- COP 15 sees the formalisation of a 30 by 30 conservation agenda and India has supported the focus on corridor-based conservation.
- India has seen an extensive expansion of protected areas, tiger reserves and now, a push for tiger corridors, all driven by colonial exclusionary conservation practices and following an inviolate conservation model, write the authors of this commentary.
- India needs to recognise the Forest Rights Act-based conservation framework and recognise people’s role as central to conservation governance.
- The views in this commentary are that of the author.
The UN Biodiversity Conference (COP 15), underway in Canada, is seeing the formalisation of the Post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework and the signing of the “30 by 30” goal, to aid the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, to revive global biodiversity loss.
India, a party to the International Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) and being one of the world’s 17 mega-biodiverse countries and home to 7-8% of the globe’s recorded species, is an important landscape in these talks. Part of the Like-Minded Mega Diverse Countries (LMMDs) group and High Ambition Coalition for Nature and People, India has expressed its support and ambition for the “30 by 30” agenda.
Articulated as the “global conservation” agenda, “30 by 30” targets bringing at least 30% land and 30% sea/ocean areas across the globe under conservation and effective management, through “well-connected systems of Protected Areas (PAs) and other effective area-based conservation measures and integrated into the wider landscapes and seascapes.”
Dismissing the fact that these landscapes are home to millions of people who have been living and conserving these areas, the global conservation perspectives continue to hold a fancy and fixation on numbers and targets and operate through a “fortress conservation model.”
Representing not global voices but the domination of a few stakeholders over conservation governance, these discourses continue to shape the context and politics of conservation in India.
As per data from the National Wildlife Database Cell, India has a network of 990 protected areas which cover approximately 5.27% of the total geographical area of the country. This includes 106 national parks, 565 wildlife sanctuaries, 100 conservation reserves and 219 community reserves. Adding to this is India’s network of 55 tiger reserves (TRs). Notification of PAs in India is overseen by central legislation called Wildlife Protection Act (WLPA, 1972), whereas the National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA), a body constituted under the same law, oversees TRs.
The year 2021-2022 saw some states in India going on a PA declaration spree. Maharashtra State Board for Wildlife, in 2022, notified three new wildlife sanctuaries and almost 30 new conservation reserves are in various stages of approval.
Tiger corridors and their impact
Since the launch of Project Tiger in 1973, the tiger (Panthera tigris) has been made the key focus of conservation governance in India. The latest tiger census report indicates that the last-recorded tiger population of India stands at 2,967 tigers, which is 70% of the world tiger population. With the Global Tiger Summit scheduled for next year, India prides itself on exceeding the promise of doubling its tiger population. The 52 tiger reserves in India cover a total area of 73223.27 sq. km. Out of the total area, 40541.07 sq. km. forms the Critical Tiger Habitat, whereas 32582.14 sq. km. is the buffer zone.
The idea of corridors-based conservation has been gaining attention in Indian conservation approaches even before the “30 by 30” agenda. In 2014, NTCA in its report Connecting Tiger Populations for Long-Term Conservation highlighted how the Indian subcontinent alone holds six global priority tiger conservation landscapes of long-term tiger conservation significance. The report lists 32 major tiger corridors spread across these six tiger conservation landscapes. Ensuring each tiger reserve is connected to another, these tiger corridors together cover a total tiger habitat size of 5,96,016 sq km.
National Wildlife Action Plan (NWAP) 2017-31 also stresses the need for the identification of wildlife corridors and wildlife habitats outside PAs to ensure the long-term survival of wildlife. It calls for securing stepping-stone habitats and suggests including ‘Conservation Reserves’ and ‘Community Reserves’ in human-dominated landscapes under the PA network.
Even a quick glance at any of the maps of any tiger corridor will reveal how the tiger reserves and corridors are being imposed on a mosaic of forest lands, human habitation, agricultural fields, pasture lands and water sources. These landscapes are actually living, breathing human-inhabited places, home to Adivasi, pastoral, primitive tribal and many other communities. Now, using the imagery of the corridor, the State can acquire any land and convert it into a protected area.
The NTCA corridor report, calculating the least cost pathways for tiger corridors, lists 2858 villages falling on these determined pathways (exclude villages inside PAs and on forest fringes).
Although corridors are an old conservation idea, the global goals of 30 by 30 have given it a renewed push as it allows ease of establishing coercive control of lands.
This is evident in the abrupt and hustled way conservation reserves have been notified in Maharashtra, for example, and relocations are speeding up in other PAs.
As shared by MoEFCC, in the Lok Sabha reply of 2019, out of 57386 families living inside the critical tiger habitat (CTH) of 52 tiger reserves, around 14,441 families had been relocated till 2019.
NTCA in 2020 responded differently to an RTI as 63,916 families in 761 villages, living inside the CTH of TRs and 18,493 families of 215 villages had been relocated from the notified CTH since the inception of Project Tiger. Ground reporting tells us the number of people impacted is far more and will only grow with more tiger corridors.
The dichotomy of inviolateness in Indian tiger reserves and corridors
The Centre for Financial Accountability (CFA), in a recent study, reported on the rise of infrastructure projects in and around PAs in India. As per CFA’s analysis, MoEFCC received around 2,592 proposals for environment clearance between July 2014 and April 2020, of which 2,256 proposals were approved, making a clearance rate of 87%. More importantly, 270 projects, out of these, are located in and around PAs. Further, 680 projects were given wildlife clearances between 2015-2020 by National Board for Wildlife (NBWL), as revealed in Rajya Sabha by the MoEFCC in September 2020.
