Sunday, October 03, 2010

Book Review: Conservation at the Crossroads

Published in Seminar Sept 2010

CONSERVATION AT THE CROSSROADS: Science, Society, and the Future of India’s Wildlife by Ghazala Shahabuddin. Permanent Black, Ranikhet, 2010, pp.288, Rs.595 .

In the increasingly polarized field of conservation in India, Shahabuddin’s writings tend to be inclusive and moderate, and this work is no exception. On the one hand is the include-people lobby that believes that local inhabitants can sustainably utilize forest resources, while on the other is the exclude-people lobby that promotes the relocation of people from forests. Which of these two approaches conserves optimum biodiversity? Can these contradictory positions be reconciled or are they mutually exclusive? These are the questions that face wildlife conservation today and now finally there is a book that explores these two major pathways over eight chapters. Shahabuddin is no stranger to these issues as she has co-edited an anthology of essays in a book, Making Conservation Work in 2007 and is Associate Professor at the School of Human Ecology, B.R. Ambedkar University, Delhi.

The total protection formula focuses on the Forest Department excluding people from forests by removing villages from protected areas, policing the area from all use, and restricting access to researchers. The community conservation strategy comes in a couple of forms such as Community Conservation Areas, Joint Forestry Management (JFM), and the World Bank funded India Ecodevelopment Project (IEDP). These have been implemented in various parts of India under diverse conditions. Critical to evaluating these management strategies is the independent researcher, who is frequently accorded step-child treatment by the Forest Department, thereby depriving itself of valuable insights in forest governance.

Despite “total protection” being the state’s forest management policy, Shahabuddin chronicles the widespread habitat degradation in India’s protected areas. Infrastructure projects such as roads, dams, and mines, as well as harvesting of forest products by a growing human population both within and without these forests have taken their toll. Using Sariska as an example, the author examines the deficiency in policy and governance. Prior to the tiger crisis, researchers had reported the extinction of the chinkara and the four-horned antelope, vital prey species of the tiger. It was also known that the habitat was degraded because of firewood and fodder collection, and grazing. By 1990, tree regeneration had already been severely hit, with growth stunted across the ecosystems, the diversity of species was plummeting and exotic invasive plants had made inroads. It was just a matter of time before the tiger disappeared.

On the other hand, the department kowtowed to powerful forces that had interests in mining and timber. The park is so small that the dynamite blasts in the mines on its doorstep can even be heard in the core area now. Despite these larger threats from outside the reserve, when the tiger crisis erupted, blame was pinned on the soft targets, local people. While little has been done to improve and secure the habitat, the entire focus of the remedial measures is on moving local people out and introducing tigers into Sariska.

At the other end of the spectrum, the pro-people lobby holds that the pristine nature model is a failure and promotes a more inclusive style of conservation. The community conservation paradigm co-opts local people as custodians of the forests who are also allowed to use it sustainably. However, some crucial questions remain unanswered. How much can be harvested without affecting the future regeneration of a species? Does extraction of such products negatively impact the ecosystem?
Collection of fruits, flowers, and seeds by people deprive birds and mammals of a plentiful seasonal resource. Dead wood collection may negatively impact hole-nesting birds. Shahabuddin rightly notes that few studies monitor extraction and evaluate its impact on the ecosystem. Since most Non-Timber Forest Produce (NTFP) are destined for markets, these tend to change the diversity of the forest until either the resource is over-exploited or the marketable species is selectively nurtured to the detriment of all others. In forests used by people, the species that fare the worst are the ones that are sensitive to habitat change and disturbance. In almost every case, livelihood concerns triumphed over the conservation agenda. Even in flagship projects such as the Annapurna Conservation Area Project in Nepal, biodiversity and degradation worries remain unaddressed.

Joint Forestry Management (JFM) was one of the largest exercises in the decentralization of natural resource management in India. Although “joint” is the operative word, in a majority of the cases decision-making powers were firmly in the hands of the department, with little or no involvement of the villagers. In many cases the benefit sharing agreements were not in place, so although villagers provided labour with the expectation of some returns, these did not materialize. For these reasons, people were suspicious of the department’s intentions; but on the positive side, JFM projects did succeed in providing a source of firewood and fodder by regenerating large areas of degraded landscapes.

The aim of the IEDP was to provide greater synergy between protected areas (and their custodians) and local people for biodiversity conservation. While the poorest people were the most dependent on forest resources, they were effectively sidelined from deriving any benefits from the project as they couldn’t afford the mandatory financial contribution. Conservationists felt that such projects were detrimental to conservation as it led to unnecessary infrastructure development within a protected area causing degradation, while overburdening the officials already charged with protection. Like the JFM projects, there was no consultation with the local people and this appears to be the crucial factor. Periyar and Kalakkad-Mundanthurai Tiger Reserves are celebrated success stories because they delegated decision making powers to villagers.

Did these community conservation programs promote biodiversity conservation? Definitely not, is the author’s resounding answer. The include-people champions say that the key to the success of any community conservation measure is security of land tenure. But, with an increasing human population, the corresponding demand for agricultural land and finite forest resources, can forest ownership alone drive sustainability, asks the author. While she agrees that land tenure has to be secure, she also adds that extractive pressure should be low, and access rights clearly-defined if effective conservation is to be practiced. How is it going to be possible to keep the extraction pressure low when there is no sign of the human population growth rate leveling off? Nevertheless, there is an incentive to support this paradigm as local livelihoods are entwined with the ecological services of a rich forest.

Shahabuddin also turns her attention to the state’s discouragement of scientific endeavour in this field. The Indian government took a conscious decision to exclude US funds and researchers from India and effectively stunted its progress in ecological research. Although the Indian economy has been liberalized, the Forest Department continues to perpetrate a Permit Raj. The department’s combative attitude to researchers is captured succinctly by the author, “It is as if science-based perspectives are viewed as a mortal threat by a forest department that believes it has a monopoly on knowledge of the forest.”

The title of the book begs the initial question whether conservation was ever on a straight path, when it appears to have staked a permanent spot at the crossroads. Towards the end, Shahabuddin reconciles that these are not mutually exclusive pathways, when the choice is restricted to only one of two directions. There is clearly no alternative to well-governed inviolate areas for ecosystem conservation. Community-inclusive strategies are complementary to total protection and both need to be treated on par if conservation goals are to be achieved. These are but many stairways to one goal.

The forest department is perhaps the single largest landowner in the country governing over 635,000, and no large scale conservation initiative takes place without its approval. In case after case, the author concludes that the failure, or at least the limited success, of almost every conservation program in the country comes down to the department’s refusal to share decision-making powers with local people. (Indeed, a more appropriate title for the book would have been ‘Conservation at a Roadblock’!) The department does not appear to realize that for conservation initiatives to work, local people have to be made equal partners or that independent researchers are essential to evaluate the sustainability of harvests, and benefits to biodiversity conservation and livelihoods. Given the entrenched hegemonic power structure that dictates conservation policy and implementation today, the system does not have the capacity to engage with local people with trust, empathy and respect which predisposes these various strategies to failure. While the author hints at this institutional failure, she misses an opportunity to make a hard case for change within the department.

I do have a few other quibbles; the work suffers from a lack of editorial oversight. There are repetitions, inconsistencies, language issues, use of local names for tree species and tangents that could have been avoided and made this the high quality publication that it deserves to be. However, I recommend this book highly to anyone who is perplexed by the cacophony of voices evangelizing one or the other paradigm. As for the ones deeply rooted in their include-or-exclude people positions, they might find critical evaluations of their ideology and some common grounds for agreement with the opposite camp. The more consensus there is, the stronger conservation actions will be.

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