Community firstThe government must trust locals to continue with its conservation efforts in the Annapurna region
The Government of Nepal, which had further extended the management responsibility of Annapurna Conservation Area Project (Acap) to National Trust for Nature Conservation (NTNC) for the period of two years, will expire on January 18, 2015. There have been highs and lows while debating the future of Acap in the past due to unstable government and a lack of institutional memory in the bureaucracy. This has hampered the preparation of an exit plan to hand over the management responsibility to local communities.
Acap, which was piloted in Ghandruk village in 1986, recently celebrated its 28th Conservation Day recently. The initial project was expanded to cover an area of 7,629 sq.kms in Kaski, Lamjung, Myagdi, Manang and Mustang districts based on the operational plan prepared by experts—Mingma Norbu Sherpa, Brought Coburn and Chandra Gurung. Piloted as the first integrated conservation and development project in Nepal, it highly regarded for its success in implementing community-based conservation and sustainable development projects winning several international awards. The project pioneered community engagement in conservation and development as a new paradigm in protected area management putting the community interest, ownership and partnership first. Without respecting the community’s interest and need, it would not have received community support and global attention for its innovative conservation works.
Acap’s role in shifting the conservation paradigm away from the purist environment to sustainable development was well recognised by the government. As a result, the greater Annapurna region was declared as a conservation area after amending the existing National Parks and Wildlife Conservation Act 1973 with a new protected area status as ‘Conservation Area’. It was a clear departure from the traditional western concept of protected area management. Since then, the government has created buffer zones around national parks and five more conservation areas adopting the new conservation management system with a motto of ‘conservation for development’. Today, there is more harmony between parks and people and protected areas cover over 23 percent of Nepal’s landmass.
There are multiple reasons why the Annapurna region is a unique protected area and thereby the need for local management with authority and responsibility. First, the local communities have been managing the natural resources since the past three decades. Second, the region is rich in cultural diversity with more than 10 distinct ethnic groups from the southern Annapurna slopes to the northern dry Tibetan plateaus. Most of the local communities in the region worship nature. The communities practicing Buddhism and Bonpo religion have made a significant contribution towards nature conservation. Third, the recognition of the importance of community power and indigenous resource management practices are important tools for sustainable conservation.
The principles of Acap—people’s participation, catalyst approach and financial sustainability—are imperative to the partnership process that ensure community ownership of development projects. Local communities are now champions of conservation and sustainable local development. Undermining local expertise and skills will risk the future of conservation and certainly discourage the locals’ commitment to conservation. The recognition and practice of cultural values and belief systems has further created ownership and built trust among local communities.
Furthermore, community-based conservation has generated significant ecosystem services—forests, water, non-timber forests products, wildlife and tourism. Good ecology is good economy and there is no doubt that it will bring social change through green jobs. Likewise, sustainable community development has been integrated in nature conservation—conservation and development are now two sides of the same coin. ough
Nonetheless, the role of government is critical in monitoring community conservation efforts and coming up with necessary legislations. The state must realise that the conservation achievements made in the past three decades is a matter of national pride. And local communities are conserving nature without any direct investment from the state treasury as of now. The government’s support to the innovative approach of collecting tourist entry fees directly by the NGO and ploughing it back to the conservation area for tourism management, biodiversity conservation and community development need to be continued for ensuring financial sustainability and efficiency. The NTNC’s role is still crucial to linking conservation science with community well-being and providing technical assistance as and when required.
The conservation strategy in the Annapurna region is a holistic approach beyond forest management, with multidisciplinary education and training essential for management of Nepal’s largest and most diverse protected area. In the absence of vibrant local institutions and human resources, since its inception, it is certain that the future management will fail. The proposed Conservation Area Management Council must adopt a bottom up implementation approach and work with the local leadership. The achievements made in conservation and improvement in community livelihoods in the past three decades will be jeopardised if the government does away with community ownership of the conservation efforts. If that happens, both the government and local communities will lose. So the government must trust the local people to continue its conservation works. The locals have the energy, skills and capacity to save the Annapurna from becoming a tragedy of the commons.
Gurung holds a PhD on community-based protected area management