The majority of mineral, oil, and gas deposits are located in these landscapes and the developmental and corporate extraction, instead of being monitored, seems to be facilitated by the state through ease given in clearances. Tiger corridors, though, seem a benign category but their abstract nature allows states to push for inviolateness, acquire farmlands, lure corporate and private interests in buying lands and promote tourism.
Wildlife-focused eco-tourism is the new face of revenue in tiger reserves and is constantly portrayed as “bringing economic opportunities for local people.” India has a vast network of Tourist Operators For Tigers (TOFT), with lavish, luxurious properties across all tiger reserves – most owned by private players or by the state. Woven into the western romantic imagery of “pristine wilderness,” eco-tourism and tiger safari continue to benefit the capitalist colonial conservation lobby. On one side, people are driven out of protected areas in the name of inviolateness, on the other side, state, tourism and developmental activities continue to make a profit from the forests.
The banning of customary practices of conservation and management by people is severing the historically existing bio-cultural relationships in these landscapes, raising the economic and identity crisis and endangering the very biodiversity that it claims to protect.
Recently a study published in Global Ecology and Conservation, reported that Lantana camara, an invasive alien weed species, now occupies 154,000 sq. km of forests (more than 40% by area) in India’s tiger range. India joined BIOFIN in 2015, to enhance biodiversity finance and ensure the alignment of multiple finance stakeholders. Its Financial Need Assessment report and Biodiversity Expenditure Review exercise emphasise strengthening and integration of in-situ conservation and regulation of invasive alien species introduction and their management, as two priorities for enhancing biodiversity finance. Ironically, the Indian state, after manufacturing the ecological crisis of lantana through their exclusionary inviolate conservation practices, projects the solution to lantana as an economic one.
What other conservation governance exists in India?
The Convention of Biological Diversity (CBD), since its inception in 1992, recognised the role of Indigenous people through articles 8(j) and 10(c). Yet the Indigenous and other communities have consistently been excluded, at both global and national levels, from these discussions & decisions, about the lands and landscapes they inhabit and the natural resources they depend upon.
The ongoing COP 15 emphasises on the need for a “new work program and institutional arrangements” to position Indigenous peoples as “implementing partners” of the GBF. In the Indian context, the Forest Rights Act (FRA) passed in 2006 envisions and ensures the same by legally recognising the role of Adivasi and other forest-dependent communities in the protection, conservation and management of ecosystems.
Recognising rights of access to biodiversity, and community rights of traditional knowledge related to biodiversity, FRA empowers the forest rights holders to “stop any activity which adversely affects the wild animals, forest and the biodiversity.”
Tushar Dash, an independent forest rights researcher, said, “FRA has the potential to protect at least 40 million hectares of forest land, including the protected areas through recognition of Community Forest Resource (CFR) Rights and empowerment of Gram Sabhas. It creates an alternative and a legal framework for wildlife conservation based on a just and inclusive approach.”
“FRA recognises rights of forest-dependent communities even if the lands have been declared as Protected Areas, elaborating that “no forest rights holders shall be resettled or have their rights in any manner affected for the purposes of creating inviolate areas for wildlife conservation. However, the State for long denied our forest rights claims in Achanakmar TR scared us with relocations and restricted our access to Forests”, added Seemanchal, an advisor to Achanakmar Sangharsh Samiti.
A strong and powerful conservation lobby of national and global conservation organisations has claimed biodiversity conservation as their forte. They take up 70 % of the global fund routed for land and wildlife conservation, often promoting their work as community empowering. In reality, the communities receive only negligence and further marginalisation. These organisations even challenged FRA in court.
Globally, communities are calling out the conservationist lobby, demanding restriction of their development politics of extraction and exploitation. FRA mandates the gram sabha’s consent for any development activity to take place, but the recent amendments introduced in the Forest Conservation Act have weakened the gram sabha powers, by excluding the need for its consent, as earlier, for forest clearances.
All these attempts to not implement FRA are manifestations of colonial exclusionary capitalised politics legitimised in the name of conservation. The only urgent and transformative action needed is to decentralise and decolonise conservation governance.
Interestingly, five community forest rights and CFR rights were recognised and titles distributed in the CTH of Achanakmar Tiger Reserve in 2022.“Achanakmar is the landscape where Baigas have always shared the land with tigers and others.” Seemanchal further added, “We have taken care of the forest for generations. Now we will legally protect and manage our natural landscape.” remarked Seemanchal.
There needs to be a global NO to these fancy numbers and targets of 30%, India needs FRA-based conservation governance, not tiger corridors and new PAs. Dash emphasises, “The future pathway for conservation in India can only be based on a rights-based model and not a failed model of exclusionary colonial conservation.”
Aditi Vajpeyi is an independent researcher. She has previously worked with several organizations in Himachal Pradesh, focusing on conservation, ecological justice, indigenous communities, forest rights and political ecology.
Banner image: Moharali gate to the Tadoba Andhari tiger reserve. Photo by SushG/Wikimedia Commons.