Monday, November 05, 2007

Conservation of the people, by the people, for the people…. so help me God.*

Making Conservation Work
Eds. Ghazala Shahabuddin and Mahesh Rangarajan
Permanent Black, Delhi
298 pages
Hard cover. Rs. 595

The prosaic title notwithstanding, the essays in this book pack a punch. The editors, Shahabuddin and Rangarajan, set the stage in the Introduction by examining what caused the Sariska debacle. Readers will remember that this was the park where the tiger was declared locally extinct in early 2005. It provided ammunition to two diametrically opposed camps to “prove” their arguments. One camp claimed it was the presence of villagers in the park that was detrimental to the tigers while the other accused the colonial mindset of Indian wildlife laws and policy.

Sariska was a pampered park; being close to the nerve centre of Delhi, it received a lot of funds and VIP attention. It also had more guards per square kilometer than almost any other park in the country. Villagers living within the park were recipients of largess, not available to inhabitants of most other reserves. It had everything going for it and yet the tigers vanished. In the flurry of accusations that followed, the Tiger Task Force was set up, and its report was alternately trashed and celebrated by conservationists of both camps. However, they were unanimous in their criticism of the state's manner of functioning. And true to form, the state ignored the recommendations of the Task Force, revived the relocation-of-villagers policy (which is doomed to failure by its woeful inadequacy), proposed reintroducing tigers from other parks and pretends that the crisis is only a minor setback for conservation. In this contentious atmosphere, sharing the experiences of the contributors of the book opens new vistas of wildlife conservation and governance.

Perhaps the most interesting article in the book is 'Threatened Forests, Forgotten People' by Aparajita Datta of the Nature Conservation Foundation (NCF). Datta sets out the political dynamics of conservation in Namdapha National Park in Arunachal Pradesh. The Lisu tribals are caught in the far corner of the state sandwiched between the park on one side and the international border with Myanmar on the other. Accused of being latter day encroachers from Myanmar they enjoy no citizenship rights or tribal status. Recognizing that the basic needs of the people in this remote corner of India have to be addressed first, NCF supports six kindergarten schoolteachers thereby ensuring the education of 330 Lisu children. Malaria takes a heavy toll and a patient seeking medical help has to walk for seven days to reach a doctor. As a first step one Lisu tribal has been trained as a healthcare provider. In tandem, NCF biologists have also conducted wildlife surveys, extended the range of mammals previously known only in neighbouring countries and lobbied with the Lisu against traditional hunting practices. Initiatives such as this, which tie conservation with solutions to existential struggles, go far in salvaging the vitiated relationship between people and the state.

Other articles deal with similarly alternative approaches to conservation of the oceans, deserts, and forests by incorporating local people into the equation. Interestingly, the NCF is involved with another innovative approach - restoring the rainforests of the Valparai plateau of Tamil Nadu. Collaborating with the management of the various tea estates, Mudappa and Raman have planted numerous rainforest species on degraded private lands that are unfit for tea cultivation thereby providing corridors for animals such as elephants, lion-tailed macaques, leopards, and hornbills among others. Not enough of this kind of restoration is being undertaken in the country and yet anyone with a bit of initiative and effort can contribute towards enhancing the quality of habitat available for plants and wildlife.

In other essays, Kartik Shanker elaborates on an alliance of fishworker organizations and conservation groups that are working for sea turtle (and fish) conservation in Orissa, Priya Das explores participatory conservation in Kailadevi Sanctuary in Rajasthan while Nitin Rai examines the economics of harvesting Garcinia fruits in Karnataka - evidence that conservation need not stop with creating reserves and making sure no one touches the wildlife within. Two other chapters critique the current forest management policy by focusing on Kuno Wildlife Sanctuary and Sariska.

Crucial to conservation success is political will. It is clear that in a democracy where the stake to power is dependent on appealing to the majority, conservationists have to redress their approach if they are to achieve their goals. Otherwise the majority of the voting public does not care, or worse, sees conservation as an elitist preoccupation of the middle class. This is the biggest shortfall of the conservationist agenda. While this book manages to bring conservation concerns and issues to the reading public, it is a pity that the standard of writing is uneven – while some articles are exciting, a couple are so dreary they are hard to get through.

Ghazala Shahabuddin is an ecologist at the Environmental Studies Group of the Council for Social Development, Delhi. She has monitored habitat fragmentation, people's utilization of forest resources and its impact on the biodiversity of Sariska. Mahesh Rangarajan is Professor of History at the University of Delhi. He is the co-editor of Permanent Black's series called Nature, Culture, Conservation to which this book is a worthy addition.

* apologies to Abraham Lincoln and George Washington.