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People For Parks

Sanctuary explores the exciting possibility that Community Nature Conservancies (CNCs) could prove to be the fix that the conservation world was in search of for decades. By turning farms to forests can India create a new protected area category that offers wild species more space, communities more secure and dignified livelihoods and the nation a way out of its ecological cul de sac in an era of climate change?

There are no tigers in Ranganathittoo where this croc and spoonbill presented the photographer a natural history moment of a lifetime. Creativity, consultation and equity could potentially combine to turn natural jewels into livelihood opportunities for communities in over 5,000 locations across India, provided government policies, public participation and biodiversity conservation were brought into one stream. Photograph by N. A. Naseer.

Harsh and Poonam Dhanwatey, Founder Trustees of TRACT (Tiger Research and Conservation Trust), are well known to wildlifers and conservationists across India. This husband-wife duo’s association with tigers began in Tadoba and after having spent more than a decade in the field studying and protecting wildlife, they believe that wildlife conservation needs to reinvent its attitudes. They feel strongly, for instance, that “by shifting to ‘ecosystem farming’ where the ‘produce’ comprises a basket of income-generating activities including ‘the tourism experience’, marginal farmers could become self-employed, owner-beneficiaries of wildlife tourism around Tadoba.”

Toward this end they acquired a small seven-acre parcel of barren marginal farmland outside Tadoba between the core area and some islanded forest lands on the far side of their holding. In short order, protecting this land and the forest surrounding it, they created a ripple effect in the landscape and by merely offering Tadoba’s over-crowded wild species a toehold, they now have tigers, wild dogs, leopards, sloth bears, sambar, wild pigs, porcupines, bird life and all manner of forest creatures for company (Sanctuary, Vol. XXXII, No. 4, August 2012). They are now working furiously on the next stage of their plan to help marginal farmers to turn their own lands to forest status.

Seeking to set up a demonstration landscape right outside the park on privately-owned properties, they hope to help landowners benefit from a virtual ring of community conservancies around Tadoba. The first parcels of roughly 100 acres have been identified and the key, they emphasise, is NOT to acquire land, but to enable land owners/farmers to renew  their relationship with their own lands and to create “unfenced” forest cooperatives capable of providing them with more money, dignity and security from “ecosystem farming” that does not envisage the removal of biomass for sale to outside markets.  In a markedly drought-prone zone, this could be a game-changer in terms of local livelihoods and sustainability, they say.

Game changer

Conserving our planet’s surviving biodiversity, in the face of modern developmental assault, is arguably one of the most important challenges facing the human race. This battle is umbilically connected to the climate crisis that threatens to overwhelm us all.

Historically, Protected Areas (PA) have been a key tool for biodiversity conservation across the globe. S. P. Yadav, Deputy Inspector General, National Tiger Conservation Authority, recently stated that: “Currently India has 668 Protected Areas, including 42 tiger reserves covering 65,000 sq. km. These should continue to be even more strictly and effectively protected, so that by adding conservancy lands we are able to physically increase the area available to carnivores and herbivores. This will surely be positive to wildlife as the conservancies would serve as genuine buffers outside Protected Areas where wildlife densities are often at maximum holding capacity.” He adds a word of caution that the actual mechanisms to support willing communities to restore their farms to forest status will need to be very sensitively and meticulously explored.

The fact is that existing wildlife and forest policies and laws are already in consonance with the objectives of community conservancies on non-forest lands. The same holds true for identified corridors on non-forest lands, which would be ideal locations for community-owned conservancies.

So the question really is: Can wildlife conservation benefit local communities such that conservation becomes imperative to their survival? Increasingly, even the most cynical wildlife people, and social activists, believe this is not just possible, but inevitable. Sanctuary hopes that the process serves as a bridge between both groups that have more often than not been working at cross purposes. If the idea is accepted by communities, our finest biodiversity habitats would turn into assets that intrinsically link to community welfare improvement, and visa versa. That, without a shadow of doubt, would be a game changer that could turn yesterday’s antagonists into tomorrow’s protagonists for a return to ecological sanity on the Indian subcontinent.

It’s nothing new

The concept of Community Nature Conservancies (CNCs) involves expanding the habitat available to wildlife, including elephants, rhinos, lions, tigers, birds and aquatic life forms, by encouraging local communities to convert marginal land holdings, and farms to biodiverse nature refuges, capable of offering them better and more assured livelihoods than marginal farming. This is a hypnotic possibility in a country where almost half-a-million farmers have committed suicide, because their farms failed to yield their promised produce, leaving them to deal with debt and social strife beyond human endurance.

Sanctuary is optimistic that groups and individuals across India will be able to come up with well-documented, replicable and financially viable models, tailored to local, social and biogeographic realities across different habitat types. The conservancies should be community inclusive, commercially viable and land owners/farmers must retain ownership and be accountable for the health of their own lands, which must be part of a larger ‘unfenced’ forest cooperative. This has the capacity to provide communities with more resources, money, dignity and security through ‘ecosystem farming’ than can possibly be attained from marginal farming.

