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Local Communities and Wildlife Conservation: Stories from Northeast India

Sayan Banerjee


Glimpse of Eaglenest Wildlife Sanctuary, an example of Community Conserve Forest

Photo: Udayan Borthakur


Introduction


The idea and practice of wildlife conservation have undergone a striking transformation on a worldwide scale. Conservation programmes have shifted from being strictly inviolate and exclusive protected area-centric models to more inclusive, local community-centric models. The idea behind such shift is generally based on two assumptions. Integration of local communities in conservation governance should, firstly, increase effectiveness of conservation outcomes and secondly, ensure social justice for the erstwhile marginalised communities. Even though it seems to be a straightforward solution, however, creating such models is a complex process. Community-centric conservation projects are a part of a larger, more complex socio-political process in which several individuals, institutions, and discourses establish, dispute, reinterpret, and uphold concepts and assertions about nature.


Wildlife conservation in India was initiated through administration of protected areas under the Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972 and Indian Forest Act, 1927. However, today, local communities are being included in Indian conservation governance and community-centric conservation in India has taken up various forms. Conservation through Joint Forest Management committees (JFMC) and Eco-Development committees (EDC) provides a co-management model where the state and the community collaborate to set policies and manage the natural resources. The Indian state has further devolved its power and authority to various institutions such as Gram Sabhas, Panchayati Raj Institutions for governing natural resource management. Lastly, autonomous community efforts in Scheduled areas of India have developed Community-Conserved Areas (CCA) where the governance is worked through customary laws, rather than the mainstream laws. Here, local communities enjoy rights and privileges of using natural resources which are curtailed in the other conservation models. With presence of such different models, it is interesting to explore how local communities participate in these conservation models.


Northeast Indian states, with its amazing bio-cultural diversity, comprise of several community-centric wildlife conservation models. For example, JFMCs and EDCs have been formed around reserve forests and wildlife sanctuaries in Assam. Community reserves are present in Arunachal Pradesh, Meghalaya and Nagaland. Community-conserved areas (CCAs) and sacred groves of different sizes are present across sites where community themselves manage the land and other resources without the presence of state authorities. Such areas are often governed through village-based institutional networks and these areas have different use and non-use zones.


Research


With this background, a study was conducted at Indian Institute of Technology, Gandhinagar to analyse nature of local community participation in various community-centric conservation projects in northeast Indian states. This study was supported by Social Science Research Council (SSRC) Transregional Research Junior Scholar Fellowship, with funds provided by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. A conservation project was defined as a process where species conservation was aimed through interaction of four critical human actors: local communities, government agencies, non-governmental organisations and individual or teams of researchers. This research, through a multi-sited ethnographic approach tried to disentangle the interaction pattern among these conservation actors to elicit how local communities were participating in conservation. Three study sites were chosen where three separate conservation projects were going on: (1) human-elephant conflict mitigation project (Assam Hathi Project) in Goalpara, Assam, (2) bird-based ecotourism in and around Eaglenest WLS, Arunachal Pradesh and, (3) Amur Falcon conservation project in Pangti, Nagaland.


Fig. 1 Study Sites: Goalpara, Assam; Singchung, Arunachal Pradesh and Pangti, Nagaland


Assam Hathi Project, Goalpara, Assam


Two cooperating conservation organizations—one regional and the other international—started the Assam Hathi Project (AHP) in 2003–2004 at Goalpara to protect Asian elephants through community-centric conservation. The project's major objectives were to develop agricultural damage prevention strategies to lessen the frequency of elephant-caused damage and to support sustainable livelihoods by generating additional income. One of the major conservation interventions was to install community-managed solar electric fencings. Materials for the fencing were provided by the project proponents, but the communities were solely responsible for its construction and upkeep. To avoid giving the appearance that fencing was a gift, such community involvement was sought after. Village committees were established and participating households raised money for future maintenance of the fence.


Bird-tourism in Eaglenest WLS, West Kameng, Arunachal Pradesh


When a little colourful bird Bugun Liocichla (Liocichla bugunoram) was first reported from this area in 2006, the forests around Eaglenest Wildlife Sanctuary in the West Kameng district of Arunachal Pradesh rose to fame in the conservation world. The ‘Bugun’ tribe after whom the bird was named inhabits this area. This bird's discovery caused a sensation among the bird watchers, and over the years it evolved into a symbol of bird-based tourism. An influential bird watcher and conservationist helped a local Bugun leader launch the "high-value knowledge-based” niche eco-tourism initiative, which is flourishing as more domestic and international birders visit this location. However, the tourism is a private endeavour where few Bugun community members participated. The Buguns designated 17 km2 of their community forest as a Community Reserve (under the Wildlife Protection Act, 1972) in 2017 and gave it the name Singchung Bugun Community Reserve (SBCR). This marked the beginning of the "real" community involvement in conservation.


