The problem

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THE picture of the ecology of the planet in general, and of the struggle of wildlife and people to survive each other, has never been quite as grim. The keenness of the contest over living space often flows from issues larger in scope than anyone engaged in conservation can directly hope to resolve. Yet, the larger picture conceals signs of new strategies for recovery.

On the face of it there is less ground for hope. Larger secular trends underlie mounting pressures on habitats, landscapes and seascapes. There are about four times as many people on earth as there were at the start of the last century. The gross world product went up about fourteen fold in the same space of time. New issues such as threats of human-induced climate change add a new urgency to older concerns about vanishing biota.

Conversely, the responses to the threats have also been on a wider scale than ever before. The creation of parks as secluded spaces has a long history going back 150 years. Examples range from Yellow-stone in America to Kruger in South Africa, and from Udjong Kulon in Dutch Java to Hailey in British India. In the aftermath of empires, new nations often crafted conservation around animals or landscapes prized as symbols of new nationalisms. This phenomenon gathered force in the latter half of the 20th century, driven in no small measure by the keenness of leaderships to garner wider international acceptability and support.

Chinaís preservation of the endangered and universally loved giant panda or the protection of the mountain gorilla park in post-civil war Rwanda are prime instances. South Asian nation states have made the tiger a flagship species in the drive to protect oases of relict vegetation. Teeming herders of wild ungulates of the savannah and veldt have played a similar role in eastern and southern Africa. Such efforts are often undergirded by increasing cooperation between nation states to curb illegal trade in wildlife and projects to create parks in borderlands. Concepts of nature and the nation have intertwined in new, even unexpected, ways.

Yet, there is little doubt that conservation as an enterprise engenders divisions between and within nation states. The creation of parks in White settler America as much as in racially divided South Africa led to deep alienation of American Indians and Black African peoples respectively. Often, the creation of forest reserves and exclusive hunting grounds sparked off deep tensions in many former colonies in Asia. One personís preserve could well have been anotherís grazing ground or resource catchment.

In sites as diverse as the Serengeti, Tanzania and in many Asian parks, conservation by sequestration has entailed forced displacement. There has been relocation of resident peoples who ended up losers, in a more rather than a less impoverished state before enclosure. Large charismatic species may have rallied townsfolk but often held less attraction and appeal for those engaged in the troublesome task of coaxing a living in regions that have slipped down the ladder in socio-economic and power political terms.

Over the last quarter century or so, as the divisions have deepened they have led to wider rather than narrower chasms for not one but two distinct reasons. First, the drive to protect threatened fauna and flora, endangered ecologies and landscapes, often pits ecology advocates against those who champion the cause of underprivileged peoples. This has been starkly evident in issues of restitution of land claims of tribal and peasant peoples as with the rumpus over land rights in government-owned forests in India. At a second related level, there are divisions in the communities of knowledge between those who mostly study nature and others who largely study society. The former seek immediate redress to enable natural systems to recover; the latter often point to the need for more fundamental overhaul of power structures to enable such aims to succeed. There is a divergence, even a clash of cultures, on what to do next and how.

Looming larger than such conflicts over the land and its above ground wealth are issues related to larger economic changes underway in an increasingly globalised world. Even the conservation movement in the United States has been unable to prevent drilling for oil and gas in the wildlife refugia of Alaska. Similar pressures are all too real in parks and reserves in the developing world. At stake are not just issues of access to potential hydrocarbon reserves but also mineral wealth and new infrastructure projects, schemes to dredge waterways and create new trans-frontier motorways. These pressures are of a nature that the old parks system was simply not designed to cope with. They often call for new, wider imaginative coalitions than those which combine conservation with wider environmental justice issues.

There are three pathways out of the present juncture. None is a panacea and all draw on elements of approaches that figure prominently in the articles in this issue of Seminar. The contributions, while extensive and diverse in scope and treatment of conservation issues, have two features in common. All deal with dilemmas and responses in swathe of lands that abut the Indian Ocean region. These nation states of sub Saharan Africa and of the former Dutch, French, Australian and British colonies of the rim of Southern Asia share a common feature that makes conservation especially difficult. Even at a time when the bulk of the labour force in other parts of the world is urban, well over half the work force in most of these nations continues to be employed on fields and in fishery, on farm and pasture land. This makes conflicts of livelihood and conservation all the more intense. But conversely, given that these are biologically exceptionally well-endowed macro regions, it is all the more imperative to come up with imaginative, innovative and workable responses that go beyond fortress conservation.

