forest rights, conservation and dilemmas of growth © mazoomdaar 2011
Why it need not be such a lonely battle Conservation, as a cause bandied about by the elite few, has alienated its most natural and powerful ally: the marginalized millions Jay Mazoomdaar | 3 February, 2011 | THE BENGAL POST, pg9  What is the biggest challenge facing conservation? Over the years, I have been asked this question many a time. Borrowing from the experts, I have peddled most stock options -- development rush, population boom, vote politics etc - to offer perspective. Today, when I ask this question myself, I realise I have been always naïve with my answers. Market economy will always try to maximise growth, just like all life forms are programmed to multiply and colonise more bio space. It is in the nature of every being to be earnest to its purpose. We do not resent a conservationist seeking out a patch of welcome green in a high-rise complex. So why should we blame a miner for seeing only prize minerals in a lush forest? In any natural order, counter-forces maintain the balance.   Likewise, in the real world, conservation concerns are supposed to force the checks and balances in a fair competition with the GDP rush. We know that has not happened. Even under Jairam Ramesh, the green ministry has been clearing 99 out of every 100 development projects. It is hardly a contest. No wonder the frustrated greens are reduced to branding the GDPwalas evil, blind or suicidal. But how has the growth-versus-green contest become so one-sided? The answer is scary. India is a vastly unequal society. Our growth machine has little pretense of being inclusive. Businesses make profit for a privileged few. Industries thrive on cheap labour. Development projects displace the poor almost at will. India is also a democracy. Big money may still rule us by proxy but the rulers are careful not to appear autocratic. The power of the people, the poor majority, still decides a lot. Elections often spring surprises. Mass movements are never easy to quash. Simply put, India's economic growth has failed to substantially benefit most Indians. In fact, this growth is at the cost of many Indians. Also, much of this growth is at the cost of conservation. So why do we not have mass participation of the marginalized and the poor in the green movements against unscrupulous projects? Surely, that would have made a huge difference in a democracy. Unfortunately, if "inclusive growth" has been a false promise, "inclusive conservation" is just an oxymoron. From online discussion forums to top government panels, conservationists are full of contempt for the poor, marginalized majority of India. Left to them, these encroachers or poachers should be "thrown out", "put in jail" and even "shot at sight". About five years ago, the tiger-versus-tribal debate generated heated exchanges. I remember many big names that claimed only guns- and-guards could save the tiger. To be fair, the other camp was pushing for a free-for-all. With no middle ground in sight, saving the tiger soon became yet another upmarket fad and the tribal the biggest threat to conservation. A few of those gun-toting conservationists have subsequently shown the courage to accept that conservation needs people's support. The rest still continue with their shrill anti-people tirade. Such shocking elitism has completely alienated the green lobby from the marginalized. Little wonder the moneybags, and the crumbs they throw, find enough takers among the poor. Their choice, if any, is simple. GDPwalas may dupe them; conservationists just deny them. Though unfortunate, this elitism is not surprising. Synonyms of welfare include aid, assistance and dole. This idea of charity has a noble aura that suits the elite. But for the average Indian, the one conservationists snigger at, acceptance of the wild has always been a way of life. While the sparsely populated West eliminated much of its wildlife, many species of large, potentially dangerous animals still survive in a crowded India. Yet, conservation as we practise it here is a Western concept, with over-emphasis on protected areas. Is it possible to insulate free- ranging elephants and large carnivores in a country of a billion? We surely need undisturbed wilderness but much of our wildlife will keep dying outside those pocket reserves if we antagonise the people. Our greens have already done everything possible to ensure this fate. They stay in walled resorts and blame open villages for obstructing wildlife corridors. They do not push the tourism industry to share profits with the communities but condemn villagers for entering forests to collect firewood. They refuse compensation if cattle are killed inside a reserve but persecute livestock-owners even if a wild animal is found dead outside reserves. They dismiss six human deaths in 10 weeks as insufficient ground for shooting a rogue tiger. And they also want the poorest and their subsistence economy to bear the cost of conservation. The same lack of inclusiveness makes our so-called conservationists stonewall new knowledge. Almost none of them ever had anything do with wildlife or conservation sciences. Their expertise is built on anecdotes and experiences. Naturally, they are too insecure to make room for scientific or technical inputs. As a result, our green movements are mostly all action and no direction. The biggest challenge facing conservation today is rescuing the green cause from this exclusivity. The community of Page3 conservationists and their followers on the web appears ridiculously out of depth against the mighty GDPwalas. Our green movement urgently needs some substance - the quantity of mass support and the quality of scientific guidance - to stand up and play a balancing role against our growth rush. For that to happen, we urgently need a paradigm shift in thinking. Few experts evolve with time and none comes with a sale-by date. So, to break new ground, a fresh green leadership may exclude some old (and not so old) baggage. PS: This is by no means a call for group retirement. What may not be good conservation can always be good television. The doting members of so many green groups on the web will still be watching. The author is an independent journalist Home | Reports | Related Articles | Resources | Gallery | Feedback | Contact | About