Ecology and people complement each other, and their constant interconnection is what makes the earth a fascinating place for humans to live on. However, today human developmental activities are carried out at the expense of the environment, and it is often poor and marginalized communities that pay the price for it. Hence, the Community Conservancy series aims to illustrate how conservation, biodiversity, and local livelihoods are mutually affected due to these complex socio-ecological conflicts.
The Community Conservancy series will shed light on the current Indian environmentalist and conservationist trends. However, this series mainly focuses on bringing on accounts of specific community-based conservation (CBC) approaches that have proved effective in preserving natural resources and views the same through the lens of sustainability. Finally, the series will also point out some of the sufferings and failures of such models.
Humans have generally turned their backs on the environment, and often their willing blindness prevents them from seeing how their actions towards the environment turn out to be destructive in nature. Although India has always been known for its rich geographical diversity since time immemorial, the urge to preserve its natural resources started only during the 1970s. The Chipko movement in 1973 was the stepping stone for igniting the environmental movement in India. Simultaneously, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, owing to her love for nature and wildlife, introduced the Project Tiger, a tiger conservation program that gained momentum and helped strengthen the environmental movement in India. So now comes a critical question, how is India planning to conserve its environment and natural resources?
The Government of India plays the predominant role in governing and regulating natural resources resulting in public neglect of these resources. For a long time, India has adapted most of its ideas and approaches to conservation from the West, and – Western Environmentalism strongly believes in preserving and conserving natural resources for the sake of maintaining environmental aesthetics (it isn’t surprising that fortress conservation strategies are dominant globally). Therefore, conservation in India also meant creating inviolate spaces to protect natural resources and biodiversity. Consequently, even today, colonial attitudes of Indian policymakers play a significant role in influencing environmentalism in the country. But, in recent times, community-based conservation is receiving increasing attention. But to understand the same, one must know how the creation of protected fortresses affects socio-ecological systems.
Protected areas (PAs) strictly prohibit the inclusion of humans, particularly local people, in planning for creating these spaces. They are often not allowed to enter these zones and are usually evicted from these places if necessary. Due to its exclusionary nature, this type of conservation approach is referred to as fortress conservation. Fortress conservation is based on the notion that resources and biodiversity are gradually diminishing in sites of active human intervention. According to fortress conservationists, human intervention creates fragmentation inducing the loss of resources and species. It is believed that when left undisturbed, nature tends to thrive, and the entire ecosystem will organically go back to its natural state. Thus, these conservationists justify their claim to eliminate poor rural indigenous people to protect the environment. On the other hand, fortress conservation can disastrously impact the local communities that depend on natural resources from the protected area. The lack of access to these resources has left numerous such communities in a state of dismay costing their livelihoods and, in the worst case, even their shelter. Nevertheless, experts in favour of community-based conservation practices argue that over the years, human activity around these critically protected zones has been a catalyst in improving the biodiversity in the region. Though localities use some of the resources for survival or livelihood purposes, their actions do not tend to harm them. Yet, it is essential to understand the threshold of this partnership and draw clear boundaries that do not harm either of the entities.
This form of exclusionary conservation cuts humans from the scene of protecting resources and biodiversity. Furthermore, the idea is supported by various stakeholders like the government, environment foundations, think tanks, NGOs, industrial leaders, and civilians, whose stance is sometimes considered more valuable than that of people living in the region generationally. Such a case fuels the need for a much-needed development debate that poses a moral dilemma — whether to leave natural spaces untouched for conserving them or evict the local people who depend on this resource. Should the world follow the Western model of fortress conservation or community-based conservation? The answer to this question is not simple. In a country like ours with ten diversely unique biogeographic zones, thrusting a single universal conservation model does not help preserve natural resources. The public must take an informed stand on the issue because we also fundamentally depend on nature, and neither entity can exist without the other. Moreover, it is crucial to realize the presence of a complex nexus between resources, biodiversity, poverty, and local livelihoods. Therefore, it becomes tough for actors like the state to design an intervention that serves the combined needs of both community and conservation. It is time that policy stakeholders realize the same and chart out conservation models specific to each region based on local realities. This piece tries to bring out the reality of Indian environmentalism. It attempts to point out that merely the idea of exclusionary and inclusive conservation is not enough to address the problem of conservation in today’s era.