Urban wildlife and disappearing commons

  • 29/11/1993

"What are we supposed to feel when a sarkari animal carries our children away? Are we still supposed to love the animal and the sarkar?" This plea by an activist working with poor people living in and around sanctuaries and national parks was countered by a conservationist who argued: "But aren"t they animals which belong to all of us ? To entire humanity?"

Both these perspectives are equally valid and true. It is true that any moral code of human beings will demand that they respect all forms of life on earth. Even self-interest teaches humans that they cannot survive without the preservation of nature and its living and non-living diversity. To that extent the plea of the conservationist was unexceptionable and valid.

But if the state which manages these protected areas makes no attempt to protect people or manage wild populations leading to an imbalance between population size and habitat size, and disallows any participation of the local people in the management of these areas, then it is obvious that there will be a swell of local anger. These animals will then become only sarkari animals.

As compared to the rich, the poor of India live within a biomass-based subsistence economy. Nature"s resources constitute the basic foundation of their survival. Firewood, fodder, grass, leaves, flowers, small timber, small game, domesticated animals, streams and ponds provide them with the wherewithal for daily existence. Naked lands can only support naked people. And the same happens when access to biomass-rich lands are denied to them. The only difference is that land degradation generates desperation while denial of access gives rise to alienation and anger.

In India, wildlife protection laws are being applied in a manner that excludes and then displaces people out of their habitat. The oustees feel angry not just because they are being evicted out of their homes but also because of the injustice of the charge: That they are being held responsible for the destruction of forests and wildlife. They have seen trucks carry away timberloads and hunters mow down birds and animals -- from the cheetah to the tiger. And many still carry on their depredations in league with corrupt officials. But it is the meagre biomass demand of the poor that is sought to be controlled. To the point of displacement.

This could have never happened in any democratic country of the West where the axing of jobs of a few dozen loggers is considered important and highly contentious. "Jobs, jobs, jobs" is what George Bush said when confronted with the spotted owl versus loggers controversy. And the pro-environment Bill Clinton has not done much either. The Australians dithered for years over a decision to stop logging on the pristine and exceptionally beautiful Fraser Island. But India"s authorities believe they can displace hundreds of thousands of people.

The numbers dependent on the resources of national parks and sanctuaries which cover about 3.5 per cent area of the country, that is, over ten million hectares, is not small. The average population density in India will soon be touching three million people per million hectares. This gives a figure of 30 million people dependent on protected areas. But as the density of populations living in forested areas will be well below the national average, the numbers affected will more likely to be about five to ten million. And many more millions in the fringes of these areas will depend on them for their daily needs. How many will the state outs and resettle, denying their right to survive in their own habitats?

Surely, the last act of the state should be to alienate those living cheek by jowl with these areas. As opponents of smugglers, they can keep these areas protected and secure. As supporters of smugglers, or even as uninterested onlookers, they can bleed all forms of plant and animal life to death. It is obvious that the state must ensure that the people feel elated when an area is declared a national park and not alienated. And what is true of a national park is also true of a tree like sandalwood. Alienation is the ultimate invitation to the tragedy of the commons.

Organisations and nations across the world now recognise this challenge. People and parks is a theme that the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) is seriously confronted with. Operation Campfire is Zimbabwe"s bold attempt to turn the threatened elephant into a resource of the local communities and thus ensure their suppport in the fight against ivory poachers.

Why should we not try a new approach in India? People living in and around forests, national parks and sanctuaries are heavily dependent on these areas for their survival and incomes. Simply economic theory teaches us that if people depend on something they will care for it. These people don"t want the forests to disappear because their survival will disappear with them. The nation too does not want forests to disappear. So where is the conflict if we were to promote an inclusive rather than an exclusive strategy?

Unfortunately, wildlife management strategists faced with degradation perceive the task in terms of protection and exclusion. But if they saw the task in terms of regeneration and inclusion, they would have learnt the lessons of the forest regeneration projects of the l980s -- Sukhomajri, Ralegan Siddhi, Palamu, Arabari and numerous others -- in which people changed their behaviour to protect and enrich their forests.

If the proposed Rajaji National Park is facing degradation, then why can"t the Van Gujars who depend on those forests for their cultural and economic survival not be involved and empowered to regenerate the degraded forests? The reversal of degradation should only give them more grass and leave the core areas untouched. And in order to prevent further growth of animals efforts can be made to increase incomes from sale of products of existing but better-fed animals. In the long term, strategies should be found to use their strengths, namely, their traditional skills and knowledge of the forest to promote non-grazing occupations. They should organise tourism to the park and economically benefit from it. And if any investment is needed to push this process along, with the participation and concurrence of the Van Gujjars, the rest of the world -- the rich of India and the industrialised world.

Surely, if these habitats are being protected for humanity, which includes the rich who consume the most, then it is they who should pay. Surely, the ecological costs of protecting biodiversity for the future demands of the food and pharmaceutical multinationals cannot be paid by the poor nor should they be demanded from them. And if New Yorkers or New Delhiites want to run carbon dioxide producing motor cars while keeping forests as a cheaper strategy to reduce global carbon dioxide emissions, then let them pay the Van Gujjars an annual rent for their forests. The Gujjars will then have enough to hire guards to protect the forests, invest in schools, and buy their grass and fodder from the surrounding farmers.

In an interesting paper, professor of management Anil Gupta in Ahmedabad asks the question: "Why are people living in biodiversity rich areas so poor?" According to wildlife experts, the principles of wildlife management have been evolving from the protection of specific species to the protection of whole ecosystems and now to the protection of biodiversity. If biodiversity is indeed so important, then clearly some of the economic benefits or rather the premium for ensuring future economic survival must go to the human beings whose habitat these ecosystems have been. Otherwise it will be an unjust case not of protection but of expropriation.

The most irritating sight for displaced communities is to see upper and middle class tourists coming in car and planeloads for their fun and adventure while they themselves have been moved out. In and around Ranthambore, all big hoteliers have their outfits and numerous middle class families in Sawai Madhopur have set up tourist lodges. Why has no effort been made to give cheap loans to the interested households in affected villages to upgrade their houses to carefully specified standards without changing their basic rustic character so that they can be used as cheaper bed and breakfast places with a campfire dinner? A marketing programme by the Rajasthan Tourism Development Corporation could bring in numerous people from the city interested in exotica, adventure and a feel for the earth. And let all those interested be trained as sanctuary guides. Many of them probably know more about wild animals in the park than today"s tourist guides. One such sensitive programme will ensure that every village in and around the sanctuary has a stake in it.

Lets look at the issue in another way. Land in India does not come cheap. Yet no attempt has been made to pay the cost of keeping land for conservation. Every visitor should pay a conservation tax, for want of a better term and this revenue should go to local communities as a matter of right and not as government largesse.

The sum total is that we need bold and imaginative solutions which integrate global ecological concerns with local economic needs, and that will be the true harmonisation of environment and development. Pussyfooting simply won"t work. People today are angry with sarkari animals and trees and unless they become people"s animals and trees, the anger will grow.

Indira Gandhi in her famous statement to the Stockholm Conference in l972 had recounted an anecdote from Mahatma Gandhi"s life. A conservationist interested in wildlife protection had gone to the devotee of non-violence to enlist his support for the cause. He told the Mahatma, "Gandhiji, I am really worried that wildlife is disappearing in our jungles. I need your help." But Gandhi retorted, "My friend, you are worried about wildlife disappearing in the jungles, I am worried about wildlife increasing in the cities."

Surely, we should not let the urban wildlife, which massacred the lion, the cheetah and the tiger, now be allowed to set rules for the wildlife in the jungles.

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