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Displacement of Maldharis from Gir would harm biodiversity, argues top Geneva-based sociologist

Shalini Randeria
By Rajiv Shah 
A top Geneva-based researcher has sharply contested the application of international norms of biodiversity conservation on the Gir forest, which consider the establishment of uninhabited ‘protected areas’ as an effective way to protect nature. Writing in “Asia and Europe Bulletin” of the University of Zurich, Prof Shalini Randeria, who currently chairs the anthropology and sociology department at the prestigious Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies, Geneva, says, “The ideology and practices of new regimes of environmental governance in Gir forest” have merely continued the (post)colonial practice of “displacement, dispossession and the curtailment of the rights of forest-dwelling communities.”
Exploring ”the paths and patterns of travelling norms of nature conservation from their colonial beginnings to contemporary processes of their transnationalization”, and pointing towards how India has borrowed the “the new environmental regime of pristine ‘protected areas’” from another post-colony, USA, Prof Randeria argues in favour of the struggle around “an alternative, cosmopolitan vision of the commons, one held by grassroots activists, who forge strategic translocal alliances in order to protect the rights of forest-dwelling communities.”
Suggesting how “pervasive changes in landscapes, ecologies, and ideas about nature – whether as wilderness in need of conservation or as a resource to be exploited for economic gain – are among the most enduring legacies of British colonial rule”, she says, “The environmental interventions of the postcolonial state have extended the scope of colonial categories, discourses and mechanisms of surveillance and the control of nature and local populations.” She adds, “In the name of development as well as management of biodiversity, ever more territories and communities have come under the control of the post-colonial state.”
Particularly blaming international organizations like the World Bank and international NGOs like the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) for “undergirding this process”, Prof Randeria says, “The new globalized forms of ecological governmentality include elements from several Western strands of conservation ideology. Among these is the now hegemonic idea of biodiversity conservation, enshrined in the International Convention for Biological Diversity, which in turn is based on the US model of national parks that identifies uninhabited wilderness reserves as ‘protected areas.’ This term encompasses various levels of protection ranging from highly restrictive national parks to wildlife sanctuaries, where communities in habiting the area have greater rights.”
Basing her argument on “ethnographic material generated in the Gir forest, which was home to a World Bank-funded biodiversity conservation programme”, Prof Randeria says, “Pastoralists emphasize their own positive contribution to conservation, including their intimate knowledge of and care for their surroundings, as well as the symbiotic relationship between their buffaloes and the lions that prey on the herds of cattle. By contrast, state forest officials, international organizations, and environmentalist NGOs all advocate conservation norms derived from a Euro-American ideology of ‘protected areas.’"
She adds, “Among its assumptions is an antagonism between the rights of nature and those of local in habitants. The expansion of protected areas thus leads to the conversion of inhabited forests into uninhabited national parks, which turns forest dwellers with a variety of usufruct rights to commons into encroachers, illegal residents and lawbreakers through are drawing of cartographic boundaries.”
Pointing out how pastoralist families who were forcibly resettled outside the boundaries of the protected area lost their livelihood and customary access to the commons, Prof Randeria emphasizes, “Ironically, not even the lions benefitted from the eviction. For, as the pastoralists point out, the Asiatic lions’ survival in the Gir forest depends on a delicate ecological balance, maintained by the presence of the pastoral communities’ buffaloes. With the displacement of the cattle and their owners, the lions were forced to move further out into the sanctuary area and beyond in search of prey. Some lions had to be shot when they began to prey on cattle in the villages around the Gir forest, even turning into man-eaters on occasion.”
Recalling how “community-based NGOs have tried mobilizing public opinion, organizing protests, and filing court cases in order to protect the rights of the pastoralists to live and move freely in the forest, collect forest products, graze cattle, and access fodder and water”, Prof Randeria says, “In the Gir forest they were pitted against the Indian chapter of World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF International) and the state government of Gujarat, who argued that the traditional grazing practices of the pastoralists endangered both the fragile local ecological system and the lions. Accordingly, in the name of the common good of biodiversity protection, the joint action of these groups restricted the pastoralists’ rights.” 
In the meantime, Government of India accepted the World Bank policies towards safeguarding those affected by a project from involuntary displacement for the limited duration of the project and within the project areas. This helped the grassroots activists. “Unable to protect the rights of local forest-dwelling communities under the national law that requires the relocation of any person living within areas demarcated as national parks, human rights NGOs together with peoples’ organizations, strategically invoked the World Bank’s norms against involuntary displacement. They were thus able to prevent further forcible evictions that would have violated the World Bank’s conditionalities for the credit given for the biodiversity project”.
In fact, grassroots activists articulate “an alternate vision”. They question a “biocentric view of the relationship between society and nature.” They insist that “environmental protection and natural resource use are not technical but political issues.” Arguing against a narrow environmentalist agenda that pits peoples’ rights to access commons against conservationist goals, “they seek to protect the claims of local com munities to natural resources”, Prof Randeria says, adding, ”They link ecological problems to questions of political economy, social justice, and citizenship rights. Such a cosmopolitan perspective gives primacy to the survival needs and cultural priorities of resource dependent communities over the rights of nature.”
Going to the genesis of the “park vs people” idea, Prof Randeria says, “With the imposition of English common law throughout the British Empire, the principle of ‘eminent domain’ was exported to the colonies. It refers to the power of the state to appropriate property without the consent of the owner and convert it for public use by virtue of its sovereignty over all lands within its jurisdiction. The post-colonial Indian state has retained this Anglo-Saxon legal principle. This remnant of British law not only contravenes the customary rights of local communities to commons but also is unable to accommodate the survival needs of re source dependent communities.”
It is in this context that “activists advocate its replacement by the American doctrine of the state as ‘public trustee,’ challenging the absolute nature of the ‘eminent domain’ concept. This principle imposes obligations and constraints on the use and sale of natural resources by the state, since it views the state as trustee rather than as owner of natural resources within its territory.”

(Photographs by Dilip Jiruka, reproduced from  “Asia and Europe Bulletin”)

Comments

Tushar Pancholi said…
This is true. Maldharis are part of the Gir ecosystem and the government policy to remove them from the forest is totally wrong.

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