The Western Ghats of southern India, one of the world’s top biodiversity hotspots, is a 1600-kilometer (1000-mile) mountain chain that runs parallel to the western coast of the Indian subcontinent. It traverses six Indian states (Gujarat, Maharashtra, Goa, Karnataka, Kerala and Tamil Nadu) and is home to as many as 250 million people. In the twentieth century, about 40 percent of the original vegetation cover was destroyed; at the same time, research began illuminating the ecological significance and sensitivity of the fragile area. In 2010, the Ministry of Environment and Forests of the Government of India commissioned a 14-member panel, the Western Ghats Ecology Expert Panel (WGEEP), under the leadership of renowned environmentalist Madhav Gadgil.
When the report was published in 2012, there was widespread opposition from all six state governments and from peasant organizations, saying the report would impede local development and deny basic rights to the people living in the Western Ghats. The protests made the Ministry form another committee called the High Level Working Group, under the aegis of space scientist and member of the planning commission, Krishnaswamy Kasturirangan. However, this report was also met with opposition, which still continues today.
With the Indian elections just drawing to a close and the country anticipating a new government, this seemed a good time to look at India’s protected areas and the many issues the country is battling with the Western Ghats. Dr. M.D. Madhusudan is a scientist with the Nature Conservation Foundation, an NGO based in India committed to research in ecology and conservation. Madhusudan is interested in the interface between humans and wild animals – conflict situations and their mitigation, engaging people in conservation action and alternate methods of management of protected areas in South and Southeast Asia.
Historically, many of India’s protected areas were designated in lands already occupied by people, all but guaranteeing conflict between humans and animals. Just as humans were using areas demarcated for animals, animals were not aware of the artificial boundaries imposed by the government. As Madhusudan says, “Nature doesn’t really obey the administrative boundaries we would like to draw when we carve out a national park. Nature itself spills across boundaries.”
The Gadgil and Kasturirangan reports discussed above are trying to find ways of ameliorating a very central conflict – should the Western Ghats be opened up to alternate uses that have economic returns? The furor over the reports has not yet died down. So why did both reports fail to come to any amicable solution?
“One can debate the merits of this in an entirely academic sphere. But the negotiation of what can and can’t be done is not an academic matter, it’s a political exercise,” Madhusudan said. “This is a place where both [reports] could have gone much further than they perhaps did. Or, they chose to do it in different ways – I wouldn’t even say that they didn’t do it.”
Even if the reports aren’t implemented, Madhusudan feels following the existing laws is a good place to start the process of reconciliation between conservation and development in the Western Ghats.
“If environmental law can be dealt with, with the same sanctity as other priorities of government get, then we actually can achieve some kind of balance.”
Tiger in Tadoba-Andhari Tiger Reserve in the state of Maharashtra. Photo by: Morgan Erickson-Davis.
INTERVIEW WITH M.D. MADHUSUDAN
Mongabay.com: How were protected areas designated in India?
M.D. Madhusudan: I think the earliest protected areas (PAs) were areas where there were some unique species that was being protected, or an area that had a very specific purpose for a specific person who had access to land, usually noblemen or kings who had a hunting reserve. Of course, there was a lot of reservation of forest for timber and other commercial uses under the colonial government. Post independence, most of our PAs came from areas that were erstwhile hunting reserves. Occasionally, a place like Kaziranga that had the Indian one horned rhino was formed. For instance, Bandipur was part of the Maharaja of Mysore’s hunting reserve, which eventually became a game reserve and then a National Park and eventually a tiger reserve. So that has been one kind of trajectory under which PAs have been created.
But I think the greatest thrust in the creation of PAs came after 1972, when the Wildlife Protection Act came; which said, there are kinds of PAs that can be designated under law, which would receive different levels of protection under law. So that led to the creation of Wildlife Sanctuaries and National Parks.
Mysore Doreswamy Madhusudan. Photo by Kalyan Varma.
Mongabay.com: What were the criteria for declaring new protected areas?
