Conservation versus development

What happens when we privilege wildlife over people? Jacqui Craig reports on Kirk Leech's film of the Shoolpaneshwar sanctuary in Gujarat, India.

Jacqui Craig

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What happens when we privilege flora and fauna over people? That was the question posed by Kirk Leech as he presented his film on the Shoolpaneshwar sanctuary in Gujarat, India, at the London School of Oriental and African Studies on 26 July 2001.

Leech, a freelance journalist, had recently returned from a three-month research project in Gujarat. Much of this time was spent in the Shoolpaneshwar sanctuary, a wildlife sanctuary designed to compensate for the forestland submerged by the Narmada dam, and created in 1989 in response to environmentalist demands. Leech’s film illustrated how the 40,000 tribal people who live in the sanctuary feel imprisoned there, and feel that their rights come secondary to those of plants and animals.

Sanctuaries such as Shoolpaneshwar are not unique. Throughout the developing world, Western governments and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) have promoted the establishment of reserves, sanctuaries and protected areas to preserve biodiversity and limit environmental degradation. Protected areas have been established for coral reefs, jaguars and tigers.

The establishment of sanctuaries, free from the supposed threat of human destruction, necessitates either the expulsion of indigenous people or extreme restrictions on their activities. People are viewed as little more than an inconvenient irritation.

Where tribal people are expelled from sanctuaries, the consequences can be disastrous. For example, the Ik, a hunting and gathering people, were expelled from traditional hunting grounds in Uganda to facilitate the establishment of the Kidepo National Park (1). Following their eviction they suffered prolonged famine and social breakdown, as they resorted to begging, poaching and prostitution to make a living. They were denied their traditional forms of subsistence without reaping any benefits of development.

Even when the indigenous population is not relocated, but remains in the protected area, as was the case in the Shoolpaneshwar sanctuary, laws designed for environmental protection impose a heavy burden on these people. The tribal people in Shoolpaneshwar were forbidden from improving roads, which meant their access to health and education facilities were severely restricted. Local laws also forbade the installation of hand pumps, electricity, or any activity that could impact negatively upon the environment.

Such regulations have made impossible the development of progressive infrastructures and business, as well as prohibiting traditional forms of subsistence living, like hunting and ‘slash and burn’ agriculture.

In the panel discussion following Leech’s film, John Barker of the World Wildlife Fund for Nature (WWF) and Izabella Koziell, of the International Institute for Environment and Development, argued that the Shoolpaneshwar sanctuary is an example of the old style of conservation, and that methods have evolved since then. Certainly, there has been a noticeable shift in the language employed by conservation groups in recent years. They deny vehemently that it is right to put conservation above people, and now advocate ‘win-win’ solutions for both the environment and people, through sustainable development and ecotourism.

But does this change in the discourse of environmental organisations really offer the opportunity for change and growth in the South?

All those speaking on the panel concurred that the rise in ecotourism has coincided with a major shift in the approach to development. Development in the South now has to encompass elements of sustainability and environmental consideration, rather than being defined solely in terms of economic and social progress and growth. Ecotourism is viewed as one way in which the preservation of the environment can bring benefits to people, as tourists come to conservation areas spending money and needing services.

But as Jim Butcher, senior lecturer in tourism at Canterbury Christ Church University College, suggested, the promotion of ecotourism in the developing world represents a ‘degraded’ kind of development, which ties people to their natural environment and offers no way to take those societies forward. While the West has spent the past two centuries developing industries and societies for human benefit, now countries in the South are deprived the ability to choose to follow a similar course.

It is worth questioning whose interests are served by policies that prioritise sustainability and conservation in development. The emphasis on degraded forms of development seems to reflect the desire of Western governments and people to preserve areas rich in biodiversity for their own benefits, while they themselves live with the benefits of development. This might save some charismatic species from extinction or beautiful forest from destruction, but it will do little to fulfil the aspirations of people in the South.

Conservation versus development was hosted by the Institute of Ideas on Thursday 26 July at the School of Oriental and African Studies, London.

Read on:

‘This sanctuary is a prison’, by Kirk Leech

Dam campaigns, by Kirk Leech

(1) The Mountain People, Colin Turnbull, Touchstone Books, 1987. Buy this book at Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)

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