One set of approaches seeks to impart a new logic and rationale to the older parks-centred approach. This has worked well in post-civil war Rwanda for over a decade. Julius Nyerere of Tanzania once said that he could not imagine why anyone would spend their vacations watching hippos and crocodiles, but was nevertheless glad that many rich foreigners did so as they gave his country much needed foreign exchange. The logic of nature tourism has now been supplemented by a new and more urgent rationale advanced by the British ecologist James Lovelock in his recent works where he argues that having large wild lands may be vital to forestall the impacts of global heating.

Given the larger changes in the ecology wrought by humans at large, such lands will be all the more vital to serve as living laboratories, not only for specific studies in systematic taxonomy as much as for understanding the linkages between soil and water, the atmosphere and living organisms. Needless to say, the costs of setting aside such wild lands cannot and must not be borne by societies already struggling with issues of the amelioration of poverty and must be more equitably shared by richer nations. Yet, the idea of wild lands as a critical resource which need to be maintained in perpetuity can and will gain wider acceptance if the rationale is somewhat larger than saving exotic wildlife.

Closely related to this is the possibility of an outward push beyond such oases of green. Parks can hardly survive unless the larger landscapes they are embedded in are secured, not merely for preservation but for a range of land uses that are compatible with wider conservation objectives. The creation of conservation areas in montane Nepal and parts of eastern Africa offers hope that such approaches will create wider numbers of partners of conservation-friendly land use systems. This becomes even more practicable when the in situ protection of marine systems is seen in conjunction with the livelihood systems of coastal societies in general and fisher folk in particular.

In a very different setting many high alpine systems in a host of central and southern Asian countries have been attempting such approaches in instituting livelihood security for herders who share living space with animals like the wolf and snow leopard. The pioneering work in parts of eastern Africa on lion-cattle conflict holds similar promise. Sequestration and seclusion are of little utility in marine, riverine or coastal systems typified by high levels of fluidity. But larger livelihood security systems may work far better if combined with adaptive and scientifically informed management.

It is here that the third critical element becomes evident, where the chasms between livelihood-centric and biota-centric platforms as well as the gulf of the social and natural sciences can at least begin to be bridged. The older parks-centred model was solely based on a series of Ďdonítsí. The new approaches have space for other pro-active strategies as well. There is as yet no alternative to sequestration or strict in situ preservation in sight, though there are a range of options involving strategies which draw on wider rather than narrower constituencies of support. These may involve humane and voluntary resettlement as in the Bhadra Tiger Reserve, southern India, combined with larger landscape-level approaches to reduce wildlife-human conflicts now being attempted in the Western Ghats and elsewhere in Asian tiger range habitats. The larger rubric of conservation in changing landscapes holds great promise in intellectual as much as material terms. It opens up spaces for engagement of biologists as much as social scientists in working to reconcile legitimate aspirations for self-advancement with the maintenance of the life support systems of the planet.

Such engagements will have to be across a wider penumbra than that of lobbying statesmen and partnering government bureaucracies. Larger citizen initiatives and civil society partnerships in turn may not be easy in polities that are or have till recently been closed off to open public debate. Even countries with open polities such as India or South Africa have huge inequities that bedevil partnerships for conservation, just as they tear apart the older exclusivist projects. Yet, there is potential and promise in working to expand such alliances.

In the hope of dispelling the scenario of gloom and doom, this issue of Seminar provides a platform to new and emerging voices as much as to those with decades of experience. While conscious of the richness of situations within India, it makes an effort to draw from other developing societies as well. As long as there are vibrant efforts to engage in an imaginative way with complex dilemmas, there will be more cause for hope than despair.

Tigers will still pad down forest trails in Asia, and the roar of lions will not become the vestige of a dying past in the savannah of East Africa. To ensure this conservation will have to evolve from a set piece strategy with one set of responses into a dynamic and adaptive enterprise.