Sowing less, reaping bare

Sowing less, reaping bare ECO-DEVELOPMENT is the biggest participatory exercise that the Word Bank(WB) has been involved in and we look forward to this project becoming a model for future Bank projects emphatically stated Ken Newcombe, chief of the WB's Global Environment Division, speaking on the environment ministry's eco-development project at a recently concluded workshop on the Global Environmental Facility (GEF) in New Delhi.

The statement is ironical considering the immense flak the project has drawn not only in India but also in the GEF council meeting in Washington in April, and the emerging opinion that large institutions like the WB never learn from past mistakes.

The latest brainchild of the Union ministry of environment and forests (MEF), the eco-development project's pilot phase is jointly funded by the GEF (which is doling out us $20 million as grant), and the WB (loaning out us $28 million). The latter is also one of the implementing agencies of the project along with the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and the United Nations Environment Programme.

The project aims to preserve globally significant biodiversity in seven protected areas (PA) in India in two ways: by reducing human-induced negative impact on PAS, and by reducing negative impacts of the PAS on the people living in and around them.

At a time when the MEF is all poised to carry out final negotiations with the WB, it is imperative that an open debate on the project and its possible consequences be initiated at the broadest fora. The creation of 521 PAS in India has claimed 14 million ha of land for biodiversity and wildlife conservation. While no one questions the importance of preserving our rich natural heritage, many environmentalists and social activists feel that for a densely populated country like India, with communities dependent on forests for their livelhood, the alienation has created an immense amount of hardship for the people.
Lot of hay but little sunshine What is wrong with this whole concept of eco- development? The WB project definition says:Eco -development seeks to improve the capacity Of PA management to conserve biodiversity effectively to involve local people in PA management and develop incentives for conservation and to support sustainable alternatives to harmful use of resources." (Project Information DocumentMarch1996

The objective of eco-development is not debatable. If PAS have been created to enable conservation then it should be mandatory to reduce pressures on these areas and ensure that our biodiversity does not suffer. But what is debatable is the premise that poverty is the sole reason for the people to bedependent on forest-based resources for their livelihood; and poverty all eviation and resource substitution would automatically ensure that people would shift to a more "desirable and sustainable lifestyle" willingly forgoing traditional resource use patterns.

Anil Agarwal director of the Centre for Science and Environment in New Delhi puts it more succinctly: "The first problem of forest-based people is not poverty but their disempowerment by wildlife laws and programmes and the erosion of their environmental rights touse their habitats."

In the Ranthambhore National Park(Rajasthan)for example following initiatives by the Ranthambhore Foundation majority of the people of Padli, an adjacent village now own high-yielding cross-bred cows. The villagers who now have higher incomes carry out stall feeding for the cows and with help from some village elders and the Foundation they have decided in their gram sabha meetings not to let the cattle graze in the forest.

But even the Foundation agrees that this has been an isolated success and that villages in most other areas will continue to graze their cattle in the park because it is more cost-effective (each cow daily yields an average 400 gin of milk rendering stall feeding too costly)and they have no incentive to conserve. They are also not willing to dispose off the low-yielding cattle because firstly it is a status symbol to have as many heads of cattle as possible; secondly they are not too sure if they could depend fully on the exotic breeds.

Thus it seems that eco-development is not just a question of giving the villagers alternatives or of changing their lifestyles and mindsets but and most importantly of providing them as take in the forests' protection and management. The MEF plan has clearly overlooked these dynamics. Another aspect of the project that has attracted criticism is cost-effectiveness which is over-dependent on external funds -most of which are loans.

Presently for seven PAS the project needs approximately US $70 million out of which US $28 million is a loan from the WB. One can well imagine the astronomical amount required for carrying out similar ventures in other PAS keeping in mind that India has 521 PAS! And repaying the loans would certainly leave the government high and dry. Understandably transaction costs will always go up in management strategy if the local people are alienated. And our conservation strategy seems to heading for precisely that.

