What's conservation without local hand?

A study from the Sundarbans shows that conserving biodiversity by excluding indigenous populations has threatened not only the survival of the forest but also the sustainability of the region.
Mangroves of the Sundarbans. (Source: Nature Environment & Wildlife Society - NEWS)
Mangroves of the Sundarbans. (Source: Nature Environment & Wildlife Society - NEWS)

Can forest conservation policies that ignore the livelihood needs of local, indigenous populations succeed in protecting biodiversity and wildlife?

Experiences from the Sundarbans show that such policies not only result in the suffering of the local population, it also leads to the exploitation of natural resources and biodiversity in the region.

This article, Exclusionary conservation in the Sundarbans: Who pays the price published in the Economic and Political Weekly, describes the plight of the local populations residing in the Sundarbans in the context of the conservation policies implemented in the area and the challenges they create to their livelihoods and survival.

Conservation in the Sundarbans

The Sundarbans, the largest stretch of mangrove forest in the world, form the southernmost part of the Gangetic delta, two-third of which lie in Bangladesh and one-third in India. In India, the Sundarbans are in West Bengal and consists of 102 islands--54 of them inhabited and the rest lying within the forest cover.

The forest areas have been declared “reserved forests” since 1878 during the British rule with the agricultural and fishing rights permitted only with the consent of the forest department. The Sunderbans Tiger Reserve falls within this area and includes a core area where no one is allowed to enter and the buffer area where activities such as fishing, crab collection, shell collection and prawn seed collection are allowed with prior permission from the West Bengal forest department. This does not include the Sajnekhali Wildlife Sanctuary that lies within the buffer area.

The Sundarbans National Park, declared a World Heritage Site by the UNESCO, falls within the core area of the tiger reserve and is a protected zone where no human activity is permitted under the West Bengal state government policy.

It is not only the wildlife that survives on the forests in the Sundarbans; local inhabitants of the islands also reside on the fringes of the forests and depend on the forests for their livelihoods.

The negative impact of the government policies on livelihoods

The article describes the case of Emilybari village from Satjelia islands of the Sundarbans that has a large population that depends on the forest for its livelihood. Besides striking poverty, illiteracy and poor infrastructural facilities, the inhabitants regularly encounter environmental hazards due to climate change, difficult terrain and natural disasters. The threat of submersion, as well as salinisation of agricultural lands, also lead to limited livelihood options for them.

As a result of this, people are forced to venture into forests, at times even to the core protected areas, for fishing, collecting honey etc. These efforts often come at a price with increasing risk of deaths due to tiger attacks, which many times go unacknowledged by the forest department. 

The forest department provisions are often mismanaged and further serve to curtail the livelihood efforts of the locals. There is provision for fisherfolk in the area to have boat licence certificates (BLC). However, only 75 percent of these are presently functional and are mostly owned by rich landowners and traders who rent out boats to the fisherfolk at prices as high as Rs 30,000 to Rs 45,000 for nine months to a year which is unaffordable for most of the fisherfolk. Others who cannot afford to pay are forced to go without a licence as no fresh licences are being issued of late.

As a large section of the forest falls in the core protected area making it unavailable for local inhabitants for fishing, areas, where fishing is permitted, get congested with plenty of boats. Fish and crabs in these regions are over extracted affecting biodiversity. People are forced to enter the core areas due to increasing competition for resources. When caught, heavy fines are imposed on them. They are also forced to bribe the forest guards which further impoverishes the fisher community and honey collectors.

Although the government has tried to introduce new income-generating activities such as goat and livestock rearing, granting irrigation pump sets, providing van rickshaws and building brick roads, the benefit of these schemes reach only a handful, creating dissatisfaction and disagreement among locals. Attempts to introduce measures like the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA) have failed due to many reasons like the delay in distribution of funds, the physically demanding nature of tasks (especially for women) and gross underpayment.

Absence of local perspective in forest conservation plans

Local people continue to be left out of the forest management plans, their rights to access the forests curtailed and their conservation practices undermined.

Threats from outsiders are on the rise. There have been instances of raids by dacoits who cut flowering trees in the forests for wood which hamper their growth and also from timber mafia which has recently cut down more than 20 acres of mangroves and palms in the area.

In contrast, locals cut trees only when they need them and in ways that will allow them to grow and regenerate. This is because locals have a special relationship with the forest and their deep knowledge and practices on conservation have played a vital part in restoring the biodiversity of the area for years.

The article argues that it is time their contribution is acknowledged and they be included in biodiversity conservation in the Sundarbans. Steps also need to be taken to sustain their livelihoods. If not, this compartmentalised approach of looking at the natural world and the human world as separate entities will only deteriorate the biodiversity and the sustainability of the region further!

A copy of the article can be downloaded from below:

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