Are we still at the crossroads of conservation?

Exactly ten years ago when Conservation at the Crossroads was published, I had lamented the growing degradation and fragmentation of forests in India, to the extent that a large proportion now fall in the ranks of the ‘living dead’-forests that lack vital ecosystem elements such as dispersers and predators. In 2010, infrastructural projects, mining and industry were visibly endangering natural habitats all over the country, a sort of double whammy when over-exploitation for grazing and fuelwood was already a problem in many places.

Little did I know that ten years down the line, things would be much worse, not just in India, but globally too. The year 2020 has the makings of an environmental cataclysm, that has brought these changes closer home than ever expected. Raging forest fires in the Amazon, western United States and Siberia. Wetlands burning in Assam due to an out-of-control fire in an oil rig. Covid-19, a zoonotic disease ruthlessly destroying national economies. The deserts being over-run by solar energy projects. The fragile Himalayas being devoured by road-widening operations and dams over as much as 900 km. In today’s situation, it would be easy for an ecologist to give up hope. Yet the role of the ecologist to try to unravel the ‘how’ and the ‘why’ of global ecological change, to communicate this to the public and to influence public policy and action has never been so vital.

As a teenager in the 1980’s, I watched wild places go under in my then green city of Delhi, explored social and economic issues around big dam projects like the Narmada, and closely observed the governmental machinations around these issues, along with my friends from Kalpavriksh, an informal group made up of nature-lovers and concerned citizens in Delhi. Though we were deeply supportive of wildlife conservation, we were able to see complex environmental problems not just from the perspective of ecology but also social equity and sustainability.

My professional pre-occupation, after I trained as an ecologist, therefore, was not with chasing down rare and endangered fauna in remote places, and publishing coffee-table books on wildlife. Rather my self-assigned job was to understand how we have dealt with, tolerated and conserved nature over the years in the intricate web of humans and nature in India. It was always intriguing to me how and why India was able to sustain so much biodiversity despite such a dense human population.

Fortunately, India’s rich tapestry of wildlife, ecological traditions and diverse ecosystem-dependent people, provides a valuable substrate for such explorations. There is so much for an ecologist to study in India. The diverse ways in which people have managed and worked the bountiful forests, wetlands and seas. The scientists who are surprisingly way ahead of their time in recognizing and stemming ecological problems. The forest officers with their dedication to the national vision of Project Tiger. Individuals and local communities working to restore forests and wetlands in their midst, unsung and unsupported.

I travelled to innumerable locations where activists, citizens, government officers and scientists were working on various conservation issues, and documented what I could. I enjoyed both the gorgeous view of wild elephants crossing the Ramganga in the northern terai, as well as the discussions on forests with Gond tribals.  I marvelled at the rich biota of the rainforests of Kalakad, but made sure to interact with the Kani tribals who seemed to know every plant and every animal in their forests.  I camped for three months in a remote village in the Palni Hills, to study the fascinating butterflies, but assisted with documenting forest use practices of the Paliyan people. In Sariska Tiger Reserve, I studied not just bird ecology but also Reserve history and the displacement of the Gujjars, a pastoral community that co-existed with tigers. The indignity and deprivation faced by under-privileged people of Tadoba-Andhari Tiger Reserve (and other places) in the face of wildlife conservation aggravated me no end. Trying to understand why many of our forest institutions were failing in the twenty-first century, was another matter of concern, waiting to be researched.

What struck me as a commonality across many of these examples was that, not only people’s concerns but also scientific concerns are habitually given short-shrift, to pave the way for ‘inviolate’ wildlife reserves. In many states, ecologists were as unwelcome as local villagers, but for different reasons! The second revelation was the selective way in which the Wildlife Protection Act was applied across different strata of society, depending on how inconvenient it was at particular moments in history. I could see patterns in India’s complex ‘battle for nature’ but I was also convinced of the value of ecological sciences in creating a socially equitable way of conservation.

Twenty years after I began my peregrinations across the country, the New India Fellowship gave me a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to bring my entire gamut of experiences and analyses together in a critique of conservation that would be interesting not only to biologists but also to laypersons, social ecologists, conservationists and policy-makers.  During those six months of writing, I relived all my diverse experiences all over India. I was able to move back and forth between the science and the politics of conservation. It was difficult not to be engulfed by nostalgia, at the thought of the places, animals, trees and people I had met and interacted with through all those years of travel and research. I had developed close relationships not just with wildlife but with the people, both colleagues, fellow-students and local residents, with whom I had shared many of these experiences. I had kept meticulous field notes throughout, and these came in useful to write the book.

I was lucky enough to have two leading scholars of environment- Mahesh Rangarajan and Ramachandra Guha- as my reviewers. I had some six pages of comments to deal with. But in tackling each of these comments, I learnt much: the process of writing turned out to be as rewarding as the book itself. Discussing content with them, allowed me to re-evaluate everything I was saying from a multi-disciplinary perspective that would not have been possible otherwise. It also led to a book that spoke to a much wider audience than it would otherwise have. Conservation at the Crossroads was among the first few popular books on Indian conservation from a scientist’s perspective, which was framed as a critique of the paradigms we have adopted.

In my book, I had commented in detail on the rapidly deteriorating ecological status of our forests.  But ten years hence, things seem even more dismal. At least in 2010, the slew of laws enacted to protect the environment were still in force. They were difficult to implement, no doubt, but rarely were they contested. But over the years after economic reforms came into play, several environmental laws are in the process of being amended to the extent of becoming toothless. The critical Environmental Impact Process, that regulates development projects with respect to potential ecological damage, is in the process of being dismantled. Government support is being withdrawn from premier research institutes like Indian Institute of Forest Management and the Wildlife Institute of India on the rationale that these institutions have not delivered. The strictures on construction in coastal laws has largely been repealed. All this is being allowed despite unequivocal evidence globally that well- protected forests, wetlands, mangroves, agro-ecosystems and marine ecosystems will create enhanced resilience to impacts of climate change.

Apart from amendments in laws and policies, budget cuts have become rampant. Even Tiger Reserves are woefully short of finances to pay their staff.  At the time of writing, the morale of conservationists, from all walks of life, regions and academic fields, is extremely low.

Yet, there is a silver lining in the clouds that beset us. Owing to our still-vibrant academic environment, the field of ecological sciences  has forged ahead of other developing countries in Asia in its breadth and depth. Post-2000, the increasing confluence of social and natural sciences has also led to remarkable work both in the scholarly world but also in the field. Ecologists are studying and working closely with governments, grassroots activists and local people more than ever before. The ‘Authoritarian Biologist’ (Guha, 2003), a reality of post-independence nature conservation, has visibly given way to an ecologist who has a more sensitive and nuanced understanding of humans in nature, and who is willing to grapple with the considerably more complex processes involved. I like to think that Conservation at the Crossroads reflects this welcome trend.

In these bleak times, I hope that more ecologists will take advantage of the NIF Fellowship to bring in their richly-researched field perspectives to better understand the policies and politics of wildlife conservation in India, and more importantly, to communicate this to larger audiences across the country. This new generation of ecologists, visibly passionate and articulate, might well be all that we have between us and environmental catastrophe in India.

Conservation at the Crossroads is an analysis of the science and politics of biodiversity conservation by eminent ecologist and author Ghazala Shahabuddin. Published by Permanent Black, the book is available online at Amazon.

The New India Foundation