M.D. Madhusudan: A lot of the areas that were designated as [forests with a certain degree of protection], began to be proposed and included in PAs across the country. This was fairly haphazard, although there were people who were interested and knew a lot about natural history from various regions of India. There are many different kinds of ecologies that are part of our country. Designating PAs just based on the loudness with which someone proposed one, or the vehemence with which someone wanted something may not actually ensure that samples of various different kinds of habitats and ecosystems would be preserved.
In the mid 1980s when Alan Rodgers and H.S. Pawar undertook an approach for designing PA networks in India, which was based on representation of biogeographic (BG) zones. A biogeographic zone is an area that has its own unique confluence of climate, of topography, of various factors that led to completely different and unique ecological amalgamations. Rodgers and Pawar first came up with biogeographic classification of India and then they looked at how many PAs existed within each of these different biogeographic zones.
They started to set a nationwide goal, saying we need to have representative areas of each BG zone protected. So that started to get people focused a bit more on how to create PAs. It is not as if it has been very successful, but I think it certainly did bring something into much sharper focus – for instance, a lot of PAs got created in the higher mountainous areas as a consequence of this kind of planning approach. We have about 660 of them in the country.
Mongabay.com: Are people excluded from these PAs in India?
M.D. Madhusudan: The fact is, nearly all the PAs were carved out of landscapes that were already peopled; so we were trying to protect areas that already had some kind of a human imprint on them. The law gave you the ability to designate a PA. But I think the reality of giving wildlife priority in certain areas was not a straightforward deal, because there were people living in these areas, or using them in some manner. These competing claims have unfortunately not been resolved as well as they should have been. As a result, our PAs continue to be places where there is simmering conflict.
For a fact, we don’t even know how many people live in our PAs. There are estimates that are unverified that put them at something as high as 3 million – that’s a LOT of people to have in areas that you are designating exclusively for wildlife. There was a paper about ten years ago that said that there were 350 people per square kilometer within the Western Ghats biodiversity hotspot. And if that is true, then the reality of conserving even within a PA brings you right back to how you negotiate that protection, and that status, with people who have competing claims over those areas.
I think that just about underlies that even if you don’t have people residing within an area you’ve chosen to protect, even the claims of people who are around it, upstream or downstream of it are going to be significant. You really can’t wish away people when you’re thinking of PAs in India, especially not the Western Ghats.
Great Indian bustards used to be common in India’s plains. Today there may be fewer than 250 left. Illustration by Thomas Hardwicke.
Mongabay.com: Is that the reason for high rates of human-wildlife conflict in India?
M.D. Madhusudan: There is another thing that needs to be said — PAs are an important and powerful approach, but it’s worth bearing in mind is that nature doesn’t really obey the administrative boundaries we would like to draw when we carve out a national park. Nature itself spills across boundaries, just as human uses of nature also spill across boundaries. So the fact is, though you find highly transformed landscapes that were previously natural, many of them continue to serve as refugia for species that are rare or endangered. Though intensely modified, these landscapes can still have considerable importance in terms of biodiversity conservation, while being part of the human production systems.
In many ways, I think this ends up being unique to South Asia. People by and large in this country are willing to live even with large and potentially dangerous animals within their own production and dwelling settings. Whether it’s because of high tolerance levels or a benign indifference to wildlife or an active conservation ethic is debatable, but the fact is there is cultural space. Even where there is no physical space, or ecological space, there is cultural space for wild species in human landscapes.
Mongabay.com: There has been a lot of debate in India recently about developing industries like mining and tourism in the Western Ghats, resulting in two reports – the Gadgil and Kasturirangan reports. Can you comment on them?
M.D. Madhusudan: The reports were a reflection of the current thinking in the government: they are saying, “we recognize that it’s a very important landscape ecologically. But we also recognize that it is an important landscape in many senses of the term – when it comes to production, when it comes to development, demography, growth – this is also an area to which we look for much more than just the ecology. So how do we do this longer-term reconciliation?”
