If anybody has rights over forest areas, it is the traditional communities that have lived there for generations

In an order that will have far reaching consequences, the Supreme Court imposed a blanket ban on tourism in the core areas of tiger reserves with immediate effect on July 24. The order is up for review within three weeks, but the stage has been set for a period of considerable turmoil in matters related to wildlife tourism, particularly that where the tiger is involved.

There has been wide coverage of the development in the print and electronic media and the virtual world too has come alive with opinions, claims, allegations and counter allegations. A large section of the wildlife conservation community has been quite outraged and this is an important comment on the political economy of wildlife conservation as also of the wildlife tourism industry.

One prominent wildlife photographer who is also hotelier posted a photo of a dead tiger on Facebook with a prominent caption — “Tourism did not kill him — goat herders did.” Other comments have expressed indignation at a situation where villagers will be allowed to stay inside, but tourism will have to leave. It is noteworthy that wildlife conservation and tourism are implicated in an interesting and important overlap of interests. Those wanting conservation of wildlife are increasingly benefitting from it as tourism operators or then as consumers of a wild experience.

Dilemmas, contradictions

The case has been made for a very long time that tourism benefits wildlife because it constitutes non-consumptive consumption of the resource that can also benefit local communities in the process and secondly, that tourist presence denies poachers the chance to get at their quarry. The simplicity of these arguments conceals the fault lines of a situation that is far more nuanced and complex both on the ground as well as in the policy domain.

While conservation has been projected as an important national agenda, there is no denying that in the present paradigm, its majority stake is restricted to a small section of the urban middle and upper-middle class. There is much evidence, in fact, of the hardships experienced by and atrocities inflicted on local communities in the name of conservation. Ironically, the same paradigm is expected to benefit the same people from the same wildlife conservation, albeit through the tourism route. It is unlikely that the math will add up!

The dilemmas, even the contradictions perhaps, are evident, for instance, in an editorial of the business newspaper Mint (“Saving India’s forests,” July 30, 2012). It argues that giving tourists access to forests will ensure their protection and conservation but giving forests dwellers rights under the Forest Rights Act is likely to make them “an instrument for their destruction.” Champati Sarath (“Ban on tourists no boon for tigers,” The Hindu, July 31, 2012), similarly, talks a language of the rights of people (read tourists) to visit national parks. We are failing to account for the fact that these tiger-inhabited landscapes have been peopled by forest dwellers and traditional communities for generations and that they have entitlements and rights here. One of the key pleas of the petitioner, that led to the Supreme Court order in fact, was that no tourism should be allowed in places where traditional communities had been displaced in the name of conservation. The case of the Sathyamangalam Tiger Reserve in Tamil Nadu is illustrative. At about the time that the entire country is discussing the ban on tourism in the core of tiger reserves, 19 tribal dominated village panchayats in the Sathyamangalam have been protesting and opposing the tiger reserve for fear of the impacts it would have on their livelihoods.

The larger framework within which all of this operates also needs to be borne in mind — the overall economic paradigm where everything is meant for consumption; where GDP and economic growth takes precedence over everything else, where mining, dams, roads and railways are ripping apart habitats of wildlife and homes of traditional communities. This is a paradigm where even wildlife and conservation is being asked to pay for itself. Banning tourism is, perhaps, not the solution but if the parameters of the debate and the discussions around conservation are themselves not renegotiated, there is unlikely to be much progress.

For many proponents, tourism, if done sensitively, is part of the solution to the many conservation related challenges we face today.

For the moment however, the shoe is on the other foot. The solution has become the problem and the Supreme Court order should be welcomed for the debate it has fostered and a new perspective it could potentially engineer. Whether this results in a wash out or a shake-out depends on how the various stakeholders choose to respond, and in this case the wait in unlikely to be a long one.

(Pankaj Sekhsaria edits the bimonthly newsletter on wildlife, Protected Area Update that is published by the environmental action group, Kalpavriksh. Email: psekhsaria@gmail.com)

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