Livelihoods for Conservation: Some Questions
The initial session brought out the need for data collection from and patrolling in the landscape. As the participants (stakeholders to sustainable action in the landscape) opened up, significant proportion of the discussions focused on livelihoods.
This was in course of a workshop organized to help put in place a long-term plan for wildlife conservation in the landscape; a conservation priority area located in the seven sisters region. The workshop provided the much needed platform for stakeholders (from diverse social, economical and professional backgrounds) to not only put forth their views but also engage on the topic with others.
As the deliberations began one was left wondering why all livelihood enhancing activities were taken to be of help to conservation; in other words as strengthening conservation. Livelihoods in a conservation priority landscape – to put mildly – warrant a nuanced approach.
Some livelihood activities may not impact conservation at all; some will have a positive impact on ecology while some like plantations of rubber in Garo Hills (Meghalaya) or Oil palm in Mizoram may end up damaging the ecological values. Should we then ask this for each of our livelihood actions: ‘How does it impact conservation?’ Why did we (those primarily associated with wildlife issues) assume all livelihood activities would assist conservation? Was this as we know little of livelihoods? To quote David Freeman ‘The more you know, the more you realize how much you don’t know – the less you know, the more you think you know’.
As the meeting delved deeper into livelihoods the discussion touched upon tourism. The debate on whether tourism (especially in vicinity of protected areas) provides an alternative livelihood or is one in the basket of livelihood options and whether it can be a panacea in all situations propped up. As also the question on the need to invest efforts to put in place a long term plan which ensured that tourism did not end up the Corbett Tiger Reserve (Uttarakhand) way.
Jay Mazoomdar in his article in Tehelka, ‘Corbett. Now, on sale’, refers to Corbett as ‘having the highest density of tigers as also highest concentration of tourist resorts’; the latter having ended up blocking crucial wildlife movement corridors. One also found it difficult to fathom why some of the participants assumed people will necessarily stop undertaking activity ‘A’ when presented the option ‘B’. Do organizations not take up multiple projects and individuals multiple assignments? If that is human tendency then are the people in these villages not humans? Why are they termed as greedy when they seek more?
The discussions moved further and one participant was of the view that it was crucial to look at ‘scale’ if our objective was to conserve landscapes. Activities that impact livelihood of limited number of families in select villages may help raise livelihood for those families but would they impact conservation – even in the long term – at a landscape level? Activities like making of incense sticks, for example, need to be looked at critically.
Scale also becomes crucial in a situation like that in Central India where livelihood organizations working with few thousand families are supporting chemical intensive agriculture in the very landscape that a conservation organization is taking up organic agriculture with hundred odd families. While organic agriculture is surely more conservation friendly it is its chemical intensive cousin that stands more attractive for the farmer!
A third voice came up with the opinion that many a times livelihood activities by conservation organizations do not succeed as not only do we over-estimate our abilities (on the subject) but also we do not possess the language, body-language and attitude to work closely with people. To listen, to negotiate, to treat them as equals. Livelihood cannot be an add-on or an appendage to other programs under the organizational umbrella; it warrants time, energies and respect – if not more – as much as other programs.
The fourth person to speak on this suggested weaning people away from farming around protected areas so that the lands were free for wildlife. This set one on a spree of questions. Is this a very sad statement of how so many of us look at wildlife conservation; of virgin and untouched forests which have possibly never existed – as recent findings even from landscapes like Yellowstone in the northern and Amazonian delta in the southern Americas have proved?
Besides, in a country with a population like ours can land ever be in excess? What will these people eat and what will we all eat if more and more people are weaned away from farming – be it for ‘development’ or ‘conservation’? If people do move would the powers of the day not want to ‘cash’ in by bringing in housing, industries or mass tourism? Isn’t farming one of the more conservation friendly land use forms? What will these people do in the cities? Are we increasing problems of the cities?
Towards closure tea and biscuits arrived. Amidst the excitement while none of us had clear answers most agreed to the need to discuss what we could then do? Could we join hands with organizations working on livelihoods? Explore possibilities of their taking up activities together or training our teams? Can we sensitize our livelihood counterparts on conservation issues? To help them take up conservation friendly activities. Can we join hands with state agencies (amongst others) to undertake land-use planning?
There are landscapes, albeit few, where some of this (and more) is being attempted. One wishes them success and looks forward to learn from their experiences. It is a process – and like most processes crucial – one that will have us walk a difficult path. This is perhaps why they say ‘There is no Conservation for Dummies’.
(Nimesh enjoys undertaking train journeys and soaking in glimpses of the country they offer. He blogs at http://nimesh-ved.blogspot.in/)