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Conflict in the jungle

Just resettlement is a worthy solution to meet our conservation as well as social goals, says SANJAY GUBBI.


It's time to forget the phrase "people versus wildlife".

ONE of the biggest human rights violations in post-independent India has probably occurred during the resettling of people for various development purposes — large reservoirs, highways, mines and for the creation of national parks and wildlife sanctuaries. Resettlement has a dismal track record in our country and it is only natural that people dread the word resettlement. The compensation paid has been grossly inadequate, amenities promised have not been fulfilled or were poorly planned and implemented. And the eviction was usually coercive. If somebody asked me to leave my home without proper and just compensation it would constitute a gross abuse of my basic rights too.

But, resettlement is probably a much-needed exigency in cases like the creation of inviolate areas to preserve habitats and wildlife, which in turn act as flagship species for the conservation of the eco-system. These eco-systems also yield intangible benefits in terms of watershed value and as carbon sinks. In our agrarian society, forests and wildlife are very critical to our survival.

More importantly, these wild lands form less than four per cent of India's land area and demand high preservation status.

Apart from resettling people to preserve our bio-diversity, resettlement is also for the benefit of people who aspire for basic amenities, (education and primary health care) that are difficult to obtain in the interiors of forests. It is more economical to provide a good resettlement package than ensuring amenities in the interiors of forests. Further, the conflict between humans and wildlife would be mitigated. The need to address the issue of human wildlife conflict is a priority especially with escalating conflict between forest dwellers and large, fierce animals being pronounced. The need to address this problem is for the mutual well-being of both humans and wildlife.

Today, the scale of this quandary has become even larger due to the rate our wildlands are shrinking and the colossal growth of populations. Our protected areas are too small to support high human densities.

Conflict is often between wildlife and the rural population and the poor, and in many cases it is between large species and forest dwelling tribes. Most forest dwellers living inside our protected areas do not possess agricultural land or other means of livelihood. Even if land is provided inside the forests, the losses due to crop raiding animals will ensure that the farmer does not secure his sustenance. In Indian reserves, crop raiding by wildlife leads to a loss of livelihood opportunities for several families annually. Solutions to this problem like solar fencing and trenches may not act as long-term deterrents due to high costs and poor maintenance. These physical barriers might also affect the natural migration of wildlife. Loss of standing crops, livestock and more importantly human life calls for mitigating human-wildlife conflicts in a pragmatic, fair and sensitive way.

In our country, the lifestyle of most ethnic forest dwellers has mostly changed except for a few groups in the Andamans. Migrating pastorals in most of our protected areas have more or less adapted to permanent settlements which have depleted natural resources to very low levels both for their own livestock and also for wild herbivores. A study carried out in the Bhadra Tiger Reserve, Karnataka, by M.D. Madhusudhan of the Nature Conservation Foundation, showed that the palatable herb cover was 30 per cent lower in plots that were heavily grazed by village cattle when compared with plots with low levels of livestock grazing. Such a decline in bio-mass of palatable forage could lower the carrying capacity of the area of herbivores and the prey of large felines, in turn provoking intensified killing of livestock by big cats. In general, the intense removal of bio-mass from a wildlife habitat could depress carrying capacities for large mammals to levels where it intensifies their natural tendency to raid crops and kill livestock.

The densities of wildlife outside protected areas which is very poor, clearly indicates that harvesting of wildlife and other natural resources either for self consumption or for the market economy is no longer sustainable due to the massive augmentation of the demand.

In our country, most wildlife species, are nearing extinction as expansion for agriculture and human settlements have taken over their habitats. All these pressures call for rational long-term solutions. These days, the options seem to be straightforward — spatially separate large wildlife and humans or watch the extermination of habitat specialist extinction prone wildlife. Spatial co-existence might be possible between benign species and humans, but not in species like the elephant and the large carnivores that can lead to large-scale conflict. It is not just the poor forest dweller who should be resettled from our protected areas; we need to stop forthwith all activities that are detrimental to wildlife inside our protected areas such as industries and mines.

The implementation of resettlement projects in our country has been poor, ill planned and involuntary and most of them have failed dismally. As there are failures there are successes too, but very few. A modest example is that of the Bhadra Tiger Reserve. This is a model of a well-implemented resettlement project and a mirror for exceptional co-ordination between government officials, motivated wildlife organisations and people willing to be resettled.

Now there are clear signs of the reserve being restored for wildlife due to lesser human interference. And at the same time, people who have been resettled have also expressed their satisfaction about the amenities and resettlement compensation provided to them in terms of fertile irrigated agricultural land, and housing and monetary remuneration. This project has set a new desirable trend of positive collaboration between the government and wildlife organisations. The success of conservation in Bhadra is also due to the sacrifices made by the people who voluntarily moved out of the reserve.

Though the people resettled from Bhadra are not indigenous to the area, in other areas where resettlement of ethnic tribes is involved, it requires more sustained help to the resettled people. This has been witnessed in the Nagarahole National Park in Karnataka. Here, long-term agricultural support was extended to the tribals to ensure economic stability of the resettled people. Some local NGO's have also extended vocational training support. It is another prototype of a resettlement package funded by the government. Though some civil groups might not completely agree with the resettlement package provided, the most significant fact is that most beneficiaries evinced satisfaction and look for a better future for their children. The houses they are provided might look like matchboxes to a city dweller but it is a far better dwelling than the leaking mud huts which were often trampled upon by crop raiding pachyderms.

This also brings up the hotly contested issue — cultural uprootment of ethnic people. This question was clarified by a Kurub tribal who volunteered to be resettled from Nagarahole National Park. He said: "Culture is where we are!"

Wilderness areas (protected areas) or resettlement of the forest dwellers is not just a foreign concept as some may argue. When we can import/export literacy, science, food, medicine, education, human rights and other progressive concepts, what is wrong in learning from others' experience in protecting nature that makes this world a better place to live in? In fact we have a long tradition of protecting nature and have protected reserves from times immemorial. The present concept of protected areas probably with newly coined terms like national parks and wildlife sanctuaries, are for the long term good of society and not for the benefit of any groups/sects based on any cultural, social or economical hierarchy. We need to think progressively and rank nature protection higher in our list of ethical and social values.

Environmentalism is not elitist. If we are today battling for preserving forest resources, one might well ask: who benefits? Who will benefit the most from the long drawn out battle fought by wildlife conservationists against a multi-crore mining company at the Kudremukh National Park in the Western Ghats? More than anybody, it's the millions of small and marginal farmers, including tribals, dependent upon the Bhadra, the Tunga and the Nethravathi rivers who will reap the verdict of the Supreme Court to shut down the mine in this ecologically fragile rainforest.

Most problems can be resolved if they are approached with positive pragmatic solutions and not by attributing them to systemic inadequacy. Let's hope that we will tread the path with possible answers than mere rhetorical short-term outbursts. Resettlement has to be meticulously planned with substantial inputs from non-governmental organisations. The plan should be fair, transparent, land-based and implemented in a fair manner.

When resettlement involves ethnic or indigenous people they should also be given preference for jobs in the forest department. It is time for people who want to preserve our wildlife and the champions who believe that wildlife can co-exist with humans in the future, to sit down and iron out the differences. Their common goal should be to ensure a socially just resettlement package for people who voluntarily opt for resettlement. Resettlement should never be involuntary, but at the same time it is far from ideal to deny opportunities for people marooned inside forests and looking for better amenities.

Let's forget the phrase "people versus wildlife". Ultimately these wildlands are for the benefit of humans.

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