Friday, April 18, 2008

Conservation Refugees in India

Mark Dowie, one of my favorite environmental writers, usually gets to the heart of the problem. Back in 1995, ten years before Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger wrote their widely-publicized essay with the outlandish title, "The Death of Environmentalism," Dowie had already discussed most of the same themes and had done so in book form: in his book with the more modest, less publicity-seeking title, Losing Ground. Nordhaus and Shellenberger were treated as harbingers of a new, self-critical environmental paradigm. I was astonished that students and particularly one well-known environmental ethicist were ignorant of Dowie's earlier, more careful scholarly work.

Here, Dowie discusses the ongoing problem of "conservation refugees," people evicted from lands in order to conserve wildlife and forest. But the story is more than simply the tension between human livelihoods and wildlife/wilderness conservation, which just is the traditional environmental problem. There's always politics, and there are always other interests eyeing that nice chunk of land occupied by indigenous people.

Indian wildlife conservation, which was still strongly influenced by -International and other foreign conservation NGOs, has persistently embraced a model of western practice that focuses on individual endangered species—‘mega-charismatic metavertibrates’—like elephants, rhinos or tigers, rather than on whole habitats or eco-systems. Prominent Indian conservationist Valmik Thapar insists that tigers can only be saved “in large undisturbed, inviolate landscapes” unoccupied by human beings. “As far as I am concerned,” he wrote, “tigers and forest dwellers cannot co-exist.” Following Thapar’s advice, the entire Gujjar community of Sariska, a formerly posted tiger sanctuary, faced the prospect of total eviction and relocation, a process that had slowly begun over a decade before the creation of “Project Tiger.”

No one questions that Gujjar villagers, a traditional grazing community, have had an adverse impact on the wildlife conservation potential of the Sariska reserve or that at least some of this pressure on forests will have to be removed to save it. That is obvious to even the untrained eye. The question in Sariska is why relocation of the Gujjars was selected as the first option for solving the problem, without input from villagers, when so many other options were available for consideration. Moreover, the number one cause of tiger depletion throughout India is poaching by organized networks of smugglers, none of whom live in the forests.

Gujjars and tigers have coexisted in Sariska for thousands of years. The decline in tiger population is a consequence of development—large dams, iron mines and the shifting appetites of distant elites—not the lifeways of forest dwellers whose habitats have likewise been threatened by the same phenomena. “Why then punish one victim to save the other?” asks Indian historian Ramachandra Guha.

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