Crisis time for India's endangered forests

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:

Debate ahead for imperiled forests...

Debate ahead for imperiled forests...

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.

Heated conservation debate over India's most critical ecosystem

The Western Ghats is India's biologically richest and arguably most imperiled ecosystem--not just a global biodiversity hotspot but considered one of the "hottest of the hotspots".

ALERT members Jean-Philippe Puyravaud and Priya Davidar weigh in on a heated debate about the future of these imperiled forests:

A cool mist shrouds one of the hottest of the hotspots (photo by William Laurance)

A cool mist shrouds one of the hottest of the hotspots (photo by William Laurance)

Glowing reports on how well India’s forests are connected in the Western Ghats come at a time when there is active debate over laws with teeth that could potentially remove human encroachments in highly sensitive areas.  But unfortunately the media seem to be saying “all is well” in a very untimely fashion.

Reality is less rosy and the Western Ghats are replete with conservation proposals that never worked.

The Nilgiris Biosphere Reserve is one of these.  The reserve lies at the center of the largest populations of Asian elephants and Bengal tigers in the world.  Since its inception 30 years ago, it has remained a set of separate reserves—never managed as an integrated whole, as should be the case for Man and Biosphere reserves.  There has been no improvement in the management of biodiversity and endangered wildlife, and the contrast between wild habitats and developed areas has never been so stark. 

The next buzz is a proposal to establish Ecologically Sensitive Areas.  This idea has been bulldozed by its proponents as the scheme that will save the Western Ghats.  However, it is basically an empty blue-print that says that most of the Western Ghats should be preserved—a consensus view ever since the Western Ghats were declared a global biodiversity hotspot.

Intense land-use pressures... working with local communities is vital (photo by William Laurance)

Intense land-use pressures... working with local communities is vital (photo by William Laurance)

In India, concrete, practical solutions are proposed every day without effect.  In 1995, for example, Stephen Sumithran proposed a beautiful plan to reconnect the habitats of the endangered Nilgiri tahr that would have tripled its population in the Nilgiris Biosphere Reserve.   This plan had no effect on the ground because it was not implemented.

Grandiose schemes in the Western Ghats have only contributed to weakening conservation efforts because they have not been grounded in reality.  Their motto seems to be “think globally, don’t act locally”.