In fact the project document constantly harps on the risks of the project namely pressures of commercial interests, dangers of unrealistic expectations, time and commitment required and as well as inadequate management support and takes pains to emphasise that the project aims to only "reduce and not eliminate" the negative impacts.

A grand farce
Particularly the project has no answers to commercial pressures on the Ranthambhore National Park. Valmik Thapar who has been closely associated with the park is extremely sceptical about the project's impact: "Most of the fuel wood requirements of Sawai Madhopur town is met through the parkand there fore the major pressure on the park is not from subsistence requirements of the local communities.Eco-development is closing its eye to this major aspect of park management."

However according to observers the project has undergone tremendous improvement since it was originally outlined mostly because of pressure from funding agencies. What was originally envisaged as a package of activities outside the PA has now changed into activities both within and without.

In other words eco-development activities are now reaching people living inside the PA. Many consider this a welcome move. But even here there is a catch! The project says that as Most PA dwellers would be non-cultivating tribals (this is again debatable)no land-based activity would occur in the PA.

With many other strict criteria for conservation eco-development activities get limited to getting trained for tourism or drawing forest fire lines. This again does not change the status quo of the people's living standard. In Nagar-hole National Park (Karnataka)most non-cultivating tribals already depend on limited seasonal employment provided by the forest department and for the rest of the time they work in neighbouring coffee plantations outside the park. In such a situation eco-development is not very help fulob serves S Srikanta worker with a local Organisation.

There is also immense amount of resentment against the project among activists who are demanding greater local control over resources and decentralisation of decision -making powers for tribals and other local communities.

Such is the case in Nagarhole, where.tribals are demanding the implementation of the Bhuria Committee Report ontribal self-rule. The Tribal Joint Action a loose coalition of organisations and tribal representatives in south Karnataka see eco-development as yet another ploy of the authoxities to side track issues ultimately denying the tribals' rights and retaining their lordship over the forests.

Regarding the emphasis on people's participation a basic contention of NGOs is that people were not involved during the project's conceptualisation. Activists allege that inviting people's participation at the implementation stage makes eco-development a classiccase of a "you participate in what I say" process. As S S Choudhary field director of the Ranthambhore National Parkand local in-charge of the project says Of course, we are putting great emphasis on people's participation. We will be asking the people what assets they want, what kind of eco-development activities they opt for. It is totally their choice.

Therefore critics are unconvinced that the project is equipped at the implementation stage to garner support from the people and NGOs.

Their forest, their plan
Even while talking about joint forest management (JFM)the project clearly specifies that it may be carried out only in forest areas outside the PAS which have claimed all the good forest cover areas. What remains are degraded reserve forest lands. By allowing JFM activities only outside the PA eco-development makes hollow promises about people's participation.

If JFM is a recognition of the positive role that people can play in the protection regeneration and management of forests then logically it should be extended to even inside the PAS. In the present scenario JFM has been virtually reduced to an appeasement strategy for people living outside the PA. In effect eco-development does not adhere to the basic tenets of governance which Anil Agarwal outlines as "stakeholders" participation and control transparency democratic ways of functioning devolved decision-making and cost-effectiveness".

Mega forestry projects have been there before but did not deliver much because of insufficient space for people's participation. There is now a growing demand for greater control over natural resources. The Bhuria Committee Report has triggered off agitations to this effect in several states. With the help Of NGOs and inputs from experts people are actually formulating their visions of resource management.

Scientific studies on minor forest produce use and land-use patterns are being carried out. In the Biligiri Rangaswamy Sanctuary Mysore the Soliga tribals are actively involved through traditional methods in protecting and sustainably using their forests along side surveys by experts. In the Rajaji National Park in Uttar Pradesh the Gujjars have developed a management plan based on their traditional resource use and migration pattern and also on the local ecology. By recognising these initiatives which embody the people's aspirations the MEF and the WB may find a much more sustainable way of preserving global biodiversity.