Over the years, conservation of natural resources has largely been controlled by formal state-run organisations. By and large, it has been their actions, their rules and regulations that have overseen the process. In many parts of the country, the government has taken over common property resources, and curtailed the rights of access of the local communities that live in and around these resources, thereby alienating them from what has traditionally been theirs. Internationally too, the understanding has always been that centralised formal agencies can manage protected areas (PAs) better – a belief that to some extent stems from the American view first implemented in places like Yellowstone and Yosemite National Parks.

However the recent times have been marked by the emergence of a powerful new trend in conservation and management of natural resources. It has been noticed on many occasions that despite the growing alienation of local communities, when an ecosystem has been under threat of degradation and destruction, or when the officials have just not cared enough to cope, it has been the local communities that have come to the rescue. Hence, there has been a gradual transition in focus from conventional conservation practices to those that empower the communities to manage their surrounds.

Important international agencies such as the IUCN (the World Conservation Union) are also now adopting this approach. A milestone in this regard is the World Parks Congress that is being held in Durban this month. For the first time in the history of this Congress that is held every 10 years, a cross-cutting theme on communities, equity and protected areas has been incorporated. This is thanks to the work of the TILCEPA – the Theme on Indigenous and Local Communities, Equity, and Protected Areas – that was set up in 2000 by the World Commission on Protected Areas and the IUCN. This inter-commission initiative advocates, in all countries, the recognition of community conserved and managed areas that are significant from biodiversity point of view, and the development of management partnerships with the communities resident in or surrounding official PAs.

Of special interest is that at Durban, the theme is being co-chaired by Ashish Kothari. Kothari is a founder-member of an environmental action group called Kalpavriksh, and also the Coordinator of the Technical and Policy Core Group of India's National Biodiversity Strategy and Action Plan. He is also on the Board of Directors of Greenpeace International. As government agencies and voluntary organisations make the shift in attitude, it becomes imperative to understand the concepts of community-based conservation (CBC) and the issues at stake.

Firstly, CBC could be a self-initiated process by the community, or triggered by an NGO, government agency or donor. It could be exclusively handled by the community or be some form of collaborative or joint management with outside agencies. The motivation could be biodiversity conservation, livelihood security, water harvesting or others. Whatever be the nature or origin of the effort, the fact remains that CBC is gaining importance. And naturally so, as the results of community initiatives are more widespread and far-reaching.

Secondly, one cannot ignore the fact that the local residents have a historical and cultural relationship with their surroundings. They are the ones present day in and day out in the area, unlike government officials who have short tenures in any single area. Their decisions are taken at faraway centres, and almost always adhere to a uniform policy framework applicable to all protected areas, thus neglecting issues exclusive to one area. The local initiative on the other hand is site-specific. Since it combines livelihood sustenance along with conservation, there is a more integrated approach that also leads to regional development.

Communities in India are often unable enforce norms and rules, because they do not own or control the lands/waters they are conserving. “One crucial need is for wider social, political, and financial support to community initiatives", says Ashish Kothari.
Some argue that local communities do not understand “biodiversity” and hence cannot conserve it. Kalpavriksh, the group founded by Kothari, has case studies showing that in fact the contrary may be true. They have come across local communities that have opposed the commercial plantations of single species by forest departments. Villagers believe that a monoculture is neither beneficial for nature nor for local livelihoods. A diverse forest provides life-sustaining produce throughout the year. In the course of its work in the area of community initiatives, Kalpavriksh has also come across instances of communities that have ensured that they are well-informed to take decisions regarding their surrounding natural resources. This proves further that communities can actually have valid and well-researched solutions to problems regarding conservation.

For example are the stories of the villages of Mendha and Saigatha in Maharashtra. These villagers have evolved a system of exchange of information with outsiders through discussions and study groups. Through such channels, they had become aware of the long-term damages of commercial exploitation of forests and also have been able solve complicated issues such as illegal extraction of resources, encroachments, etc. In the Jardhar village situated in Tehri Garhwal, a healthy information system was crucial in initiating the switch back to traditional seeds and agro-practices.

“But the picture is not all rosy,” as Ashish Kothari points out. “There are many flaws in the community initiatives too. Communities are not homogenous; internal inequities (between men and women, different castes and classes, and so on), often weaken or undermine conservation initiatives. Often powerful outside forces cannot be withstood, especially if there is no external (govt. or NGO) support,” he says. Also, traditions of conservation are breaking down or eroding in many areas, and younger generations may not always be interested in these traditions. The capacity to handle new challenges is often weak. Very common is the inability of communities to enforce norms and rules, because they do not own or control the lands/waters they are conserving (e.g. most forest in India is owned by government, and all public waterbodies are owned by government).

“One crucial need is for wider social, political, and financial support to community initiatives,” emphasises Kothari. In order to make the community initiatives successful, we must also have laws that take into account these initiatives. While the communities may feel a natural attachment for their surrounds, they legally have no claim to them.

Some headway is being made in this direction, partly with initiatives like the Joint Forest Management, the National Wildlife Action Plan and the National Biodiversity Strategy and Action Plan. The recent amendment to the Wildlife Protection Act 2002 has now allowed for the provision for Community Reserves. This means it officially recognises the efforts of certain communities that are conserving habitats and wildlife around them, and will hereafter support them. This comes as a major boost to CBC as till now there was no appreciation sent its way. The new Biological Diversity Act 2002 has a provision for Biodiversity Heritage sites. If the rules can be appropriately framed, this Act could be used by/for communities. Finally, the panchayat laws (especially the Panchayat (Extension to Scheduled Areas) Act 1996) have provisions that could by used by communities conservation initiatives.

“All these recognise the potential and promise of community based conservation, though they do not go far enough in backing such initiatives,” Kothari observes. “In none of these laws are the provisions explicit and strong enough for this to automatically happen…there will have to be considerable lobbying and struggle before the potential is utilised,” he avers. For example, the Wildlife Protection Act undermines its own potential by disallowing Community Reserves to be declared on government land.

Given the challenges to community based conservation, the approach to preservation of the ‘natural hotspots’ has to be holistic. It has to be a combination of efforts by governments who control substantial lands and resources, local communities who have a traditional bond and right to these protected areas, social action NGOs who work on these issues, and other experts in the field. But in this combined effort, what must not be forgotten is that working “with” rather than “against” or even “for” communities is a much surer way of achieving goals.