To conserve tropical forests and wildlife, protect the rights of people who rely on them

rino 4 12Rhinos in Kaziranga National Park. Malcolm Williams/Flickr, CC BY-NC

Many of our planet’s most beautiful areas are also sites of intense conflicts. In a recent example, traditional herdsmen in February took over the land around Mount Kenya, which is a World Heritage Site and biodiversity hotspot, burning down the tourist lodge and bringing in thousands of cattle to graze.

These tensions also occur in wealthy nations, including the United States, where conflicts continue to simmer over the control of federal lands and national wildlife refuges. But in former colonies in Asia and Africa, the contemporary effects of colonial land acquisitions are made even more complex by continuing social divisions based on caste or ethnicity. They also are worsened by social and cultural differences between staff of forestry agencies and the indigenous and forest-dependent groups who are affected most by these conflicts.

The conventional wisdom among many environmentalists is that there are inherent trade-offs between protecting the environment and securing social justice for indigenous and forest-dependent people. In my new book “Democracy in the Woods: Environmental Conservation and Social Justice in India, Tanzania, and Mexico,” I challenge that perspective. My research shows that when countries protect the rights of forest-dependent people and support popular participation in the political process, they are better able to handle conflicts over the environment.

Whose forests?

Kaziranga National Park in northeast India, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, starkly illustrates the problem. The park is home to an estimated 2,401 one-horned rhinos – more than two-thirds of the remaining stock of rhinos in the world – and a higher density of Bengal tigers than any other protected site in the world.

Kaziranga’s rangers have shoot-to-kill powers to deter and punish suspected poachers. They have killed more than 50 people over the last three years on suspicion of being poachers. Survival International, a nonprofit that defends indigenous people’s rights, has long called for a halt to these “extra-judicial killings.”

Although some observers view these conflicts as a cost of contemporary conservation, they are rooted in contested claims to forest lands. The human victims of these conflicts are among the world’s poorest and most marginalized people. They are not poachers and do not oppose conservation. At Kaziranga there have been reports of people, including children, who were not poachers yet were killed.

Instead, struggles in Kenya, India and elsewhere are about frequent violations of local people’s forest and land rights. Protecting those rights does not necessarily conflict with saving forests and wildlife. On the contrary, upholding indigenous forestland rights has slowed deforestation rates, especially in Latin America.

Unfortunately, this strategy is the exception rather than the rule. This fact raises an important question: Why do some societies balance environmental protection and social justice much more effectively than others?

Public participation supports conservation

Mexico’s experience shows it is possible to protect land rights without harming natural resources. After the Mexican revolution at the beginning of the 20th century, the government launched an extensive program of agrarian reforms. Large-scale land redistribution put nearly 70 percent of the country’s forestland under the control of peasant collectives. Along with strong social mobilization, this process gave peasants a voice in political and policy decisions.

Contrary to fears that political populism would cause large-scale destruction of forests, these reforms in Mexico led to the emergence of the strongest community forestry programs in the world and contributed to the sustainable protection of Mexico’s forest and wildlife resources. Local groups collectively control and manage forest commons by developing their own management plans. They include sustainable harvesting of forest produce, including timber, for consumption and commercial sale. These community groups also have the authority to create forest management rules that work well in a local context. Government agencies cannot override these rules.

Things are very different in Tanzania and India. In 2014 wildlife safaris and nature tourism generated 25 percent of Tanzania’s foreign exchange earnings and 17 percent of the country’s total GDP. But government wildlife and forestry agencies continue to deprive local groups of constitutionally mandated opportunities for benefits from wildlife tourism, leaving more than a third of residents in severe poverty.

Similarly, India has abundant natural resources and has experienced rapid economic growth over the past two decades, but has yet to secure social and environmental justice for its 300 million indigenous and forest-dependent people. Many people in these groups live in poverty comparable to levels in sub-Saharan Africa.

Sukraam Bhaiya, a member of India’s Baiga tribe, explains why his community should not be evicted from one of India’s tiger reserves.

India is celebrated as a democracy, but its environmental policies are controlled by a centralized bureaucracy. Forest-dependent people are shut out of the policy process and cannot hold India’s bloated and ineffective bureaucracy to account. As a result, agencies engage in maneuvers such as categorizing urban gardens and commercial tree plantations as “forests.” This disguises losses of natural forestland and exaggerates the government’s conservation record.

A nationwide mobilization of forest peoples in 2006 prompted the Parliament of India to enact the Forest Rights Act, which secures the land rights of forest-dependent people and gives them legal powers necessary for effective environmental conservation. The law recognizes collective rights of forest-dependent groups to manage community forest resources, including the right to sell forest produce from locally managed forest areas.

However, community groups do not have the right to sell timber. More importantly, the bureaucracy has retained a tight grip over policy-making and actively undermined enforcement of the law. My research shows that because these agencies fail to consult with other department and citizen groups, they produce poorly informed policies and programs.

Creating local stakes

In contrast, as I show in my book, concrete institutional arrangements that help citizen groups and civil society organizations engage in political and policy processes promote successful environmental conservation. For example, national and local statutes help rural citizens in Mexico to manage their forests autonomously.

Yet, similar arrangements in Kenya, Tanzania and India are ineffective for two reasons. First, forest-dependent people there do not wield any leverage in policymaking and program implementation or have any political influence. This means that policies fail to create local stakes in effective resource management. Second, citizens cannot hold officials to account. This means that those officials can abuse their regulatory powers with impunity to seek personal gains.

Creating robust arrangements that offer citizens concrete stakes in protecting environmental resources is not easy. But it is worth the investment. According to my estimate, forestland conflicts directly affect 750 million to 1.5 billion people around the world. They also undermine global investments in conservation.

