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Nature in peril as contradictory laws continue to threaten conservation

Massive scientific evidence, both globally and within India, clearly demonstrate that human colonization has been a major driver of habitat loss and species extinctions.

india Updated: Jul 14, 2019 14:21 IST
K Ullas Karanth and Shiv Someshwar
K Ullas Karanth and Shiv Someshwar
Hindustan Times
FRA,Forest Rights Act,SC
Following the Supreme Court’s recent interventions in the Forest Rights Act (FRA) case, a flood of responses from social activists and academics are on display. (Photo by Manoj Kumar/ Hindustan Times)

Following the Supreme Court’s recent interventions in the Forest Rights Act (FRA) case, a flood of responses from social activists and academics are on display. We sympathize with the genuine social activists among them, who have fought for years for what they perceive to be their primary mission: to distribute all remaining forests and other ‘cultivable wastelands’ to rural communities to promote agriculture or intensive, market-linked forest product and biomass extraction. Nor do we dispute the activist’s contention that such a land-use policy would — at least temporarily — mitigate some economic hardships faced by its beneficiaries.

We, however, strongly disagree with their basic premise that such forest conversion and intensified exploitation is beneficial to wildlife recovery and nature conservation. Massive scientific evidence, both globally and within India, clearly demonstrate that human colonization has been a major driver of habitat loss and species extinctions. This evidence for global modification of nature by hunter-gatherers spreading out of Africa, goes back over 60,000 years. In the centuries that followed, initially aided by simple tools like fire, axe and the plow and later by modern technology humans succeeded in increasing the capacity of land to support their populations at densities hundreds of times higher, all at the expense of wild nature.

The airbrushing of this massive evidence, with vague assertions of “thousands of years of harmonious co-existence” is just a thin academic fig leaf. A strong value judgment rooted in a Judeo-Christian belief that all of nature was created for the benefit of humans lies at the heart of this clever logic: that rights of humans (and their domesticated animals) shall always prevail over other wild species. As conservationists our values are aligned more with those of the FRA case petitioners: threatened wild species have a right to survive, at least in the last 10% of India’s land that is now under the assault from rural land grab, industrial growth and infrastructure development.

Historically, giving away forest land to constituents was the norm under all political dispensations: It increased food production and kept social peace. It reached epidemic proportions in the post-independence period when about 25% of India’s forests and ‘cultivable wastelands’ were diverted to more intensive human uses.

Indira Gandhi, wisely in our opinion, imposed the two strong conservation laws, Wildlife Protection Act, 1972 (WPA) and Forest Conservation Act, 1980 (FCA), just in time to stem this tide of destruction of nature. In spite of minor flaws, these two laws enabled sporadic natural recoveries, bringing rare species and habitats back from the brink of extinction.

However, it all turned back to politics as usual in 2005, when the UPA, instead of remedying specific problems with poor implementation of these conservation laws by the forest bureaucracy, rammed through the poorly conceived FRA under immense populist pressures. Another similar attempt, this time in 2014 by NDA, to emasculate all conservation laws under an omnibus environmental management law, fortunately failed, although subsequent attempts are steadily chipping them away.

The huge challenge of balancing economic development against conservation is faced by India, and by many other developing societies. Many solutions have been proposed, but none will succeed if they do not recognize that ‘conservation’ is fundamentally different from ‘development’, and each should have its own place. Confounding the two goals, as proponents of FRA are trying to do, may fool the public but will not solve the problem.

The poorly drafted FRA, relies solely on pious good intentions to safeguard remnants of threatened nature rather than through practical restrictions. It was initially enacted to remedy problems faced by some Adivasi communities as a result of poor implementation of conservation laws by an uncaring forest bureaucracy. However, soon enough, under the massive democratic expression of land hunger and social aspirations, FRA turned into a loophole ridden, land-give away to all self-proclaimed “Forest Dwellers”. Its prominent beneficiaries have not been Adivasis as originally intended.

New claims on forest land have been created in successive waves, with no end in sight for further deadline extensions. In many biodiversity rich areas, land now costs of 10-15 lakh rupees per acre or more, further fuelling false claims. Often the same land is claimed by multiple aspirants. Any honest claim verification scheme cannot but reject most such claims.

FRA’s goals and processes stand in fundamental contrast to those of WPA and FCA. These basic contradictions need to be legally resolved so that biodiversity conservation and human welfare are brought into some spatial balance. This difficult challenge requires scientific and technological solutions that look at the future realistically instead of romanticizing a non-existent past. The present day aspiration of many forest dwellers to move out to benefit from the economic development process is also a reality that needs to be considered in the process.

Arm-chair conservationists who are trolling and bullying the petitioners to withdraw the FRA case seem to equate “development” with “conservation”. We are amused to note that some among them are privately raising millions in grants from the capitalists and bureaucrats they disparage publicly, for “conservation projects” that are virtually employment guarantee schemes for biologists and political ecologists. If such conservationists truly believe there are no deep contradictions between demands of nature conservation and of development — between increased deforestation and species endangerment in this case— then where is the need for their own conservation efforts?

We believe the Petitioners in FRA suit have every right to legally plead for nature protection. They have presented strong and persuasive evidence of past weaknesses as well as of the abuses of the FRA.

The Supreme Court has in the past intervened to dampen populist urges as well expedient actions of governments, to ensure that fundamental ecological and societal needs are not undermined. At this critical juncture for the nation, we hope the Court will take an evidence-based view and act decisively to protect nature.

(Dr K Ullas Karanth is the Director, Centre for Wildlife Studies, Bengaluru, and Dr Shiv Someshwar is Visiting Professor at Columbia University, New York and Sciences PO, Paris. Their views expressed here are personal)

First Published: Jul 14, 2019 07:15 IST