by themselves before the government evacuates them.”

It is this debate that needs to be taken to the public, and I hope to do so through this website. I have worked extensively on these issues, both as a part of scientific research, in particular in the action research mode, as also through work on official advisory committees. I have written on such issues in newspapers and other media. I will attempt through this website to share much of the resultant material.