Research by the Rights and Resource Initiative, the Woods Hole Research Center and the World Resources Institute shows that areas managed by indigenous peoples and other forest-dependent groups account for at least 24 percent of the carbon stored above-ground in the world’s tropical forests. If forest conservation efforts fail, they will worsen the effects of climate change, thereby endangering national and international security in the years and decades to come.

It is crucial to resolve these standoffs in order to ensure that billions of dollars contributed by governments and private citizens do not worsen the very problems they are meant to solve. Conservation policies designed to protect critical ecosystem services and support rural livelihoods simultaneously are more likely to be successful. Opening conservation up to social scrutiny and political oversight, while holding government agencies to account, are essential steps for achieving an environmentally resilient and socially just world.

This article originally appeared on The Conversation

enafarzh-CNzh-TWdanltlfifrdeiwhihuiditjakomsnofaplptruesswsvthtrukurvi

follow InnerSelf on

facebook icontwitter iconyoutube iconinstagram iconpintrest iconrss icon

 Get The Latest By Email

Weekly Magazine Daily Inspiration

LATEST VIDEOS

The Great Climate Migration Has Begun
The Great Climate Migration Has Begun
by Super User
The climate crisis is forcing thousands around the world to flee as their homes become increasingly uninhabitable.
The Last Ice Age Tells Us Why We Need To Care About A 2℃ Change In Temperature
The Last Ice Age Tells Us Why We Need To Care About A 2℃ Change In Temperature
by Alan N Williams, et al
The latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) states that without a substantial decrease…
Earth Has Stayed Habitable For Billions Of Years – Exactly How Lucky Did We Get?
Earth Has Stayed Habitable For Billions Of Years – Exactly How Lucky Did We Get?
by Toby Tyrrell
It took evolution 3 or 4 billion years to produce Homo sapiens. If the climate had completely failed just once in that…
How Mapping The Weather 12,000 Years Ago Can Help Predict Future Climate Change
How Mapping The Weather 12,000 Years Ago Can Help Predict Future Climate Change
by Brice Rea
The end of the last ice age, around 12,000 years ago, was characterised by a final cold phase called the Younger Dryas.…
The Caspian Sea Is Set To Fall By 9 Metres Or More This Century
The Caspian Sea Is Set To Fall By 9 Metres Or More This Century
by Frank Wesselingh and Matteo Lattuada
Imagine you are on the coast, looking out to sea. In front of you lies 100 metres of barren sand that looks like a…
Venus Was Once More Earth-like, But Climate Change Made It Uninhabitable
Venus Was Once More Earth-like, But Climate Change Made It Uninhabitable
by Richard Ernst
We can learn a lot about climate change from Venus, our sister planet. Venus currently has a surface temperature of…
Five Climate Disbeliefs: A Crash Course In Climate Misinformation
The Five Climate Disbeliefs: A Crash Course In Climate Misinformation
by John Cook
This video is a crash course in climate misinformation, summarizing the key arguments used to cast doubt on the reality…
The Arctic Hasn't Been This Warm For 3 Million Years and That Means Big Changes For The Planet
The Arctic Hasn't Been This Warm For 3 Million Years and That Means Big Changes For The Planet
by Julie Brigham-Grette and Steve Petsch
Every year, sea ice cover in the Arctic Ocean shrinks to a low point in mid-September. This year it measures just 1.44…

LATEST ARTICLES

3 wildfire lessons for forest towns as Dixie Fire destroys historic Greenville, California
3 wildfire lessons for forest towns as Dixie Fire destroys historic Greenville, California
by Bart Johnson, Professor of Landscape Architecture, University of Oregon
A wildfire burning in hot, dry mountain forest swept through the Gold Rush town of Greenville, California, on Aug. 4,…
China Can Meet Energy and Climate Goals Capping Coal Power
China Can Meet Energy and Climate Goals Capping Coal Power
by Alvin Lin
At the Leader’s Climate Summit in April, Xi Jinping pledged that China will “strictly control coal-fired power…
A plane drops red fire retardant on to a forest fire as firefighters parked along a road look up into the orange sky
Model predicts 10-year burst of wildfire, then gradual decline
by Hannah Hickey-U. Washington
A look at the long-term future of wildfires predicts an initial roughly decade-long burst of wildfire activity,…
Blue water surrounded by dead white grass
Map tracks 30 years of extreme snowmelt across US
by Mikayla Mace-Arizona
A new map of extreme snowmelt events over the last 30 years clarifies the processes that drive rapid melting.
White sea ice in blue water with the sun setting reflected in the water
Earth’s frozen areas are shrinking 33K square miles a year
by Texas A&M University
The Earth’s cryosphere is shrinking by 33,000 square miles (87,000 square kilometers) per year.
A row of male and female speakers at microphones
234 scientists read 14,000+ research papers to write the upcoming IPCC climate report
by Stephanie Spera, Assistant Professor of Geography and the Environment, University of Richmond
This week, hundreds of scientists from around the world are finalizing a report that assesses the state of the global…
A brown weasel with a white belly leans on a rock and looks over its shoulder
Once common weasels are doing a vanishing act
by Laura Oleniacz - NC State
Three species of weasels, once common in North America, are likely in decline, including a species that’s considered…
Flood risk will rise as climate heat intensifies
by Tim Radford
A warmer world will be a wetter one. Ever more people will face a higher flood risk as rivers rise and city streets…

 Get The Latest By Email

Weekly Magazine Daily Inspiration

New Attitudes - New Possibilities

InnerSelf.comClimateImpactNews.com | InnerPower.net
MightyNatural.com | WholisticPolitics.com | InnerSelf Market
Copyright ©1985 - 2021 InnerSelf Publications. All Rights Reserved.