The Western Ghats—a long mountain chain that supports ancient rainforests and a range of other habitats—is arguably India’s most biologically important real estate. Here, ALERT member Jean-Philippe Puyravaud weighs in on the ongoing debate about how best to conserve this critical region:
Two ambitious management plans, by the Western Ghats Ecology Expert Panel and the High Level Working Group, were recently proposed for the Western Ghats. Both attempted to identify Ecologically Sensitive Areas (ESAs) that merit protection, but generally got a cold reception from stakeholders and the general public.
A recent article in Mongabay argues that these management schemes represent a way forward, so why haven't they been better received?
Both plans were invited to make conservation choices based on the principle of sustainability. But the Indian Ministry of Environment and Forests, which contracted the studies, failed to define what “sustainability” meant. Because this basic definition was muddy, there was no clarity about anything else--the development model for the region, or which industries or livelihoods would be favored in a reasonable path to prosperity.
The legal framework for the ESA scheme wasn't clear either. Whether the ESA overrides existing laws or competes against them at the local level is yet to be seen. For instance, plans to protect elephant corridors may be diluted by the scheme.
Without any clear economic guidelines, both the Western Ghats Ecology Expert Panel and High Level Working Group framed their own understanding of how the Western Ghats should be managed economically and legally. This was probably an overshoot of their mandates.
What this tells me is that society’s reactions to conservation plans may not imply a lack of enthusiasm about conservation. In the ESA case, widespread confusion on several levels created so much public angst that neither plan had much chance of widespread acceptance.