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Insights into Editorial: Conservation minus the people?
India, a state that supports about 8% of global species diversity and over 100 million forest-dwellers, issued a court order which stood to evict more than a million forest-dwelling people from their homes.
Although this order was subsequently stayed, though temporarily, it provides valuable insights into India’s conservation objectives and approaches.
Given the country’s size and biodiversity-richness, a decision of this nature has consequences for global natural heritage.
A recent Supreme Court order may lead to the eviction of lakhs of persons belonging to the Scheduled Tribes (STs) and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (OTFDs) categories across 21 States, their claim as forest dwellers have been rejected under the Forest Rights Act of 2006.
The court directed that the eviction should be carried out on or before July 24, 2019, that is, the next date of hearing.
The court ordered the Forest Survey of India (FSI) to make a satellite survey and place on record the “encroachment positions.”
It directed FSI to also place on record the position “after the eviction as far as possible.”
Different Conservation Laws to achieve the same Targets:
From the 1980s, there were a number of policies that mirrored the global shift towards inclusive conservation, such as the 1988 National Forest Policy, the 1992 National Conservation Strategy, the National Environment Policy of 2006 and the 2007 Biosphere Reserves Guidelines.
India’s conservation legislation is separated into those that protect forests and its produce, and those that target wildlife conservation.
Both the Indian Forest Act, 1927 and the Wildlife Protection Act, 1972 create different types and grades of protected areas, and contain provisions to restrict or outlaw local use of natural resources and landscapes.
India has been a vocal member of above conventions. But at home, things operate rather differently, despite there were a number of policies that mirrored the global shift towards inclusive conservation.
The Forest Rights Act, 2006 went beyond sanctioning local usage, to conferring rights to local communities over forest land and produce.
The Ministry of Tribal Affairs was mandated with operationalising the Act, while conservation remained under the domain of the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change.
However, given a hostile bureaucratic environment, the legislation faltered, except in certain pockets.
The Third National Wildlife Action Plan, introduced in 2017, is categorically of the view that locals hinder conservation.
Where communities are to be involved, it distinctly avoids the attribution of rights and instead frames usage within a bureaucracy-controlled format.
Dichotomy in principles to meet the Conservation Goals:
In the year 1990 Joint Forest Management Guidelines (JFM) created community institutions for co-management, in collaboration with the forest bureaucracy.
Although it initially registered some success stories in certain parts of the country, JFM committees are widely critiqued as being bureaucracy-heavy, with little real devolution of powers to local communities.
In March 2019, a comprehensive overhaul of the Indian Forest Act was proposed.
This amendment introduces provisions for extinguishing rights granted under the Forest Rights Act.
Further, it grants the forest bureaucracy unprecedented powers to enter and search the premises of forest-dwellers on suspicion, arrest without warrant and use firearms to meet conservation goals.
State authority that is usually reserved to tackle terrorism, insurgency and organised crime is now to be deployed to safeguard biodiversity.
An amendment to the Wildlife Protection Act is reportedly in the offing. India’s conservation policies in recent years leave no doubt as to the model of conservation the country is intent on pursuing.
Conservation of local areas by promoting the community has been highlighted by various instances such as:
IUCN’s Policy Statement on Sustainable Use of Wild Living Resources in 2000, and the Convention on Biological Diversity’s 2004 Addis Ababa Principles and Guidelines for the Sustainable Use of Biodiversity.
While other countries are recognising the value of community-involved conservation models, India is stridently and steadfastly moving in the opposite direction.
Involving communities living in and around natural resource-rich areas in the management and use of these resources is an effective tool of conservation that has been recognised across the world.
This was affirmed by the 1980 World Conservation Strategy of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), and the Earth Summit’s 1992 Statement of Forest Principles and the Convention on Biological Diversity.
Most community-based natural resource management programmes may have only limited success at achieving both conservation and human development goals.
But the concept appears to be the best opportunity for countries like India to achieve these two outcomes of conservation and human development goals.
The most important part of the approach is that user rights are transferred from central government to local communities.
The model is being increasingly promoted as a conservation tool and has become the dominant approach in natural resource conservation worldwide.
It can help the country retain its place as one of the most famous and profitable wildlife tourism destinations in the world. And it can also contribute to other economic sectors and alleviate rural poverty.