Amur Falcon conservation, Pangti, Nagaland


The migratory Amur falcon (Falco amurensis) roosts in Pangti in great numbers each year (October to November) during its 4000 km trans-equatorial journey. In 2012, a shocking documentary about falcon hunting produced by a conservation advocacy group was aired, documenting the practise. The stories were covered by top ornithology periodicals, internet publications, and print media as a result of the graphic photos that attracted the attention of the conservation community. The Wokha District Administration and Nagaland Forest Department implemented the ‘No-hunting’ order, urging the village councils to take immediate action or else their development support will be reduced, in response to pressure from the national and international community. To keep an eye on the birds, the community-led Amur Falcon Roosting Area Union (AFRAU) was established, and its members patrolled the region throughout the breeding season. To honour the Amur Falcon movement in Pangti, a monolith was unveiled next to the Amur Falcon roosting location in 2016. The conservation tale is currently seen as a success because there hasn't been any falcon hunting since 2013.



Amur falcon in flight

Photo: Udayan Borthakur


Why do local communities participate in conservation projects?


Despite the economic, social, cultural, and political differences between the three sites, the local community's active participation in these conservation efforts is a constant thread. Each conservation project was context specific and the level and degree of participation differed according to various stages and activities. Local communities participated to gain material incentives, provide labour, attend consultative workshops etc. Levels of interaction between local community and external actors such as NGOs and government agencies were found to be different in three sites. However, we found three common, yet, critical factors that drove participation by the community. They were: (1) trigger, (2) negotiation and (3) sustenance factors. Trigger factors facilitated kick-starting community participation through establishment of a crisis narrative (loss of biodiversity, human-wildlife conflict etc.) and facilitation by external actors (NGO, media, forest department etc.). Negotiation factors emerged from day–to–day interaction between local community and external actors. They involved effective entry stage activities by external actors (workshops, awareness meets, trial of conflict mitigation techs etc.), development of income opportunity for locals (tourism, farm and non-farm livelihood etc.), mediation by voices within the community (teachers, socio-political representatives, field assistants etc.) and intra–community dynamics (ethnic, gender, income differences). Sustenance factors affected the long term participation by community. They comprised of achievement of tangible/intangible results (reduced conflict, increased income or social status of the place), welfare of locals (increased physical, financial and social safety and security) and availability of funds (from international or national donors).


The 'soft' issues of participation, social process, and capacity development should receive adequate attention in addition to spending time and money on 'hard' ones like technical interventions. In order to comprehend various interest groups and establish engaging engagement tactics with them, stakeholder mapping is a must. While individuals' motivation and devotion should be praised, caution should be exercised to prevent them from developing into regional centres of power for the elite. For the community and project supporters to learn from each other, regular feedback sessions should be held. This will make it easier for both groups to choose and engage in activities in an informed manner. Obtaining long-term funding is required until the community is self-mobilized and independent because these programmes are invariably funded.


Conservation is an interactive social process


Fundamentally, conservation is a human endeavour. Conservation takes place in a social setting, and interactions among actors are shaped by social processes. The interactions between the actors, the power and resources that these actors bring to the table with their individual agendas, and the outcomes of these interactions greatly influence conservation.


The Assam Hathi Project in Goalpara was an endeavour to reduce human-elephant conflict and put an Asian elephant conservation project in place. Several conservation actors participated in this and five key actors involved were: project managers, project staffs, local community, forest department and funding organization. Actors engaged in a variety of frequencies, motives, and intensities of interaction with one another. The project as it is today was formed by these exchanges. We found direct, face-to-face and frequent interactions between project managers, project staffs and the local community. On the other hand, the funding organisation and the forest department had indirect and infrequent interactions with other actors.


During an interaction session with community members

Photo: Sayan Banerjee


Such interactions created an environment of conflict and cooperation where each actor negotiated on how to ‘do’ conservation on ground. Project staffs who belonged to the local community were critical actors in this whole process in terms of becoming a communication channel between project managers and local community, implementing interventions on ground, taking care of those interventions and negotiating intra-community fissures to create a co-operative atmosphere. They were so important that communities often call them hathir malik (owner of elephants) which is generally reserved for forest department staffs. On the other hand, project managers and funding agencies did not interact with local communities much, but they held the greater decision making power on how and where to disburse funds, how to develop capacity of communities and project staffs etc.


Apart from the intended outcome of reduction of human-elephant conflict, there were some hidden outcomes which were unintended results from this interactive process. Availability and accessibility of critical information related to technical interventions made community feel more capable. However, such information was often concentrated among few individuals within the community and the larger community depended on them. These individuals were treated as knowledge elites and they acted as local decision-makers. One of them asserted their significance in the area, saying that they were the "indispensable" component of the project and that the project would suffer if they left the area or were relocated elsewhere.


