Centre to soon issue guidelines on ecotourism
The “Guidelines on Ecotourism in Forest and Wildlife Areas, 2021”, aimed at promoting better understanding of nature and wildlife conservation while generating income and opportunities for local communities
New Delhi: The Union environment ministry is set to issue, in around a month's time, guidelines that will open up wildlife rich forest areas across the country to eco-tourism, a move that officials say targets positioning India as a global destination for such travel.
The “Guidelines on Ecotourism in Forest and Wildlife Areas, 2021”, aimed at promoting better understanding of nature and wildlife conservation while generating income and opportunities for local communities, are likely to be issued “in a month or so”, according to officials familiar with the matter who did not wish to be identified.
Projects under it will include promotion of low-impact nature tourism, promotion of traditional ecological knowledge and heritage values of India’s wilderness, partnerships amongst various stakeholders etc., to realise India’s “potential as a global eco-tourism destination”.
On March 8, the government published minutes of the 61st meeting of the standing committee of the national board for wildlife held on February 18 over the matter.
“They (the guidelines) will be implemented in an ‘ecologically, culturally and economically sustainable manner’,” according to the minutes of the meeting.
NBWL's standing committee has deferred the decision to approve the guidelines as the forest conservation division of the ministry felt the need to examine if they reconcile with the provisions of the Forest (Conservation) Act 1980. A number of tweaks are being made to the Act in order to make way for the eco-tourism plan, the officials quoted above said.
HT reported on March 11 that the environment ministry’s forest advisory committee (FAC) in February eased norms for eco-tourism projects by allowing them to build “non-permanent” structures in protected areas without permission from the central government.
The FAC, in its meeting held on February 17, also decided to delete two clauses (12.13 and 1.18) in guidelines on forest conservation published in the ministry’s Handbook on Forest (Conservation) Act 1980 and Forest (Conservation) Rules 2003. These clauses state that eco-tourism is a “non-forestry activity”, and thus require prior approval under the Forest (Conservation) Act 1980.
“We have already made required changes in the handbook to categorise eco-tourism as a forestry activity. Now, the guidelines will specify exactly what we mean by low-impact tourism and how it should be implemented. They should be out in a month or so. The process of framing these guidelines started 3-4 years back and the NBWL has sought comments from a number of organisations to implement an eco-tourism strategy effectively,” said a senior official from the forest conservation division of the ministry.
Another senior official confirmed that wildlife safaris will be included in the draft guidelines covering eco-tourism.
The ministry has also started the process of amending the FC Act to make way for these guidelines to be implemented. An internal note has been circulated to various ministries on the amendments likely. Some of them are contentious. For example, the note suggests any work ancillary to conservation such as regeneration operations, setting up of check posts, construction of fencing, pillars, bridges, culverts, dams, trenches, waterholes, wildlife training infrastructure, zoos and safaris will be removed from the category of “non-forest” activities and hence does not require prior permission from the Centre.
It also suggests that the Centre based on certain criteria cause certain forest areas to be delineated for the purpose of conservation for a fixed period and in such areas the use of forest land for non-forestry activities will not be permitted for that fixed period.
“The amendments to the FC Act is an internal matter for now. We can assure you that we are taking an extremely cautious approach. We will go only to the extent of tweaking fine things. Tree plantations will be promoted in non-forest land as much as possible, eco-tourism in forest land will also be promoted. The eco-tourism guidelines are expected before the FC Act is amended,” the official said quoted in the first instance said.
“Firstly, eco-tourism is not a permissible activity under the wildlife protection act or the forest conservation act yet. Even to set up a couple of structures in a wildlife reserve or national park, the permission of the NBWL is mandatory. They (Centre) can do these eco-tourism activities outside the national parks. Why do they need to set up inside? Even with eco-tourism pressures outside parks look at the condition of places like the Corbett Tiger Reserve. If you start opening up and breaking forest land there will be nothing left of our wildlife reserves and forests anymore. Already linear projects are wreaking havoc in protected areas. Tourism even with tents has a huge footprint,” said Ritwick Dutta, environmental lawyer.