Millennium Post

“Community Nature Conservancy”

Conservation of wildlife has recently witnessed a fresh spurt of attention in the country. On one hand is the Ministry of Environment and Forest (MoEF) developing guidelines to increase tiger habitat through private proponent’s investment from Compensatory Afforestation Management and Planning Authority (CAMPA) funds.

 At the same time, Maharashtra government has initiated steps to increase wildlife habitat by encouraging land owners in the fringes of protected areas to engage in what is called, “Community Nature Conservancy”.

The state came out with guidelines a few months back to increase tree plantation, fodder development, nature conservation either individually or in the form of a cooperative by land owners and in the process develop proper wildlife habitat which will provide protection and food for wild animals.

 In fact, even private companies or corporate groups are permitted to undertake such projects on private lands in Tiger Reserves. This is perceived as a viable alternative to farming where farm owners can use their private land to develop an eco-tourism conservancy. 

It is believed that this would not only lead to a more economically feasible use of land resource but would also step us job generation for local community.

The rationale behind this shift has been triggered by two state targets: one to help achieve 33 percent forest cover in the state as mandated under the National Forest Policy, 1988; and two to increase the Protected Area to 5 percent of the total state area. 

The notification attributes its inability to meet these targets due to the pressure of development projects and community opposition towards rules and regulations of Wildlife Protection Act.

The notification provides reasonable safeguards on the environmental front: it talks about protection of natural water resources; development of potable water sources in case of shortage of drinking water and plantation of only indigenous tree species. 

Safeguards for protection and food for wild animals is also covered. Baits and salt licks are prohibited; care has to be taken for using camera traps and installing CCTV cameras.

Developing home states and other tourist facilities is also broadly mentioned in the notification. It makes treatment of sewage water for tree plantation a must. Even the wet garbage and eatables have to be composted and plastic recycled.

In order to make the projects financially viable, support is provided through Tiger Conservation Fund. Interestingly, donations, both national and international, for supporting projects are permitted.

 In case financial support is sought, the project has to be implemented with local individual with 80 percent jobs generated to local people. To further secure the earnings of farmland owner, compensation can be paid for loss of income due to the conversion of farmland to CNC.

Prima facie, the guidelines seem to offer a win-win solution: concerns of shrinking wildlife habitat and depleting forest cover tackled in a manner where the livelihood of the communities are secured are and the eco-tourism policy of the government can be effectuated. However, there are some pitfalls in the framework which need attention.

Foremost is the fact that “Community Nature Conservancy” is not a legally recognised concept in India. While similar projects have been undertaken internationally, this is the first time it is happening formally in India.
The second cause of concern is the “ease of doing business factor” for such projects. How easy would it be for a land-owning farmer to convert his agricultural land into a conservancy particularly keeping in mind the condition that conservancies have to comply with all laws relating to tourist facilities, wildlife protection and similar relevant Acts and regulations. 

Practically speaking, this compliance would mean: (a) securing numerous clearances and permits to set up such a conservancy and; (b) operating such a facility in an Eco Sensitive Zone. To elaborate, establishing a CNC would entail clearance for conversion of agricultural land for non-agricultural purposes, environmental permits under the Environment Protection Act and permission under the State Tourism Laws.

 Further compliance with all the Supreme Court orders would be mandatory. This could include permission for the National Board of Wildlife, complying with state guidelines for Eco Sensitive Zones and forest clearance in majority of instances.

 Operating the facility, on the other hand would entail compliance with regulations relating to number of tourist who can enter/exit, vehicle passes, conservation of water resources, maintenance of forest cover, conserving wildlife, waste management, prohibition on building new roads or trails and strict building regulations.

Perhaps the private companies and corporate houses would be able to meet all the above requirements. But undertaking such a project would be a complex and tedious task for a small individual landowner or even a cooperative of farmers. This would be particularly true for states which have stringent laws particularly for agricultural land utilisation and private forestry.

Then there are other issues that require further deliberation. These include commercial use of firewood, felling of trees, use of water resources including ground water in such projects, setting up of electric cables, widening roads, air and noise pollution. Aspects relating to capacity building of local people needs more thinking.

 Training community members as tourist guides, familiarising them with official forest protocol/procedures, training in handling field equipment, encouraging medicinal plant growth, promoting self-help groups for manufacture, and sale of local handicraft will all strengthen the proposal and help secure livelihood of communities. 

The above concerns are not to detract such projects which genuinely may have the potential of conserving wildlife, forests and biodiversity. But the state still has to ease the legal modalities, in a manner that makes it economically viable for the farmers to engage in and a landmark model which other states can adopt.

The discussed initiative, irrespective of the above-mentioned concerns, has the potential of conserving not only the wildlife but also the forests and biodiversity in the state. It can also be adapted by other states. 

What is crucial in what is proposed by MoEF and the Maharashtra government guidelines is the shift in approach that is emerging - the change from visualising communities as the destroyer and the state as the only regulator/protector of forests and wildlife.

(The views expressed are strictly personal.)
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