Promoters of development projects in forest areas can be made to compensate by creating buffer zones around sanctuaries through minor modifications to the Forest Conservation Act guidelines

The contentious issue of notifying buffer areas around tiger reserves came under sharp debate when the Supreme Court issued interim directions to stop tourism in core or Critical Tiger Habitats (CTHs) and notify buffer areas. However, after the National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA) filed comprehensive guidelines on tiger conservation and tourism on October 15, 2012, the Supreme Court permitted the reopening of tourism strictly in accordance with the guidelines. Visitation is now permissible in existing tourism zones subject to a maximum of 20 per cent of core areas being used. But the important issue of creating viable buffers around a core area lost focus even though the NTCA guidelines harp on its importance to sustain tiger populations.

In most tiger reserves, core areas comprise notified sanctuaries and/or national parks, which are to be managed as areas free of incompatible human activity. Reserved forests, deemed forests and other unencumbered government land with some vegetation immediately abutting the CTHs are to be notified as buffer areas, which can act as “shock absorbers” for core areas.

Viable buffers

While notifying such contiguous forests as buffer areas may be relatively easy, the real challenge is in creating viable buffers wherever private agricultural lands abut core areas. Merely notifying such areas as buffer or peripheral areas without any viable habitat, as is being done now, may not only fail to deliver the imagined benefits for tiger conservation but also lead to hostility and loss of support from the local community.

Yet, acquiring large extent of private land abutting tiger reserves, to insulate the entire core area with a complete “wrap around” buffer that can support wildlife might be impractical. So is there a way forward to resolve this important issue?

An innovative mechanism can be created within the current legal framework with some very minor modifications to the Forest Conservation Act, 1980 Guidelines. This could greatly contribute to creating additional areas as viable forested buffers around tiger reserves.

Presently, most development project promoters seeking diversion of forest land for a non-forestry purpose have to identify an equivalent area of non-forest land. This has to be transferred and mutated in favour of the forest department for declaration as reserved forest/Protected Forest (PF). The project must also deposit funds for taking up compensatory afforestation in such lands. Stage II clearance under the Forest Act is to be granted only after compliance of this important condition. As far as possible, such areas should be contiguous with reserved forests for effective management. This is mandated under Chapter 3 of the Act’s guidelines.

Legal loophole

Unfortunately, in most cases, this important condition is relaxed based on certification by the State that sufficient/appropriate non-forest land is not available. In such cases a simpler condition of compensatory afforestation in degraded forest land twice the area diverted is insisted upon. This legal loophole has meant the loss of an excellent opportunity to create viable buffer areas as State governments routinely provide this exemption to most projects.

To facilitate the creation of viable forested buffers, the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) must first revise the current guidelines appropriately to plug this loophole. A new mechanism must then be created whereby the Tiger Reserve Authority in each tiger reserve State identifies private (non-forest) land immediately abutting a reserve, based on scientific and objective criteria, to be developed as ecologically viable buffers.

Private enclosures within contiguous reserve forests can also be identified. This data must be shared with development project promoters to explore the possibility of them privately acquiring the lands to comply with the Forest Act guidelines.

There could be two possible scenarios under which this idea could be enabled:

1. The owner(s) of such identified farm land may be willing to sell the land at prevailing market prices (which the project proponent /owner mutually agree upon as in any private land transaction). The project promoter has to then transfer and mutate the land in favour of the Forest Department for notification as a reserve forest/PF, as mandated by existing guidelines or even as a conservation reserve under Section 36-A of the Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972 under the proposed new mechanism or;

2. The owner(s) may not be willing to sell but may be agreeable — with suitable benefits — to develop it as a private/community reserve based on an appropriate management plan. There are enabling provisions in the Wildlife Act, which allow for any individual/group of individuals or community volunteering to conserve wildlife and its habitat to approach the government for a notification. While the land will continue to be owned by the individual/community, the land use will be agreed upon jointly with the Forest Department based on a management plan.

Participatory plan

This will enable appropriate development of the private/community reserve or the land mutated in favour of the Forest Department, by creating suitable vegetation with mixed plantation/bamboo/grassy patches/salt licks, etc to attract wildlife. The funding for this can come from money deposited by the project promoter for compensatory afforestation. The individual or community could then be encouraged and assisted to develop a participatory community-based tourism plan with benefit sharing as envisaged in the new NTCA guidelines. The tourism pressure on core areas can thus be reduced progressively.

All that is required are some minor modifications in the Forest Act Guidelines to include the terms “Core or Critical Tiger Habitat,” “Protected Area” and “Community Reserve” to enable identification and transfer of lands adjacent to these areas to the Forest Department by the project promoter. But for this idea to work, the MoEF must issue a proper clarification to States that, henceforth, transfer of non-forest land will not ordinarily be condoned.

This innovative mechanism, which is within the framework of existing laws, could open up tremendous opportunities for increasing viable buffers and creating additional habitats for wildlife where it is most needed — around tiger reserves/protected areas. It will not only help in achieving the true objective of compensatory afforestation, but also deliver benefits to local communities from the increasing economic opportunities of non-consumptive tourism outside core areas.

(Praveen Bhargav is a trustee of Wildlife First and has served on the National Board for Wildlife.)

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