National parks are luxury in Third World
You have questioned the appropriateness of the system of national parks in developing countries. What are your objections?
The idea of national parks came up in the West with the object of preserving the wilderness. Given the size and population of countries like the United States, it was feasible. But now we are trying to force the concept on developing countries, which are smaller and which labour under competing demands on their natural resources. Clearly, a national park, which ties up so much scarce land, is not appropriate for these countries. Attempts are being made to make national parks more suitable for local societies, but in reality these parks have negative social fallouts.
What are these fallouts?
National parks distort biotic systems and thereby cause poverty. People are removed from their villages and not provided with an alternative place where they can live. They are being denied access to the forest resources on which they are dependent. The Tharu tribals of the Nepal Terai have been increasingly impoverished because of the establishment of a national park. The loss of agro-pastoralist land has had a disastrous effect on their livelihood.
The other negative fallout is the growing conflict between government, international agencies and the local people in rural India. The problem is that even if you have genuine conservation desires, it's difficult to get local people to agree to discuss the problem as they have become suspicious. Solutions are scarce and there's a high level of confrontation.
Do you think the present system has met its original environmental objectives?
Our achievements have been contrary to our plans. In effect, we have not been able to fulfill the conservation mandate, nor have we allowed the people to enjoy social benefits. I have noticed a high level of environmental degradation around villages in Thailand and other places. Authorities are focussing on what we can call green islands. So now you have a few hundred square kilometres of forest area that is green and beautiful. But the authorities are not concerned with what is happening outside these areas. The higher level of degradation takes place because people simply do not feel responsible for what is outside.
This is not to say that national parks have nothing positive to offer. Obviously, they have contributed towards the preservation of biodiversity and the earning of foreign exchange. But at the local level, it will have to be seen as a question of who gains and who loses.
What is wrong with the present criteria for establishing national parks?
My question is how long do we continue to establish these parks? We must ask ourselves how much of this is feasible. International agencies like the World Conservation Union (IUCN) have set the minimum requirement at 10 per cent of the total area. What do we do when we have already preserved 10 per cent? Do we stop there? And, what do we do in case of India where 4 to 5 per cent of the area is under national parks? One would of course like to have as much area as possible under parks, but again we must know how much is feasible and manageable.
Governments and international agencies are trying to expand the network of protected green areas. For example, 16 per cent of Thailand's area is covered by national parks, not to mention the normal forest area. They are now planning to increase this to 25 per cent in the next five years.
What criteria would you like to determine the optimum area for national parks in developing countries?
The conservation effort must take into account other national priorities. It is crucial to find out how much is manageable. Till now, agencies like IUCN, WWF and others have been providing financial and technical resources. But governments and agencies are likely to run out of resources. Without resources, parks remain parks only on paper. In Nepal, as much as 80 per cent of the annual budget of parks and reserves is earmarked for policing purposes. And this is just to avoid encroachment.
How do we reconcile conservation objectives with issues of livelihood?
Not enough effort has been made to find out how food security is affected. It is important to see how different national parks provide food and other commodities to different groups of people. It will be different for shifting agriculturists, for nomadic pastoralists and for settled farmers. For instance, in Mahanara national park in Madagascar, UNESCO and other agencies are trying to promote what they call integrated rural development around the park. One of the major components of this project is to develop agriculture. It is fine in theory, but what is happening is that they are promoting high-yielding varieties, irrigation facilities and so on. Though farmers downstream are not affected by the park, the shifting agriculturists are.
Do you approve of resettlement of those who have been displaced by a national park?
No. People are removed without apparent rhyme or reason. Resettlement takes place, as far as national parks are concerned, only in the wake of public opposition. Otherwise, the government just throws them out. This has happened in Thailand and in many other places. Now, some reports say there is no need to remove the people.
Buffer zone development is being adopted as an alternative to resettlement. Has it been of any help?
The buffer zone logic is that if the local people are provided with an alternative source of employment, their dependence on the parks would be reduced. Governments and aid agencies like the World Bank are promoting this concept in a big way. But neither has given much thought to it nor provided sufficient resources, financial or otherwise. Being narrow in its application, it has remained only an attractive idea.
In the name of buffer zones the authorities have tried to expand the territories of the national parks. They have been encroaching upon village woods and other commons. Besides, the buffer zone can be of very little help if the level of productivity in that zone is decreasing. In fact, what we really need is not a buffer zone but an integrated rural development programme. Employ the villagers gainfully and the pressure on forests can be reduced. That is not happening. The buffer zone concept is too narrow.
What kind of a management model would you like to suggest?
What we need is an effort to empower the local people, which means devolution of power from the park authorities to the local people. You can't expect local decisions to be made without allowing people to enter the forest. The question is whether this can be arranged through some user groups. That might be one solution. The problem with national parks is that it is not like other natural resources such as soil and water, where people have been involved in many ways. National parks are an excellently managed resource, if you mean that they have a park administration manned by government officials who manage the area without the participation of the local people.
What I would really like to do in my forthcoming research is to find a way to devolve power and distribute it to the different social groups in the area who constitute the local community.
You maintain the present conservation strategy has alienated people. How does one regain their confidence?
It is difficult unless you have a dialogue from the very beginning. Now, in many parks, a situation has arisen wherein a compromise or an understanding is difficult. I think a lot of effort will have to be put in that direction. One will have to look at the areas where local people can benefit without damaging the ecosystem. This is likely to differ from one park to another. In one park tourism might be important, but not in another, where hunting is important. My own feeling is that the ideology of total preservation is no good. Not all the practices of people are destructive.
Can you cite an example where the total preservation strategy has been detrimental to the ecology?
Yes. At Chinoda national park in Nepal, the park authorities allow the local people to enter the forest for a few weeks in a year to collect elephant grass and firewood. And this has been continuing for long. If I were the park warden, I wouldn't restrict this, as so much of the forest resources are lying waste. In fact, harvesting could be important in maintaining the local ecology.