Challenges that we are aware of in the conservation domain:
1) Infrastructure projects coming up in proximity of, or, going through ‘Protected Areas’ or PAs.
PAs are chunks of land notified and demarcated as national parks or marine national parks, wildlife sanctuaries, tiger reserves, state and reserve forests, conservation reserves and community reserves with strict no-go zones and rules governing natural resources therein. India has 981 PAs about 1,73,629.52 sqkm land; this is about 5.28% of India’s territory, as of January 2023. Many of these PAs do not have notified/demarcated buffer areas (eco-sensitive zones/ESZs). Even though this is ~5% of land territory, these are some of the most dense and old-growth forests that we have today with the most biodiversity.
New infrastructure (roads and highways, dams, ports, mining, power plants, etc) tends to come up in/around PAs as well as in buffer areas (known as eco-sensitive zones or ESZ; irrespective of ESZ is notified by the state or not). There are many examples of how existing regulation (environment clearance, forest clearance and wildlife clearance) around building in/around PAs is not delivering. The emphasis on ease of business too has an impact on clearances to build through other forests and sensitive landscapes/habitats.
Q: This tends to be pitched as a progress-versus-preserve debate. What should be possible approaches that the Rainmatter Foundation can adopt?
2) Human-animal interactions (human-animal conflict)
This is a particularly knotty challenge (must-read this), and exists in all kinds of landscapes: farmlands, buffer areas (elephants, tigers, leopards, wild boars etc, destroying crops, livestock predation, human deaths and retaliation, even displacement), along railway tracks and highways (habitat fragmentation inhibits animal movement causing injury and death to animals), and even in urban areas (can we live with beehives? snakes die at construction sites, “monkey menace”, stray leopards). Amid all the narrative, it is easy to forget that many of these negative interactions with the wildlife around us are largely a result of humans’ gradual encroaching into their habitats. The mainstream narrative is also extreme and tends to leave out that co-existence is key.
Early-warning systems (preventive) are being tried in many areas, especially for elephants with some successes. States also have compensation schemes for crop loss and injury/deaths due to negative interactions; these are often complicated and tiresome processes.
Q: What might be a meaningful and holistic way to address this, and at scale? Educating and sensitisation? Advocacy for a conservation basic income i.e. people in conflict-prone areas be given supplementary monetary resources for bearing the brunt in wider interest of society?
3) Invasive species inside PAs, open natural ecosystems and other natural landscapes
Invasive species are the second-biggest threat to biodiversity, especially inside PAs, on agriculture lands and other natural ecosystems. Lantana and Eupatorium are among the more pervasive invasives on land and water hyacinth and water cabbage on water. These species inhibit native plants and fauna, and the climate crisis is expected to exacerbate the impact on native species since invasives are known to be climate resilient. To the best of my knowledge, there has been no major attempt at state or central level to contain or manage invasives, neither inside PAs, nor in natural landscapes. PAs are ‘inviolate’ areas i.e. there can be no active interference inside these areas, as such it has become a policy puzzle to deal with invasive species inside some of India’s thick forests and national parks. There are ongoing efforts to deal with invasives at an organisational or individual level such as ATREE/CSEI’s Invasive species initiative or The Real Elephant Collective’s effort to visibilise the problem
Q: Any examples of what’s been tried, what has worked?
Other general Qs:
Much of global conservation practice has roots in colonial attitudes and legacies. Are we being mindful of this history? And able to look at conservation from a people-and their-place context?
Conservation practise in India is largely rooted in animal/specie conservation, with recent interest in landscape and habitat preservation (which is failing, given the progress-vs-preserve debate). It has been difficult for us to determine what are India’s conservation goals?
The Sense of the House lens that we are relying on accounts for local biodiversity. It does not yet deal with the above-mentioned challenges.
Restoration efforts are disjointed and need 20- 30-year timeframes to take root and sustain. We are talking to several orgs and stakeholders, and will likely end up trying out multiple approaches/experiments.