The principal objection of the Karnataka government to the Unesco's proposed ‘natural heritage' status for the Western Ghats — namely that tribal populations will be evicted — is unfounded, according to Unesco officials.
Unesco cannot influence the governance of heritage sites, which will continue to be ruled by the laws of the land, said Ram Bhuj, the head of the Ecological Sciences and Natural Heritage Division of Unesco, New Delhi.
“A heritage tag is no more than a title that is meant to give a site added prestige. The forests of the Western Ghats will be governed, as they have been so far, by the three central laws: The Wildlife Protection Act, 1972, the Indian Forests Act, 1927 and the Forest Rights Act. 2006. There is nothing Unesco can do to change that,” he told The Hindu.
There are lakhs of people living within the Sundarbans National Park, which was declared Heritage Site in the 1980s, said Jagdish Krishnaswamy of Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment, which has worked with Unesco in the nomination of the sites. Sundarbans is among five forest protected areas that have been given the natural heritage tag: the others are Manas, Kaziranga, Nanda Devi and Keoladeo national parks.
The modus operandi of Unesco is to evaluate the site periodically, and hand over a periodic report about the status and any dangers from development activities in the area, he said. The report is eventually passed on to the MoEF and the State Forests Department, that can use their discretion to act on their recommendations. When there is a perceived threat, the site is put on a heritage ‘danger list,' as was done in Manas during the Bodo rebellion, he added.
C.R. Bijoy of Campaign for Survival and Dignity believes that it is the context in which the heritage tag comes, not the tag itself, that is the cause for concern. “In a country where the Forests Rights Act and the rights of tribals are routinely violated, a ‘natural heritage' tag is bound to raise concern among people.”
Illustrating the bureaucratic callousness to the rights of forest dwelling communities, he pointed out that when MoEF sent its proposal to Unesco in 2009, there was no mention of the Forests Rights Act.
Meanwhile, a campaign is gathering momentum around the globe, representing tribal and forest communities in India, Kenya, Burundi, Solomon Islands and Nepal, against the newly nominated heritage sites. The petition points out that the sites were nominated without the involvement and consultation of local communities.
According to the Karnataka Forest Department, there are close to 3,000 (or 12,000 individuals) families that live in the 10 sites that form the Western Ghats cluster within the State's boundaries.