Columns Indian Scenario

Human economics vs environment conservation: are contradictions inevitable?

Reeteka Sud

To Conserve Or Not To Conserve
To Conserve Or Not To Conserve   (Photo: Manupriya)


If there is a single phrase that characterises our attitude towards environment conservation and urban development, it would no doubt be “ubiquitous contradictions”. In theory, most people would be for increasing forest cover, until it comes to fulfilling basic needs for the world’s teeming population. Then the same individuals would clamour for more urban development and adapting more land for agriculture. We are for maintaining biodiversity, so we designate “protected land”; until it comes to the people who call these protected lands their home, and have done so for millennia. Where do they factor in conservation strategies? Or do they?

What are we aiming to conserve? More importantly, who is “we”?


Google “forest definition”, and the top hit (Wikipedia) defines it as “a large area dominated by trees”. Browse through the website of a leading global non-profit, WWF,  and you find, on every one of their pages about forests, pictures of dense green canopies. “Why are forests important for us?” Many reasons of course, but the top one being “for absorbing harmful greenhouse gasses that produce climate change”. Not inaccurate, but definitely incomplete. This is an extremely one-dimensional definition of forests and their value to humans. 

Why should we care how exactly forest is defined, and whether or not the definition is precise? Definition is important as it directly impacts policy, societal value systems, and therefore ultimately what is valued for conservation. 

Equally critical to what it is that’s being targeted for conservation is also who are the people who have a say in that. Conservationists, NGOs, state authorities — essentially urbanites, make the rules. And they are implemented in a top-down manner, sidelining the local communities, who historically, have not been part of the decision-making process.

Depending on which side of the aisle you are on — whether you see the indigenous communities as partners in conservation or roadblocks in the way of that — we can all agree that whichever way you slice it, it comes down to economics. Indigenous groups living around protected areas have, as a rule, been among the economically weaker segments of society. A recent study documented community management in Indonesian forests, and found that “community forest management fails when the economic returns of converting forest to oil palm exceed those of intact forest.” Let’s face it, valuing biodiversity is an unaffordable ‘leisure’ when it is hard to make ends meet.

Environment conservation conflict: indigenous communities vs urbanites

In order to preserve the forests and its wildlife, historically the local communities are the very people who have borne the brunt of conservation. For them, this has meant a slew of restrictions in the best case scenario, to loss of their homes and/or livelihood. If you are “for” conservation of nature, does that automatically make you “against” human rights of the indigenous communities who live in and around the protected areas?

When it comes to forests, joint ownership is not the trend. In fact, this strategy of conservation is often ignored, perhaps because it is a largely contested issue.

For all legal purposes, forests are “government property”. But when deciding on how to best balance their use and conservation, shouldn’t the people living there be taken into consideration? How does India fare in this respect? Not very well actually.

In March of this year, the National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA) declared that in areas designated as critical tiger habitats, “no rights shall be conferred to traditional forest dwellers”, summarily dismissing their rights to forest land and forest produce, granted under the Forest Rights Act (2006). This law is also intended to democratise the conservation process, to make the local communities a part of the process of conservation all the while ensuring their livelihoods. While the legality of NTCA’s order is an open question, it certainly doesn’t bode well for creating space in national policy for joint ownership for all stakeholders.

Nitin Rai, faculty at Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment (ATREE) Bangalore, has worked in Biligiri Rangaswamy Temple (BRT) hills of Karnataka for the last twenty years. He has written extensively about increasing the involvement of local communities in conservation, particularly the indigenous community called the Soligas, who have called the BRT hills their home for centuries. “A call to “conserve x% of land” (presently ‘x’ is just shy of 5% of land in India, though there are calls to increase this number to 10%) is, in essence, also saying “no people in this 5% land”, so wildlife can increase. And more importantly, “do whatever you want with the remaining land”, essentially urban development at whatever cost. Such a policy allows for ‘business as usual’ — mining, greenhouse gas emission, etc. — current and future source of problems facing humanity, are all green-lighted in a larger land area. It ignores the question of what effects these problems might have on the fate of land that is earmarked for conservation”, says Rai. 

Environment management conflict: ‘conserving for tomorrow’ vs ‘harvesting for profit today’ 

If we take a look at India’s fisheries industry as an example, modification or upscaling of fishing practices over the years in response to increased demand, has had, and continues to be deleterious for marine stocks. As demands have grown, industry practices were upscaled, seemingly with a single objective — to increase yield. 

Along similar lines as conservationists calling for x% of land to be protected, fishing industry, which is state-controlled in India, calls for fishing ban for set number of days. In Tamil Nadu for instance, the ban is currently for 45 days. Again, similar to the logic of conservation on designated areas, the fishing ban means unchecked fishing the remaining 320 days of the year. Do we know, or rather shouldn’t we know, if this ban makes any difference for the better?

Similar to the trends we see in forest management, in fisheries management too, rules and regulations are designed by government agencies, with no input from the fishing communities who are directly impacted by these policies. Few years ago, Dakshin Foundation, Bangalore, along with College of Fisheries, Mangalore, organised a forum for management of conflicts in fisheries. This 3-day workshop included representatives from regulatory authorities, fisheries scientists as well as members of various fishing communities in Karnataka. The foundation’s report mentions “the fishing community members at the workshop look toward a change in this approach of state-controlled decision-making…” and “expressed their interest to participate in decision-making related to enforcement, issuing boat licenses, subsidies and managing access to fishing grounds.”

What comes out loud and clear through avenues such as these for instance, is that there is urgent need, and immense scope, for joint ownership in the management and conservation of environmental resources. Both (management and conservation) are extremely nuanced, and it would be a folly of the gravest kind to draw up our plans in stark black and white. So long as the logic behind conservation efforts is binary, we are not going to be able to balance conservation with our need for resources. We have to realise the criteria for defining value in conservation are not static; that conservation strategies and objectives will have to adapt to effects from climate change, and from growing needs of world population.


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Credits for inline images:

Left panel: Everglades (By U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Headquarters - Everglades Headwaters Refuge Uploaded by Dolovis, Public Domain  https://commons.wikimedia.org/…)

Right panel: Forest canopy in the Nilgiris (By L. Shyamal (Own work) [CCBY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons)


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