The expert panel set up by the government to formulate Kerala’s response to the report of the Kasturirangan committee on the conservation of the Western Ghats is considering an economic compensation programme to protect the interests of farmers in the villages named Ecologically Sensitive Areas (ESAs).

Official sources said the panel had discussed a series of economic incentives initially mooted by the Kerala State Biodiversity Board to promote stakeholder interest among the farmers and ensure their participation in environmental management. Conservation grants are likely to be recommended for farmers involved in ecosystem services such as multiple crop farming, maintenance of traditional breeds, organic farming, watershed protection and use of renewable energy sources.

Since the 1980s, the United Nations Environment Programme, Food and Agricultural Organisation and World Bank have recognised Payment for Ecosystem Services (PES) as an instrument for biodiversity conservation and repair of damaged ecosystems.

A senior official said the incentives were expected to assuage the fears of the settler farmers and residents who have been on the warpath against the demarcation of ESAs by the High Level Working Group headed by Mr. Kasturirangan.

“While the notification issued by the Ministry of Environment and Forests last month clearly spells out the don’ts like mining, quarrying, thermal power plants, big construction projects and Red category industries, it does not mention the dos for ESAs. Our effort is to highlight some of the activities that can be taken up as a participatory exercise.”

Thee interim report of the State-level expert panel headed by Oommen V. Oommen has proposed a resurvey of the 123 villages identified as ESAs. The intention, according to government sources, was to exclude agricultural land, settlements and plantations from the ESA. According to the proposal, teams comprising officials of the Revenue, Forest and Agriculture departments and representatives of the panchayat-level Biodiversity Management Committees would examine the available land records to identify the human habitats to be exempted from the ESAs.

The HLWG had depended on satellite data to demarcate 123 villages as ESAs. During its interaction with people’s representatives, the three-member expert panel received inputs that the total reliance on remote sensing data had led to anomalies in classification. “Several townships and plantations were demarcated as ESAs while the vast grasslands in Wagamon, a critical ecosystem, have been excluded. This is one of the factors that fuelled the mass protests against the implementation of the HLWG report,” said the official.

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