India’s accelerating efforts to protect biodiversity appear commendable at first sight. However, these top-down programmes often violate the rights of indigenous communities.

Eleonora Fanari* of the Environmental Justice Atlas explains the findings of some alarming new research.

Biodiversity around the world is decreasing at an alarming rate. We are currently facing a ‘sixth mass extinction’ and governments and international bodies are planning to take action. The UN, for example, declared 2020 as the ‘super year for biodiversity’. To prevent the loss of global wildlife, the UN initiative plans to expand the global network of protected areas (PAs), with a target of at least 30% of the Earth’s surface by 2030.

Expanding PAs as a conservation model is not enough. Top-down approaches are highly criticised by some social scientists and civil society organisations, as this model does not consider the heavy burden conservation has placed on many areas of the Global South.

India, a country globally recognised as a biodiversity hotspot, hosting nearly 8% of global species, has followed such policies and turned many of its forests into PAs in the name of conservation. Yet, despite some so-called successes, in some cases, India is still unable to balance wildlife protection with the rights of local communities.

Featured Map developed by the Environmental Justice Atlas’ researchers from the Autonomous University of Barcelona, in collaboration with Kalpavriksh, an environmental action group in India, reveal the dark reality. Using findings from 26 of India’s PAs, research shows that the expansion of conservation projects has turned these areas into spaces of conflict.

Launched during India’s Wildlife Week (2-8 October 2020), the map demonstrates that the rights and access to land for local inhabitants are continuously undermined and forbidden in the name of wildlife protection. To make matters worse, the alleged ‘protected’ areas continue to remain unprotected by authorities in the face of development projects. The government’s approach to conservation indicates that conservation is only a priority when set against marginalised communities.

Colonial legacy

India has around 4.3 million people living within or at the margins of protected forest areas, which cover approximately 5%  of the country’s entire territory. Historically, the first protected areas were created as game reserves during colonial times and as spaces for British colonialists to hunt and to extract timber resources. Even during post-colonial times, these spaces continued to serve as areas of intense timber production and for hunting purposes.

It was only later, under the framework of international attention to environmental protection that these same areas were classified as national parks and wildlife sanctuaries. Though the enactment of the Wildlife Protection Act (WLPA) in 1972 was a result of that international attention, these spaces never recognised the rights of the local people inhabiting the protected forests.

For many local communities, the land represents their only source of livelihood, which puts them at odds with the established conservation framework. As the findings show, even though the colonialist left the abuse continues for the local inhabitants.

Tigers and humans

Over the last 30 years, the network of PAs increased exponentially, going from 67 in 1988 to 903 in 2019. During this time, the threat of India’s tiger extinction received special attention in the way of 50 tiger reserves with the highest level of wildlife restrictions. Expansion of tiger corridors and new categories such as tiger landscapes, areas with special attention in doubling tiger numbers, represented the new political project for a green India.

At first glance, India’s attempt to use wildlife restrictions for the benefit of the environment may seem like a positive step. In reality, the social and ecological costs of such top-down conservation and control approaches have, however, been high. As research demonstrates, beneath India’s effort to preserve nature lies the human cost of conservation.

The research findings show that from 1999 to 2020, India displaced 13,445 families from the 26 areas studied, mostly from tiger reserves, thus leaving thousands of people in profound uncertainty. One of the many examples is the massive forceful relocation from Melghat Tiger Reserve where 16 villages or 2,952 families were relocated from the core area in the last 10 years. Communities were relocated without prior informed consent and left in makeshift camps with a lack of health facilities, no water supply and no education.

False allegations and abuse

The sample findings also show that in the majority of cases, local people reported being implicated in false criminal cases, petty forest offences and physical harassment mainly against women. An example comes from the Dudhwa Tiger Reserve when, during the COVID-19 pandemic, forest officials attacked and physically harassed a group of Tharu women while they were collecting minor forest products such as firewood and other wild fruits. Other cases include the false criminal charges against locals and activists, to discourage political actions, as occurred in the Nagarhole Tiger Reserve in the state of Karnataka. A total of 192 cases against tribal people were registered between 2001 and 2011.

Additionally, militarisation masquerading as anti-poaching measures is resulting in innocent deaths, creating serious physical and psychological harm to local communities. One of the most illustrative cases in this regard is the Kaziranga National Park, in the state of Assam, where anti-poaching measures have created clashes between the forest department and the local communities, leaving often innocent local people dead. 

The map also shows that militarised guards are now present in 13, or almost half, of the PAs studied. These task forces mainly include the Special Tiger Protection Force (STPF), a security body formed by the National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA), with the aim of securing tiger numbers and already operational in 12 of India’s states.

Indigenous rights

The actions by Indian authorities in some of these cases are in clear violation of the UN’s Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), of which India is a signatory state. The CBD recognises the inclusion of indigenous communities and forest dwellers in the management of protected areas and biodiversity governance.

At the national level, these rights are legally recognised by The Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Rights) Act 2006, also called the Forest Rights Act (FRA). This landmark legislation marked a pivotal moment in the long struggle for indigenous rights. For the first time in the history of post-colonial India, Indigenous people and forest dwellers were legally granted justice.

The FRA recognises the right to inhabit, use and manage forest resources, including within protected forest areas, and grants democratic power to the gram sabha (village assembly). This legislation has the potential to change the conservation approach and shift the conservation model towards more communitarian management of natural resources. However, since its inception, it was violated both by state forest authorities and conservation organisations present in the country.

In the 14 years since the FRA’s implementation, only five out of the 26 studied protected areas have some community resource rights recognised under the legislation. One of the main examples is the BRT tiger reserve, in the state of Karnataka, where a long struggle by the Soliga tribes led to their community forest resource rights being recognised in the entire tiger reserve. Other areas where there were successful struggles include the Simlipal tiger reserve and Yawal WLS, and to a lesser extent in Tadoba tiger reserve and Melghat tiger reserve. However, even within these areas, local communities continue to face challenges, which impede them from fully exercising their rights.

Environmental justice is social justice

As the data shows, the measures adopted to conserve India’s biodiversity cannot function in isolation. The management of these conservation projects must be balanced with the protection of the rights of the people living within these spaces. Their traditional knowledge and conservation efforts play a critical role in preventing the ecological collapse of fragile ecosystems.

In a zero-draft report, the CBD hopes to carve out 30% of the world’s land and sea areas by 2030 to conserve biodiversity hotspots. This strategy, however, is a deeply colonial tool used by conservation organisations and enforcement agencies that could send thousands of local inhabitants into deep and landless poverty around the world. If there is a lesson to learn from India’s PAs, exponentially increasing PAs around the world to meet the 30% target could lead to displacement, conflict and enormous human rights violations.

This is because environmental justice cannot be achieved without social justice. Local communities have the right to be considered allies rather than enemies in the management of natural resources and conservation of biodiversity. Violations of wildlife and conservation policies are creating serious and long-term conflicts and, in turn, jeopardise the future of conservation in India and potentially the globe. Without proper scrutiny, conservation policies could come at the cost of both social and ecological catastrophe.

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Eleonora Fanari is a researcher at ICTA-UAB. Her main interests are on land and forest rights, the governance of biodiversity, and the political ecology of conservation, with a particular focus on India.

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