A win-win solution?The tension between conservation and livelihood remains unresolved
Conservation organisations claim that their ‘integrated conservation and development’ projects have allowed them to attain the twin goals of biodiversity conservation and community development in protected areas. But evidence suggests that reconciling conservation goals and community livelihoods remains a huge challenge in Nepal. This is particularly so in areas inhabited by poor, marginalised groups who directly depend on natural resources for their livelihood.
Conservation and development
The concept of ‘integrated conservation and development’ (ICDP) was first introduced by World Wildlife Fund (WWF) in the mid 1980s. Some of the main organisations promoting this concept in the buffer zones of Banke and Bardiya national parks are WWF, Zoological Society of London (ZSL), the National Trust for Nature Conservation (NTNC), and the national parks department. Under the ‘livelihood’ component, conservation projects have provided people in the buffer zone with livestock for income generation, skills training, improved cook stoves, crops meant to deter wildlife, etc.
Unfortunately, most of these projects have achieved little success in safeguarding or improving people’s livelihoods. Many complain that such programs are inadequate and ineffective. “They displace us from our traditional occupations and then give us a few goats or pigs for income generation,” said a member of the Sonaha fishing community in Rajipur, Bardiya. “We have to invest a lot of time and labour in raising those goats. The returns are negligible. If we’d been allowed to fish instead, we could easily earn a few hundred rupees per kilo.”
Further, such projects overlook the customary rights of indigenous groups and their longstanding relationship with the forest and riverine landscape. As Sudeep Jana has argued, instead of strengthening people’s role as active custodians of their land and resources, such projects curtail their access to the natural world, reduce them to passive beneficiaries and ultimately disempower them.
The UNDP-supported Parks and People Program, which ran from 1994 to 2004, was the first project that sought to integrate conservation and development in Nepal. Well-known scholars Eleanor Ostrom and Arun Agrawal have unequivocally criticized the program in a 2001 article. They write that the program was driven by government and foreign aid agencies rather than by local demands, and that its “most visible outcome” was “an increase in the types and density of authorities” that would govern the lives of people in the buffer zone. Further, the program was primarily aimed at drawing resource-dependent people away from the forests and rivers rather than on involving them in the management of such resources.
Ecotourism as an “environmental fix”
One of the ICDP activities enthusiastically championed by global conservation actors and multinational organisations is ecotourism. In recent decades ecotourism has witnessed massive growth and gained widespread institutional legitimacy through publications, forums and organisations exclusively dedicated to promoting it.
Ecotourism, some critics say, is seen to offer potential “environmental fixes” to problems inherent to free-market capitalism. It has become an important element of neoliberal conservation, in that it allows natural resources to be commodified in-situ, without the need to transport them to the point of consumption.
In keeping with the global discourse, international organisations in Nepal present ecotourism in protected areas as a perfect marriage between biodiversity conservation and rural development. There is no doubt that some locals benefit from such tourism enterprises. What gets downplayed is that the majority of people continue to bear the brunt of protected areas.
The poorest members of the community lack the capital and financial literacy required to start an ecotourism venture.
In Dalla village near Bardiya National Park, WWF is promoting a homestay project under the Terai Arc Landscape project. Dalla is part of the area that was reclassified as a “wildlife corridor” in 2000 for the easy movement of tigers and elephants. The homestay project in Dalla has received widespread publicity, including visits by national and international celebrities such as Prince Harry, Miss Nepal and Nepali filmstars.
But while about 22 households (out of the total 112) have benefited from the homestay business, the majority of the local population still depends on agriculture for livelihood. The frequency of wildlife attacks on crops, livestock and property has increased since the area was declared a wildlife corridor. Wild animals have injured or killed many locals in recent years. The uneven benefits of ecotourism cannot compensate for the losses suffered by the broader community.
Beneficiaries of tourism
A quick stroll around Sauraha bazaar can give us a sense of how tourism has benefited the indigenous populations of Chitwan. Sauraha is the main tourist hub near Chitwan National Park, Nepal’s highest revenue-generating park. The Tharu make up the largest population in the district. Large numbers of local inhabitants, mainly Tharus, were evicted from the area to create and expand the national park in the 1970s. In one account, “[h]ouses were burned down, fields and houses were trampled by elephants, men, women and children were threatened sometimes at gun point. Those who lived inside the boundaries tried to fight for their land, but lost and became landless for life.” Similarly, the park has caused tremendous suffering to the indigenous Bote, Majhi, Musahar and Chepang who depend on forests and rivers for their livelihood and cultural survival.
But these people are not the primary beneficiaries of national park tourism. The majority of big hotels, resorts and shops around the park are owned and run by hill migrants and city-based businesspeople. A 2012 study showed that 75 percent of Tharus working in the tourism sector of Chitwan hold low-paid menial jobs such as mahoutes, drivers, canoe rowers, kitchen helpers, etc. The distinctive culture of the Tharu has been reduced to a commodity for tourists’ consumption. Tourists can experience the “authentic” Tharu culture and an adventurous wildlife safari as part of the same package.
Not quite ‘integrated’
Many scholars agree (regardless of their position on neoliberal conservation) that efforts to find a “win-win” solution through “integrated” conservation and development have largely failed across the world. In the face of looming ecological disaster, should conservation goals take precedence over the livelihood needs of marginalised people? Or should the needs of the resource-dependent poor be at the centre of conservation? These are contested questions that sometimes give rise to heated discussions, with some die-hards claiming that the suffering of people—people “out there”—is a price worth paying for the growth of wildlife population.
In Nepal, it is clear which side of the debate has won so far. From national parks and wildlife corridors to the proposed reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation in developing countries (REDD ) program, major strategies for conservation and climate change mitigation have placed the burden of conservation on the poor and marginalised, not the elite. The tension between conservation goals and community livelihoods is becoming deeper. Market-based approaches like ecotourism may provide short-term “fixes” but can’t address the problem in the long run. What might be necessary is a radical rethinking of resource governance.
Ghale, a former op-ed editor at the Kathmandu Post, is a freelance writer