Sunday, November 14, 2010

CONSERVATION AT THE CROSSROADS- Beyond cliches and the obvious

Sunday, November 14, 2010 8:27 PM IST

'CONSERVATION AT THE CROSSROADS' by Dr. Ghazala Shahabuddin.
Review by Pankaj Sekhsaria

Beyond cliches and the obvious

Pankaj Sekhsaria

Wildlife conservation in India is an extremely complex and intricate matter, related as it is to the fate of thousands of species of plants and animals and also the millions of humans who live in or are dependant on landscapes that are critical for conservation. The matrix is a complex one and to say that conservation in a rapidly changing India is at a crossroads is as much a cliché as a statement of the obvious.

'Conservation at the Crossroads' by Dr Ghazala Shahabuddin manages to go beyond both, the clichés and the obvious, in a contemporary account of conservation that is timely and well-informed. Spread over eight chapters, the book explores the different paradigms that either exist, are being attempted or might indeed be possible. The central debate in conversation in India, as it has been all over the world, is over the exclusionary paradigm — keeping out people from areas where wildlife should rule the roost. Various arguments have been put forth in favour and against this over the years and Shahabuddin shows that while this is crucial, it is not the only debate that we need to have.

Having said that and in spite of making a claim to the contrary, the book does end up treating strict conservation in protected areas (wildlife sanctuaries and national parks) and initiatives of community conservation asymmetrically. Where protected areas (PAs) are concerned, the problems outlined are located entirely in the broad domain of ‘management’ (lack of resources, personnel, training etc). In dealing with communities that are conserving on their own account, meanwhile, a question mark hangs on the value of the paradigm itself in achieving conservation. Much larger trust and belief is placed in the PA system. Much tougher questions are being asked of the community conservation paradigm.

It is well known, for instance, that ‘good’ forest and wildlife areas remain outside PA boundaries for reasons that have nothing to do with either wildlife, forests or science. The contradiction is an obvious one then, when we show faith in the protected areas system to ‘scientifically’ protect biodiversity when the basis for the creation of the system itself can be questioned on the grounds of its scientific validity.

The other thing I started to see towards the end the book is the almost complete absence of the larger political, social and economic context of the present within which conservation has to be located. Shahabuddin does talk of developmental threats (dams, mines, infrastructure projects), but these are discussed more as stand-alone projects. The narrative emerges uninformed by the drives, moves and trajectories of the larger context.

What value is there to communities conserving or even PA boundaries being ‘sanitised’ when one big project tomorrow can upset it all, riding roughshod over or perhaps aided by the legal, administrative and economic systems we are presently part of?

The last chapter ‘Reinventing Conservation: Creating Space for Nature’ too was a little disappointing because the space had been created in the preceding chapters for solutions that could have been much bolder. Disproportionate emphasis, for instance, has been placed on tourism as a means to ensure conservation and livelihood security for the locals and the notion of the buffer zone too is also not examined critically when it remains only a concept on the ground.

If the account so far sounds like only a string of complaints, it is because I have concentrated on only certain parts of what is, overall, a delightful read. The first chapter on the Sariska Tiger Reserve, for instance, is very good for the details provided of the author’s own field work and her personal interest and experience. It’s an account that is rooted in strong empirical work and builds a credibility that is sustained through to the very end.

The best chapter of the book is the third one — ‘The endangered tribe of the wildlife biologist’ — not surprising considering that Shahabuddin’s training is that of a conservation biologist. This is an account that wildlife biologists and scientists will welcome with open arms. Not only is the title laced with huge irony, the outlining of the problem and the suggested solutions are insightful and succinct. It gave me, for the first time, an understanding of the nature of the problem of wildlife science in India and why it is a problem in the first place.

Conservation at the Crossroads is an excellent piece of scholarship — one that I found insightful and useful and one I would strongly recommend. Permanent Black and the New India Foundation need to be congratulated for bringing it out and hopefully there will be many more.

— Pankaj Sekhsaria is an environment writer, researcher and photographer. He edits the ‘Protected Area Update’ a bimonthly newsletter on wildlife produced by the environmental action group, Kalpavriksh

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