Conservation conversations

The irony of globalisation, creating conservation challenges even as it enables conservation research partnerships to address such crises, need not be lost here. Neither should we discount political criticisms of the ideological basis of many bilateral (typically temperate rich country-tropical poor country) conservation initiatives, which tend to privilege large carnivore protection by enclosing large spaces in tropical countries, excluding in the process the indigenous folks who farmed and foraged in these spaces. But the bilateral research partnership that has enabled the research being communicated here has been an inclusive one in more than just a social sense.

A cursory reading of titles of essays in this edition of Current Conservation could convey a threefold sense of research that lies behind them. In terms of range, there is research on greenhouse gas fluxes to research on pastoral and forest livelihoods and associated rights. In terms of representativeness, there is research on climate change, local knowledge, biodiversity, forest rights, plant-animal interactions, human-wildlife conflicts, hunting and ecological restoration. In terms of interdisciplinarity, there are the cultural aspects of hunting, ecological restoration and livelihoods, and Himalayan climate change and local perceptions. And in policy terms—pastoralism and policy, and the Forest Rights Act and livelihoods. In this essay, which puts into perspective the essays that follow, I provide the larger contexts in which such diverse research ensued even as I draw broad conservation implications from the research being communicated here.

Globalisation, Conservation and Inclusion

Globalisation, for our purposes, the increasing irrelevance of national boundaries in economic trade or its environmental consequences, a process best exemplified by climate change, has not only wrought negative changes but also fostered positive conservation partnerships between nations. The irony of globalisation creating conservation challenges even as it enables conservation research partnerships to address such crises need not be lost here. Neither should we discount political criticisms of the ideological basis of many bilateral (typically temperate rich country-tropical poor country) conservation initiatives, which tend to privilege large carnivore protection by enclosing large spaces in tropical countries, excluding in the process the indigenous folks who farmed and foraged in these spaces. But the bilateral research partnership that has enabled the research being communicated here has been an inclusive one in more than just a social sense. The research partnership, conceived as an academic exchange project ‘Conservation of biological diversity and sustainable use of natural resources: Capacity building for interdisciplinary research and application’, has been funded by Norway, a socialist nation, as part of its ‘country strategy’ for India, itself a nation which has been socialist for a major part of its independent history. Let us not harry ourselves here with liberal tendencies of Norwegian and Indian socialism, but engage with solidarity, the core tenet of socialism.
For instance, the institutions involved, the Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment (ATREE), Bengaluru, and the Department of International Environment and Development Studies (NORAGRIC), University of Life Sciences, Norway, have historically sought solidarities between ‘ecology’ and the ‘environment’, and ‘environment’ and ‘development’, respectively, as institutional identities.
Let us subsume the environmental and ecological research topics at hand in that classic spatial unit within which much social-ecological work and thought has occurred in the past— the ‘region’. And for our purposes the regions would basically be two mountainous ones, the Eastern Himalayas and the Western Ghats.

