Conservation as politics: Wildlife conservation and resource management in India
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Conservation as politics: Wildlife conservation andresource management in IndiaVasant K. SaberwalPublished online: 26 Nov 2008.
To cite this article: Vasant K. Saberwal (2000) Conservation as politics: Wildlife conservation and resource management inIndia, Journal of International Wildlife Law & Policy, 3:2, 166-173, DOI: 10.1080/13880290009353954
To link to this article: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/13880290009353954
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Conservation as Politics:Wildlife Conservation and Resource Management
Vasant K. Saberwal2
India; protected areas.
1 . Introduction
Wildlife conservation in India, as in most parts of the world, is complex andoften contentious. What on die surface appears to be a simple issue of protectingwild animals and plants from forces beyond their control, on closer inspectionquickly dissolves into a complex tangle of conflicting issues: human rights versus theprotection of animals and forests, the exclusion of all humans from protected areasversus die possibility of human coexistence with wildlife and the exclusive state con-trol over protected areas versus increased local participation in protected area man-agement. Indeed, beyond the broad objective of preserving nature, there is often lit-tle in common among the various positions adopted by conservationists as to thespecifics of what is to be protected, for, by and from whom.
Conservation practice necessarily entails the imposition of regulations overaccess to certain resources with specific people or institutions attempting to definewho has access to those resources and on what terms. The outcome of negotiatedaccess to resources is largely a reflection of power relations at the local, regional ornational level. There are critical questions revolving around our understanding ofhow ecosystems work and the need to employ accurate science in the managementof protected areas, but here too the links between power and knowledge influenceour perception of the natural world and the optimal means of managing it.Conservation practice is, therefore, a profoundly political process. I will make a sim-ple point in this essay: what gets conserved, and by whom, will ultimately be deter-mined by social and political processes as much, if not more, than by the scientificknowledge we bring to bear on resource management.
1 This paper is a marginally modified version of a paper that appeared in 466 SEMINAR, 12-16 (June1998). At the time, the author was a Research Associate at the Institute for Social and EconomicChange, Bangalore. My thanks to the editors at Seminar for permission to reprint this piece.
2 Independent Writer and Filmmaker, based in New Delhi.
Conservation as Politics 167
2. State vs. Local Controls
The central stand-off in Indian conservation is the question of whether protectedareas should be inviolate and managed by the state, or whether local communitiesshould have a bigger say in the management of protected areas including, if need be,access to resources within these areas. Within this discussion, neither the deionisationof the state nor the romanticisation of local communities is of much value.
Can the state enforce unpopular policies that exclude local communities fromconservation areas? The simple answer is no, not on a sustained basis. While theposting of guards may ensure the absence of villagers from the more high profile sec-tions of National Parks, there is little the state can do against anonymous "crimes,"such as the setting of forest fires or the use of poison to kill lions, tigers, and othercarnivores. Such actions are, in part, an expression of the alienation villager's feelfrom conservation programs that deny them access to basic necessities. In turn, suchanimosity may translate into heightened support for poaching, an activity that ismost effective by poachers local contacts, but also most effectively checked by coop-eration with local contacts. Whether the state or the poacher captures the support ofthe local communities largely depends on the latters degree of alienation from theresource and the state.
The divided nature of the state is another reason for its ineffectiveness in con-trolling local access to resources. Rarely do the agendas of the lowest functionaries ofthe state align with those of policy makers if only because of the inability of thestate to provide adequate salaries to its lowest paid staff. In the absence of adequatecompensation, even if that compensation were to be raised, there is little reason toassume an alignment of forest guard and policy maker interests regarding whatneeds to be conserved and the means of conserving the same. Guards hired fromlocal villages are far more likely to have sympathies with the people among whomthey have kin or other long-standing ties. Guards may of course choose to enforcerestrictions on some members of the community. However, this is as likely to be anexercise of power as an attempt to conserve, say the wild flowers of the Himalayas,and is a shaky premise for long-term efforts at conserving nature.
There are also horizontal divisions within the state, in part a manifestation ofconflicting mandates to different departments. However, let us leave that for themoment, and concentrate on what is the more crucial issue of potential differencesin the agendas of politicians and bureaucrats. However imperfectly Indian democra-cy may appear to function, politicians will eventually respond to voter demands forthe lifting of restrictions on access to forest resources, it is simply a question of theissue coming to gain sufficient importance in a given constituency. Politicians elect-ed on an anti-conservation platform will, ultimately strip protected areas of this sta-tus, as has happened in parts of Gujarat. Political intervention in Forest Departmentfunctioning is amply documented by Valmik Thapar for the state of Madhya
168 Journal of International Wildlife Law and Policy Vol. 3:2
Pradesh in Central India.3 Variations to the theme have been reported within thecontext of local access to Reserve Forests in Himachal Pradesh.'* Such interferencearises for two reasons: politicians benefit personally by allowing industrialists prefer-ential access to the mineral and forest wealth within these areas, and they benefitpolitically from fulfilling electoral promises. As a result, the use of forests and grass-lands is determined more by local community leaders and politicians and less by theForest Department, the agency mandated to manage this resource. Thus, there is apolitical problem associated with exclusionist conservation policies of the IndianForest Department. A long-term effective implementation of such policy borders onthe impossible.
In response to what has been perceived to be a fundamentally unjust policy,numerous environmental and social activists have argued for the need to providelocal communities with a greater role in protected area management. This is viewedas being both inherently more equitable than an exclusionary policy and a moreeffective means of conserving natural resources.
An extreme position among many social activists is for the handing over of allprotected areas to the sole care of local communities. However, diere are other, lessdrastic, measures suggested by many both within and outside the country. Followingthe successes of Joint Forest Management there have been proposals for JointProtected Area Management, wherein local communities would