The Nanda Devi Biosphere Reserve (NDBR) has been called one of the last great wilderness areas in the Himalaya. As such, the region has been
designated a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve and World Heritage Site for its unique biodiversity. However, this area was not always under the influence of international conservation programmes. The current management policies came about as a result of the heavy mountaineering activity on the peak of Nanda Devi (7817m) from 1974-1982. The many expeditions to the mountain left behind mounds of garbage and there were also problems with humanwaste and the cutting of wood for fuel. By 1977 the environmental degradation was being documented, and in 1982 a 625 sq. km area surrounding Nanda Devi was declared a national park and promptly closed to all people including locals.
This was a blow to local people who had enjoyed a high standard of living previous to the closure. Locals, known as Bhotiya for their ethnic Tibetan heritage were forced to sell their sheep and goats because grazing lands were greatly decreased with the closure and many had to return to subsistence agriculture just to survive.After years of economic hardship, local people began to protest. The first major protest occurred in 1998 when villagers entered the forbidden core zone en masse to symbolically ‘take back’ the NDBR. Since that time, the Bhotiya have continued to protest and in 2001 formed an organised campaign to resist the conservation policies of the NDBR.
The case of the NDBR serves as an example of the many people-protected area conflicts occurring worldwide. Well-intentioned conservation models such as biosphere reserves that are developed by global agencies (such as UNESCO, IUCN and the WHC) and applied by national and regional governments often meet with resistance from local people living in or around these protected areas. One factor in this conflict is competing conceptions of nature.
Conceptions of nature show themselves through prevailing cultural narratives of human-environment interactions and are associated with material practices such as resource management policies. Differing conceptions of nature can produce competing discourses of nature and ultimately different ideas of how the NDBR should be managed. The dominant global discourse attempts to reconcile conservation with development and recognise indigenous knowledge.
However, this discourse breaks down when policies such as the closure of the core zone reflect a view of nature that presents humans and their livelihood activities as detrimental to biodiversity. At the same time, local people assert their rights to manage the resources of the NDBR according to their view that highlights the exchange between humans and nature. In this case local conceptions of nature such as those of the Bhotiya can be difficult to understand from a western perspective as the Bhotiya conceptualise nature differently. Understanding that Bhotiya ideas of resource management are based in ideas of a sacred landscape that they identify with through livelihood activities and religious rituals may serve to create conservation policies that will accommodate local people and help to preserve biodiversity. However, policy makers must be willing to accept and try to understand multiple conceptions of nature and empower local people with resource management schemes that reflect those local conceptions of nature.
Originally published as:
Bosak, K. 2008. Nature, conflict and biodiversity conservation in the Nanda Devi Biosphere Reserve. Conservation & Society 6(3): 211-224.