Eastern Himalayan conservation: Pastoralism, climate change and hunting

Noted first for being a biodiversity hotspot, this region is now being noticed as a climate change hotspot. Glacial melt serves as emphatic evidence. But more evidence lies in people’s and plants’ sensitivities to warming. Thomas’ essay on the implications of conservation policy and climate change on pastoralism provides interesting insights into such sensitivities. From interviews with the pastoral Gurung and others of Tibetan origin in the Nepa‐Darjeeling‐Sikkim tri-junction, Thomas observes ‘great historical memory’ of climatic change. Memory that inevitably accrues from organised movement and stationing that regulates transhumance in the region, which entails winter descent to warmer plains and alpine and sub-alpine ascent in summers.The herders claim that summers have advanced. Early flowering is evidence. Similar phenological observations have been made by the Dokpa of North Sikkim. In Ingty’s essay, the high altitudinal Dokpa ascend even higher in winters to snow-free, windblown pastures. They, along with the Lachenpa, who like the Gurung descended in winter and ascended in summer, felt that winter snowfall had either ceased or decreased. But what was indicative of climate change for the Lachenpa was parasitical and not phenological, as was for the Dokpa. The Lachenpa mention mosquitoes, which they claim have made their presence felt in less than a decade. The higher altitudes are warming, was the point. The Dokpa noticed that plants that flowered just before winter were now flowering late and that some other plants were flowering elsewhere. Ingty got the Dokpa to identify five such species that had shifted their range and were growing at elevations that were anywhere from between 200 to 700 m higher. Range shifts were spatial and temporal. In a pastoral landscape, movement is adaptation. It is crucial. And now it appears that plants, like humans and livestock, are also moving. While other research findings have made a case for traditional knowledge serving as baselines for climate science, Thomas is wary of climate narratives taking off from ‘conservation narratives of similar urgency’. Conservation had earlier restricted movement— that crucial adaptive measure. Now climate change mitigation could reinforce conservation by incentivising forest enhancement and protection for carbon stocking. It seems we now have a geochemical—as against a biological—basis for conservation; and also a curious possibility of climate change mitigation whose benefits are intangible, trumping adaptation whose requirements are very tangible.

Pastoralism is not the only resource culture in the Eastern Himalayas that attracts anthropological and conservation attention. Hunting for wild meat also attracts such attention. Roy’s feature article seeks to explain its persistence in Arunachal Pradesh, despite the provisions of the Wildlife Protection Act, 1972. Hunting, Roy says, has socioeconomic and cultural roots and implications for the Mahayana Buddhist and animistic Donyi-Polo communities of Arunachal Pradesh. Cautioning against a trend of commercialisation of wild meat in the region, Roy also imparts some caution to conservation policies that attempt blanket hunting bans without considering the consequences. Presently there are institutional arrangements that regulate hunting, including religious beliefs or secular community rules. Legal bans would criminalise hunting-related religious or secular customs. Hunting would become a subversive activity far removed from a local institutional ambit that offers the best scope for sustainability.

Western Ghats and conservation: Restoring forests and rights; mitigating conflict and climate change

The Western Ghats have always been in the news. But in the last year and a half they were more frequently and intensely so. Newspapers and television channels reported conservation and related conflicts. Columns of print were dedicated to the efforts of one group of people to get the Western Ghats successfully nominated to the UNESCO’s World Heritage list, and the efforts of another group of people to identify ecologically sensitive zones in the Ghats that can be notified as such under the Environment Protection Act, 1986. In fulfilling their mandates, the former (an officially nominated committee), and the latter (an officially appointed panel), faced civil suspicion, both environmental and developmental, and administrative and ministerial apathy. Such conflicts cannot be elaborated here. But the requirements stated by UNESCO in deferring its examination of the nomination of Western Ghats present an interesting context to discuss the essays by Paramesha, Balaji and Chetana that are good case studies reflective of UN concerns. Among other things, UNESCO required the nominating party to take into account the recommendations of the Western Ghats Ecology Expert Panel, reflect fully on the ecological and biodiversity values of the Ghats, account for any changes in protection status, improve ecological connectivity, build stakeholder awareness and support and nurture participatory governance approaches.

