Special issue with the Sunday Magazine
From the publishers of THE HINDU
EARTHSCAPES: May 20, 2001
Manju Raju and Madhu Sarin
The writers are independent researchers and consultants; the former coordinates the Livelihoods, Lifestyles and Biodiversity Working Group of NBSAP, and the latter is on the Technical and Policy Core Group of the NBSAP.
Media obsession with politics, fashion and business relegates stories of the common man's real life struggles to the back pages. The recent killing of three tribals in the police firing in Kashipur, Orissa, for protesting against bauxite mining in the area, and 12 in Takpara, Jharkhand, for their long standing resistance to the Koel Karo dam received very poor media coverage.
A little earlier, the custodial death of Col. Pratap Save for leading the fisherfolk's struggle against the construction of Umbergaon port in Gujarat met the same fate.
What inspires these ordinary people to face police bullets, torture and false cases? The answer is simple: the forests, ponds and rivers, coasts, mangroves and fields that stand to be submerged or dammed or mined or drained or polluted, are the very basis of survival for millions of ordinary people. These ordinary, rather extraordinary, people are simply telling the rest of society: lay off, these natural resources and biodiversity are our ancestral heritage, an integral part of our culture and way of life, what our livelihoods are based on, what we live on.
"Big dams, mines, industry and joining the global market are the paths to development", goes the argument in the corridors of power. Wealth generated in this way will trickle down to the masses and improve standards of living. Actions taken in the name of "public" or "national" interest, however, never allow a say to those whose lives, cultures and livelihoods are torn asunder by such interventions. And where biodiversity conservation gets some (hesitant) official attention, it again does so at the cost of local livelihoods, as a bureaucracy-centred model of wildlife protection assumes that only by removing people can nature be saved.
As Dhan Singh of Laata village on the periphery of the Nanda Devi National Park, says: "Oopar bagh aur neechey baandh hamain kha rahein hain" (Higher up the panthers and lower down the dams are eating us up). Dhan Singh's lament is based on 20 per cent of Uttarakhand's geographic area already being brought under the protected area network, jeopardising the lives and livelihoods of half a million people. The proposed construction of several dams for hydro-power lower down is expected to displace another million people.
Challenging the dominant assumption that the increasing population of poor people is the main threat to biodiversity, Dhan Singh points to the large scale involuntary displacement from the region due to denial of access to livelihood resources. Despite many hill villages being left with less than half their populations, illicit felling and poaching have not declined. If this is the level of disempowerment of rugged mountain dwellers famous for the Chipko Andolan, demanding sustainable management of their forests for local livelihoods in protest against indiscriminate commercial exploitation, what, one may ask, is happening to rural communities in lesser known areas?
People closest to biodiversity point to the continuing role of government policies in the reckless destruction of biodiversity for the commercial benefit of a few. By denying local people their ancestral resource rights, the policing model of conservation alienates and disempowers the best potential allies of conservation by pitting them against protected area authorities. Pathetically short of staff and resources, wildlife staff can hardly succeed in warding off powerful global market interests surrounded by alienated and embittered local resource users.
The problem is not a simplistic proposition of "people" versus "wildlife". It is rooted in the complex interplay of divergent interests driving the actions of different groups and people. The same villagers who earlier protected biodiversity in sacred groves can be driven to destroying it for earning wages if their sources of livelihood are snatched away. Commercial interests from the Indian mainland are enticing and compelling tribals in the North-east to sell off their rich forests, and poaching gangs are able to win over villagers, alienated by conservationists and neglected by development agencies, to help track down bears and tigers.
The country's network of water bodies, intertwined with lakes, canals and rivers leading to the sea, harbours rich biodiversity, on which about 22 million fisher-people depend. Yet, be it aquatic conservation policies, or economic development for the global market, the livelihoods and priorities of these people are not taken into account. Fortunately, mobilisation of millions of fisherfolk by the National Fishworkers' Forum to protest against destructive commercial trawling and intensive aquaculture, has brought national attention to this neglected sector.