Karnataka rainforest in the Western Ghats. Photo by Morgan Erickson-Davis.
To simplify greatly the approach that Professor Madhav Gadgil and his committee took, was to say that this entire landscape is ecologically sensitive, but the degrees to which each location within this landscape is sensitive, is variable. But the principle of sensitivity applies to the landscape as a whole. So whatever we decide to pursue, even in the densely populated areas within the boundaries of this landscape, we need to do so in a way that is very mindful of the ecological consequences of such action. My understanding is that they were not saying you cannot do development, or you cannot do industrialization; but they were saying, given the ecological values of such a place, a lot of which is irreplaceable, or have consequences that are very far reaching, the action that we want to contemplate either in the pursuit of economic growth or human development, has to be done being deeply mindful of the ecological consequences.
Whereas I think in the report that followed [the Kasturirangan report] – it really tried to put a threshold; what was being debated as a degree they converted into a human and cultural and natural landscape – and essentially tried to separate it. Because of the shrillness of claims that came to be, the sparks of discontent that may have been triggered by the Gadgil report, I think got fanned into fiery flames by a profound misunderstanding of some of the provisions; and also I think – let’s face it – if that report had had its way, it would have definitely affected a lot of economic interests of people. I think its impact on local economies and livelihoods may not have been all that significant, I think that part got swept away; that part of the dialogue got captured by people who stood to lose economically and they were co-opted without their knowledge.
Mongabay.com: Do you think the reports had the desired effect?
M.D. Madhusudan: If you really want to plan development that is ecologically responsible in a landscape like this – there is a role for science. It can help make decisions about how to choose areas that are ecologically sensitive, to decide what is at stake and what do we stand to lose if X or Y were done, instead of something else. The Gadgil group went about this process in one way; the Kasturirangan report did it in another way. One can debate the merits of this in an entirely academic sphere – the input variables used, the algorithms, what was used to designate landscapes as ecological and/or cultural – those one can debate. But the negotiation of what can and can’t be done, is not an academic matter.
Ultimately, if it’s a question of being able to deliver the idea of the concept of ecological sensitivity into any actionable form, it has to result in something that there is broad agreement on. And this is a process of social and political negotiation; it is not a scientific exercise, it’s a political exercise. This is a place where both [reports] could have gone much further than they perhaps did. Or, they chose to do it in different ways – I wouldn’t even say that they didn’t do it.
A leafhopper nymph of family Fulgoridae in the Western Ghats near Mangalore, Karnataka. Photo by Morgan Erickson-Davis.
Mongabay.com: Given India’s population, there is not going to be much of a choice – areas of the Western Ghats will be developed into human habitations at some point. Do you have recommendations about a course of development that will cause least harm?
M.D. Madhusudan: When we ask what we conserve, and how we go about it – we get such different stances. On the other side, if you ask how will you develop, there are an even more dizzying variety of options that you encounter. When you start to put conservation and development together, you get a really heady mix and it becomes really difficult to pick over another.
I think the ecological value of the [Western Ghats] is very real; the competing claims that are in terms of both human development and economic growth are very real; and the need to reconcile them is very urgent and important. We know what is at stake, what we stand to lose; we have a fairly clear idea of what are the areas we need to be protecting more; the areas we can afford to be less grudging to hand over to alternate uses like development. But I think we are completely lost when it comes to finding workable ways in which these ways of understanding the problem can actually yield an actionable solution.
One of the very important fallbacks we have is to implement the rule of law. We have a set of laws in this country that has been the outcome of democratic politics, and which have been a part of the constitution, which has assigned a responsibility — the Directive Principles of State Policy and fundamental duties of citizens — so on both sides there is a responsibility to strive for such reconciliation.
The environment laws are made by the same Parliament that deals with mining, human rights etc. If environmental law can be dealt with, with the same sanctity as other priorities of government get, which is through the rule of law – then we actually can achieve some kind of balance.
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