Paramesha’s essay on human-wildlife conflicts in the Doddasampige-Edeyarahalli and Chamarajanagar-Talamalai corridors that connect the Biligiri Rangaswamy Temple (BRT) Tiger Reserve to Sathyamangalam and Malai Mahadeshwara forests, respectively, argues a case for strengthening ecological connectivity and building stakeholder awareness and support. Communities from Soliga adivasis to Tibetan refugees cultivate in these corridors. The Soligas who traditionally cultivated subsistence crops such as ragi and sorghum, frequently find their standing crops raided by elephants and boars. During the ragi and maize growing months, one has to guard not just against wildlife but also sleep, to prevent food insecurity and searching for alternate employment. Today, lands either bear non-subsistence crops or lie fallow. A local constituency for corridor conservation can ensue if people are compensated well for crop loss, and better still, provided with fencing assistance, argues Paramesha. Significantly, his essay mentions that the Soliga worry more about their eviction than crop raids. Granting of land and conservation rights is crucial.
The Forest Rights Act (FRA) guarantees such wellbeing as the Soliga desire. The Western Ghats Panel’s report explicitly supports the implementation of the FRA’s provisions. The FRA offers one of the best bets yet for the kinds of participatory forest governance that the UNESCO desires. Balaji’s and Krishnan’s essay examines how the FRA’s entitling of land and conservation rights process fared in Wayanad, a Western Ghats district in Kerala with a sizeable tribal population. Specifically it sought to get a sense of entitlement that the Paniya, an Adivasi people with a history of indentured labour, experienced. That the FRA was ‘a piece of paper’ was an expression that Balaji heard frequently from the Paniya. This pessimism, the essay explains, stemmed from a history of failed legislative attempts to regain land taken over by migrants and land entitlement not ensuring security, given the small forest landholdings amongst the Paniya. Following indentured‐labour abolition, they lead an itinerant life in search of work in migrant farms.
The FRA, then, has created a nationwide legal context for rights restoration. At a more regional level, some economic and legal contexts have emerged for ecological restoration, which relate to UNESCO’s other requirement of accounting for changes in protection statuses of lands. Chetana and Ganesh discuss one such context in their article on tea estates being ‘abandoned’ in the Agasthyamalai range. The expiry of long-term tea plantation leases or the final years of the lease had coincided with unfavourable market conditions and estate managements either favoured or were forced to stop plantation operations. Plantations thus abandoned were being colonised by invasives such as Lantana sp. and Eupatorium sp. Even as it considers restoration prospects in plantations, the article also grapples with socio-economic issues entailing the livelihoods of plantation workers and their families.

There is no corresponding phenomenon in the Western Ghats like the Himalayan glacial melt that triggers scientific and policy activity on climate change. Nonetheless, the ecosystems and resource cultures of the Ghats have adaptation needs and offer mitigation scope. The article by Raut communicates their measurements of methane fluxes from soils of BRT. Methane is one among other greenhouse gases that are implicated in global warming. The author offers comparative methane sinkage estimates across seasons in disturbed and undisturbed portions of BRT.

Carnivory and Frugivory: Conservation in production landscapes

Even as I write this section, the UNESCO has decided to inscribe 39 sites in the Western Ghats into the World Heritage list based on their significance for ecological evolution and biodiversity‐nurturing habitat values. But there are landscapes in India other than the Ghats or the Himalayas that serve as conservation legacies of their own devise involving unique social and ecological dynamics. And conservation also needs to move beyond protection landscapes and engage with production landscapes. Ghosal’s and Home’s articles examine human and large carnivore conflict and coexistence, and frugivorous activity, respectively, in agricultural landscapes. Ghosal reports from the sugarcanedominated landscape of Akole district of Maharashtra, at the northern fringes of the Westen Ghats, where leopards thrive despite no proximate conservation zone and the absence of wild ungulate species to support the carnivores. Ghosal elaborates upon an Adivasi custom of deifying the leopard that signals coexistence rather than conflict that symbolises the relationship between leopards and more urban sections in Akole. The Adivasi Thakkars and Mahadeo Kolis have deified the big cat as a local deity called Waghoba. Ghosal provides an institutional juxtaposition between customary and modern—read policing—negotiations with leopards.
Home’s article informs us of frugivory in the semi-arid Abdasa taluk of the Kutch district of Gujarat. The fruit is also harvested locally and so market surveys were also conducted. Seven bird and five mammal species were identified to consume the fruit. Even as she makes some interesting observations of fruit removal behaviours of birds and mammals, Home expresses concerns over the implications of new industry-oriented land use policies on plant-animal interactions. Conservation needs to begin engaging with agrarian landscapes also, which are threatened by industrial conversion.

This article is from issue


2011 Sep