In essence, community conservancies seek to turn the ‘ball pen dots’ that are our existing PAs into ‘ink blots’ of biodiversity.

This concept is already working in parts of Africa, South America and elsewhere in the world where revenues from biodiversity restoration have effectively and justly been shared with communities. This has created win-win situations for wildlife, governments, local communities, visitors and members of the tourism trade. Some examples include Timbavati, part of the Greater Kruger National Park Conservancy, Kenya’s ‘Ol Pejetaplus’ and others in the Serengeti’s Lake Victoria area. In the Okavango delta Chief’s Camp in the Mombo Concession, where large sums of money reach communities that auctioned rights for lodges catering to high value visitors that wanted the big five experience. In Brazil’s Pantanal floodplains, one of the world’s most respected conservation organisations, Panthera (Sanctuary, Vol. XXXI No. 2, April 2011) worked with communities to create a safe haven for jaguars, with local tribes as protectors of ‘El Tigre’ and its forests. As one of the world’s most respected wild cat scientific organisations, it is led by people of such proven conservation merit as Thomas S. Kaplan, Alan Rabinowitz, Luke Hunter and George Schaller.

In all such successful cases, the physical land area available to wildlife was effectively expanded by turning farms and other marginal lands to forest status. The tipping point has to be found where people lobby the government to create conservancies. This can only be achieved through a rigorous process of consultation with land owners and landless residents who use the geographies for sustenance. If the revenue and resources obtained by communities from biodiversity restoration exceeds what they currently earn from farming or other land use, the conservancies will work. If not, they will fail.

Naturally the African and Brazilian experience is not directly translatable to India, but the basic concept and the lessons adapted to suit Indian conditions, particularly their successes and failures, could well help usher in a vital new Indian Protected Area category. At a recent meeting by Sanctuary in New Delhi, experts from across India were unanimous in their opinion that despite potential hurdles, community nature conservancies gave us the best chance of accommodating spillover populations of herbivores and carnivores, thus reducing man-animal conflict even as biodiversity was given a much-needed fillip.

William Stolzenburg, science editor for The Nature Conservancy Magazine, describes the approach thus: “The scale of biological conservation has spread, from saving disjointed pockets of rare species to encompassing entire working systems of nature. The new map of the Conservancy’s targets is now delineated not by political lines or national borders, but by realms of climate and geology, fire and flood, and their corresponding cover of signature plants and animals.”

At Ghosri, Tadoba, Poonam and Harsh Dhanwatey have created a tiny green haven out of a degraded farm. Today virtually every animal found in Tadoba visits this space, and marginal and failed farms could easily replicate this example to the advantage of communities that could cater to visitors seeking wildlife experiences. Photograph by Harsh and Poonam Dhanwatey.

The Indian reality

CNCs can address a host of issues that have plagued India’s locals, wildlife and ecosystems. As a rule communities living around our PAs pay the price in the crops and livestock they lose to wild animals, without benefiting from the larger national goal of wildlife conservation. This is an untenable situation. Unless we can find ways to consult and work with communities that are living next to dense wildlife populations, and make them the primary beneficiaries of CNCs, the concept is unlikely to succeed.

Harsh Dhanwatey, who lives in Tadoba, states: “The concept will work if the community feels a sense of ownership towards the wildlife and the landscape, and if they are convinced this is a way to mitigate conflict.”

Aditya Dhanwatey, of Tiger Trails, has roughly 30 acres set aside for wildlife in the same Tadoba landscape and he believes that community conservancies are a natural solution to both conflict and unemployment. Anyway, you look at it, livelihoods from sources other than farming are critical to the well-being of people living in areas that are not conducive to farming. This includes geographies where hordes of grasshoppers, beetles and other plant-eating species consume all available food, including crops. A collateral benefit of enhanced economic security of such communities, with a reduced dependence on forests, will be a dramatic fall in support for poaching gangs that take advantage of the natural enmity between farmers and any creatures that consume their crops or kill their livestock.

It also stands to reason that if livelihoods are based on the return of forest biodiversity, then the pace of deforestation itself will fall. The consequent ecosystem renewal will have a multiplier effect that could help the entire country to cope better with the anticipated adverse effects of climate change since science confirms without doubt that the proliferation of wild species ends up improving the quality of waterbodies, soils and even the micro-climate that largely determines the quality of life of most rural communities.


Today several high-end resorts exist on the borders of our Protected Areas and legitimate questions are asked by social and wildlife activists as to what justification there is for moving villages out, while inviting well-heeled and ecologically unsustainable tourist infrastructure in. Such questions would hardly arise if the visitation infrastructures were actually part-owned by communities living outside our protected wildlife refuges.

If along a swatch of land abutting a wildlife reserve (forest, riverine, wetland, mountain or coast), incomes from visitors in exchange for superior wildlife experiences, went to the communities themselves, they would celebrate the presence of the species that drew in visitors.