The oft-derided Jhum or shifting cultivation systems incorporate maintenance of rich agro-biodiversity. Swidden farming by the Angamis in Nagaland, for example, involves the cultivation of 15 to 60 crop species, pest control through multi-cropping and spreading the availability of diverse foods (and the associated requirement of labour) over several months of the year. It has been called a "female farming system" as sowing, manuring, weeding, seed selection and storage are all done by women while men do the tree cutting, clearing and burning of the jhum plot. Yet a government project aimed to replace this farming system with one officially considered more "sustainable" by working only with men. Such interventions not only belittle women's rich knowledge of agro-diversity but lower their status and control over household food security. In contrast, the empowered Dalit women and men farmers of Medak district in Andhra Pradesh understand and celebrate the value of agro-diversity for food security and control over their lives (see article on Agriculture, in this issue).
The social importance of biodiversity not only in officially protected areas but across the entire landscape, is demonstrated by increasing attempts by local women and men to nurture ecosystems back to health. Between 6,000 to 8,000 villages in Orissa alone are engaged in self-initiated community forest protection. In the hills of Uttaranchal, village women and men are resorting to offering adjoining forests to devis or devtas to ward off greedy land speculators. A cluster of 35 villages in Kudada, 12 km from Jamshedpur in Jharkhand, have regenerated their totally degraded forests from zero to 100 per cent cover.
The symbiotic relationship between people and nature has also generated rich indigenous knowledge. Para-veterinarian programmes for village women have been startled by the large numbers of herbs, barks and other plant parts traditionally used by women (responsible for cattle care) and local vaids for treating cattle ailments. Thousands of plant and animal species are used for thousands of different uses across India.
Practices for careful balancing of conservation with sustainable use also abound (see Box). Hill women carefully lop the trees nurtured on field bunds for fodder, firewood and fibre, maintaining plant health while maximising yields. On the outskirts of Dalma Wildlife Sanctuary, some adivasi villagers have adapted their traditional annual hunt (otherwise distorted by adivasi youth "educated" outside the community) for monitoring the floral and faunal regeneration in every nook of their community protected forest.
Unfortunately, even official "participatory" programmes are often blind to the interests of the poorest women and men. The Joint Forest Management (JFM) framework has till recently assumed that the primary incentive required to make villagers participate in forest protection is money or timber shares.
Walking through the regenerating forests in South West Bengal, however, opens up a totally different world view. The women of one Forest Protection Committee excitedly pointed out at least 50 varieties of leaves, climbers, creepers and roots they use for food, fodder, medicine, fibre, fuel and income. Ironically, when the sal poles are harvested for income sharing, this biodiversity gets badly mauled by the official timber-focussed and biodiversity-blind "scientific" silviculture. Many self-initiated forest protection groups in different States have refused to participate in the government's JFM programme, as felling the forest and sharing timber with the Forest Department is simply not acceptable to them. In Mendha (Lekha), a small Gond village, nestled in the forests of Gadchiroli district, Maharashtra, adivasis have rejected official silvicultural methods, and on their own protect 1800 ha. forests, created study circles to gain better understanding of a host of issues, started savings schemes, initiated non-violent honey collection . . . and increasingly, moved towards tribal self-rule.
These examples point to the potential for developing approaches that integrate conservation and livelihood security. The challenge lies in developing a holistic framework for promoting biodiversity conservation based on principles of democracy, equity and genuine empowerment of the primary stakeholders. This is not to suggest reverting to a mythical idyllic past or rejecting development. Resource dependent women and marginalised groups must be empowered to gain a greater voice in decentralised self-governance institutions practicing participatory, rather than "representative" democracy. A start can be made by moving towards joint and community-based management, under which customary rights and equitable benefit-sharing becomes a basis for communities and officials to work together towards biodiversity conservation.
This is one of the main thrusts of the ongoing National Biodiversity Strategy and Action Plan (NBSAP), a Government of India programme that is being executed by NGOs and others in an extremely participatory manner (see Introductory essay). A specialist thematic working group is formulating an action plan on securing livelihoods through biodiversity conservation and use, and various agencies at local and State levels are preparing detailed, micro-level plans for the same. A recent workshop on adivasis and biodiversity, brought together 85 adivasis and supporters to discuss these issues. The results of all these exercises will feed into the national action plan, and hopefully influence governmental policy to be more sensitive to biodiversity-based livelihoods.
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