Conservation is shaped by the socially constructed process, which includes a number of individuals with both convergent and divergent objectives. On asking whether Assam Hathi Project could ever wind up its work in Goalpara, the project manager in Guwahati said that it would not be possible even when the funds decline. As the habitat continues to deteriorate, driving elephants closer to populated areas, it is less probable that the crisis of human-elephant conflict will abate. Such conflict will further exacerbate already existing human vulnerability, decreasing community resilience. As a result, projects like Assam Hathi Project that combined conservation and development will always be in demand, making conservation programmes in these environments an ongoing phenomenon that involves both cooperative and antagonistic daily interactions between many actors. Thus, one should always pay equal or more attention to the practices and processes of conservation along with the outcomes of conservation.


When birds gain popularity from obscurity


During the analysis of two community-based, bird -centric conservation initiatives, it was found that the two little-known bird species Bugun Liocichla (Liocichla bugunorum) and Amur falcon (Falco amurensis) had transformed the state of the landscape with a series of initiatives by Governments, NGOs and scientists. Bugun Liochicla is found in only one location of Arunachal Pradesh and its population is currently as low as 14 individuals. Amur falcon is a migratory bird of prey that visits Nagaland in millions to roost for two months. Due to the conservation projects, these birds and the place where it is found gained immense popularity and due to this, several kinds of values were imposed on these two birds.


The discovery of Bugun Liochicla and the information of the falcon's intense hunting were two significant "trigger" events that led to the start of the two conservation projects. Both initiatives sought to alter locals' conduct in order to safeguard the birds by conserving the species, educating them, giving them a sense of ownership, and instilling a sense of pride in them. In doing this, the birds gained three distinct values: cultural value, conservation value and commercial value.


Neither the Bugun Liochicla nor the Amur falcon had any erstwhile distinctive cultural significance for the local community. Therefore, it was necessary to run extensive awareness campaigns in order to install conservation principles in people's minds and preserve these species. These programmes helped the locals develop an emotional bond with the birds. On social media and online platforms, NGOs actively promoted the conservation movement's mission and objectives. Thus, both the birds were assimilated into local culture within a short period of time and gained a significant cultural value.


Initially, people did not have much ecological knowledge about the Bugun Liochicla and the Amur falcon. Later, both earned conservation value as result of several scientific research. The vulnerability, abundance, and dangers these birds confronted were revealed by scientific data. Campaigns and awareness activities gained legitimacy thanks to the role of science. Science-based data made the birds deserving of conservation and financial commitment, and it helped persuade policymakers to protect them. It also helped the birds win public sympathy for the species.


These two birds gained value for commercial purposes. For 'advanced' bird watchers both inside and outside of India, the Eaglenest Wildlife Sanctuary has grown into a significant avian tourism destination. Ecotourism is regarded as a successful method for both bird conservation and developing "green" local economic opportunities and it is one of the quickly expanding businesses in developing nations, acting as a catalyst for both economic growth and wildlife conservation. In Eaglenest and Pangti, a distinctive form of "bird-based tourism" or "avian tourism" has emerged, with an intentional effort to create a high-end niche tourism, so that it does not negatively impact the environment while supplying local livelihoods.


Both Bugun Liochicla and Amur falcon also gained a universal ‘developmental’ value which is combination of cultural, conservation and commercial values. The Bugun Liochicla was revered among the Buguns as a metaphor for the 'progress' of the isolated region. However, some groups believed that the very process of development (of infrastructure, agricultural expansion) could harm the bird's habitat. In Pangti, while the locals believed the bird would bring ‘development’, conservationists saw it as a tool for protecting a bigger region. The decision to ban falcon hunting caused great concern among the locals of Pangti, who feared losing a large source of revenue and their access to the roosting region. But, due to involvement of several NGOs and Government departments, local people expected that the development would arrive riding this bird. One villager said, the motivation is development. That is why we are protecting this bird. We are chasing for development. We have asked for road development, ecotourism, and guest houses and so on. Let’s see what happens. Thus, conservation often goes beyond simple species protection and it becomes a ‘conservation-cum-development’ project like other development projects.


Conclusion


Through this research, it can be understood that wildlife conservation is a socio-political process where several human groups with their own value systems interact and ‘cultivate’ conservation. The value systems converge and diverge, creating modes of negotiations, conflicts and co-operations. The conservation stories from northeast India showed that conservation is often ‘brought to the place’ by external actors and they create a conservation-cum-development scenario. In this process, various values are imposed upon the focal species and when such values remain unfulfilled, conflicts among various human groups might occur. Thus, it is extremely important to approach wildlife conservation as a social process, rather than an ecological product. This will help in understanding the local communities and their aspirations better, reducing conflict and redistributing power relations and probably, it will result in an effective community-centric conservation in a socially just way.


About the Author :

Sayan Banerjee is presently working as a PhD Scholar at National Institute of Advanced Studies, Bengaluru.

For his doctoral work, Sayan is exploring human-elephant interactions in Assam through an interdisciplinary lens, combining animal ecology, political ecology and more-than-human geography.

You can reach him at sayan.workspace@gmail.com

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