As of now, however, most tourism facilities are getting a free ride by taking advantage of the work done for wildlife conservation, without really contributing much in return. CNC tourism on the other hand would be focused on homestay-style tourism whose unique selling proposition would be the fact that the visitor would be supporting both biodiversity restoration and equity.  Unquestionably, this would also reduce the ungodly pressure we currently see on virtually every popular tourism destination.

Another very key strategy for CNC-based tourism would be the weaning away of people from tiger-centric tourism. In Kashmir, for instance, trekkers could stay at dwellings owned by locals who would actively keep livestock away from the flower fields that attract paying visitors. Another key element that lends itself to CNCs would be the creation of self-employment, as against relatively low-paying jobs as waiters, drivers, cleaners and cooks. The scope for tourist-volunteers interested in research and conservation experience could also add to revenues, while contributing to protection. Rwanda was able to do this brilliantly with gorillas, even though there are virtually no carnivores to be seen in their forests.

It goes without saying, however, that wildlife tourism cannot be the only income source for communities. A diversity of financial inflows is vital to the success of the idea. What we in India need to evolve is a way to put the creative genius and the traditional knowledge of people to work for the concept of conservancies. We need to derive creative and sustainable solutions that place little or no stress on the limited ecological resources we are trying to rejuvenate.

This requires a key input, which is conspicuously missing in the nature conservation jigsaw today – trust. Trust between the community and conservationists. Trust between government agencies and non-governmental organisations. And trust between investors and land owners without whose participation the very concept of community conservancies will be still born.

Virtually everyone agrees that there is no dearth of income generating possibilities that are not inimical to biodiversity conservation, including payment for biodiversity conservation itself, fighting forest fires, creating fire lines, protection and patrolling, making and selling handicrafts, nature trail guides, bee-keeping, and other similar vocational occupations including, of course, in the tourism sector itself.

Orissa’s traditional Bagh Nritya group performed at a recent GreenKarbon event in Mumbai: New People and Parks’ relationships are being forged by resurrecting traditional knowledge and values for urban dwellers, while simultaneously working to deliver justice to communities by making them the primary beneficiaries of biodiversity regeneration in the buffer areas of our most vital protected forests. Photograph by Sanctuary Photo Library.

The task on hand

In truth, if social justice and the economic well-being of people is recognised as the very purpose of Community Nature Conservancies, we will see biodiversity regeneration turn into a byproduct of the conservancy initiative. This is a formula for success. While ecologists, biologists, botanists and administrators will be needed to monitor and regulate the process, the ‘real’ work will be done by creative public-minded individuals and organisations mandated to improve the lot of very plucky communities currently at the bottom of the pecking order of India’s development priorities.

There is probably no country in the world that is better placed than India to implement this win-win enterprise. With social upliftment initiatives like the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act in place, our job is to see that people who agree to turn farms to forest are included as beneficiaries of the scheme, which aims to enhance the livelihood security of people in rural areas by offering 100 days of wage-employment each year to rural households whose adult members volunteer to do unskilled manual work. We also have large sums of money lying with the Compensatory Afforestation Fund Management and Planning Authority (CAMPA), mandated to achieve almost precisely what the CNCs are designed to do… restore biodiversity. Similarly, we have budgets within the National Tiger Conservation Authority for buffer area development that must be put to use to create real buffers to protect the inner cores of our most precious biodiversity vaults.

The basket of benefits is virtually endless. What remains to be seen is whether we have both the wisdom and the statesmanship, within the political system and out of it, to implement a strategy that can actually save India and its future generations from imploding in a cataclysm of ecological collapse.

Author & Source: Sanctuary Asia, Vol. XXXIII No. 3, June 2013.

Report by Bittu Sahgal, Lakshmy Raman, Kritika Kapadia and Mallika Narvekar.

Links with annotations: "Cutting Edge Conservation": https://www.sanctuaryasia.com/magazines/commentary/8938-cutting-edge-conservation.htm.


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Jennifer Scarlott

October 20, 2013, 11:48 PM
 Community Nature Conservancies are the best solution for rewilding India, for ensuring that local communities benefit, and for addressing climate change.
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October 19, 2013, 05:09 PM
 Humans have to understand the thin line between us and animals who form the Web of life. Our constant pressure of population is eroding boundaries. But there is another side to where if these farmers can be helped with such brilliant ideas both us and the Wildlife benefit from turning these farms to forest which have put these poor farmers into debts and forced them to commit suicide. This is probably the best way out
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Bittu Sahgal

September 16, 2013, 11:33 PM
 Converting farms to forests might be just the way out in central India's Vidarbha region, where farmer suicides are are a tragic reality. Across India over half a million farmers are believed to have committed suicide thanks to the silent march of climate change, which has resulted in crop failures and huge debts for farmers caught in the pesticides-fertilisers maelstrom. This is probably one of the least-understood, least-spoken about economic and ecologic maelstroms.