Debate about forest conservation scheme in India

Things are heating up in India.  ALERT member Priya Davidar and her colleague Jean-Philippe Puyravaud provide this perspective on a key conservation issue there.  Their focus is a plan to reconnect fragmented rainforests in the Western Ghats--some of the most biologically important real estate in India.

Prime real estate... rainforests of the Western Ghats (photo by William Laurance)

Prime real estate... rainforests of the Western Ghats (photo by William Laurance)

Davidar and Puyravaud's comments follow:

The BBC article How India is building Asia’s largest secure forest network (20 March 2014) asserts that since 2012, the state of Karnataka has declared nearly 2,600 square kilometers of forests as protected areas, linking a series of national parks in the Western Ghats, a global biodiversity hotspot.  These forests would connect with adjoining forest areas in neighboring states.

We congratulate the Karnataka Forest Department for this initiative, but this information has not been made public in India.  Where there have been initiatives to add forests to the protected-area network, it is not at the scale indicated in the article.  Given the high price of land in India, the suggested plan would cost billions of dollars, far more than the entire budget of India's Ministry of Environment and Forests.

At present, the protected-area “network” in Karnataka is chopped up by highways, pipelines, dams, railroad tracks, and human settlements.  Wild elephants are dying there because they can't access water in the dry season.  Parks and reserves are under enormous pressure from fuelwood harvesting, cattle grazing, pollution, plant invasion, violent fires, poaching, and unmanaged tourism.  In some national parks, the tourism pressure is so high that connectivity within the protected areas themselves is threatened.

Parks under pressure...  fuelwood harvesting in India (photo by William Laurance)

Parks under pressure...  fuelwood harvesting in India (photo by William Laurance)

The BBC article comes at the same time that a proposed high-tension power line would slice through forests in the heart of the “secure forest network”, from Mysore to Kozhikode.  This project would be followed by a four-lane highway and railway line.  Funds have been sanctioned for surveys on these projects without considering alternative routes or proper environmental impact assessments.

The bottom line: Optimism about the proposed Karnataka Corridor needs to be tempered with caution.  These vital forests are far from secure and there are many challenges ahead.

Does ecotourism help or hurt nature?

Some people worry that nature-loving tourists might be loving nature to death

It's fair to fret about such things, but a new study suggests otherwise.  At least in Costa Rica, ecotourism is good for nature and helps local people--a lot. 

Start 'em young (photo by William Laurance)

Start 'em young (photo by William Laurance)

Those are the conclusions of a study just published in the top-flight journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA.

Economists Paul Ferraro and Merlin Hanauer found that local communities near Costa Rican conservation areas had considerably lower poverty than those in other locations.  They attribute most of the benefit to ecotourism, despite the fact that deforestation was reduced near reserves. 

Overall, the authors concluded that two-thirds of the poverty reduction associated with protected areas results from tourism.

Other studies have suggested another big benefit of nature lovers: illegal poachers and encroachers avoid places with tourists and also scientists.  "They don't dare show their face," says veteran ecologist John Terborgh, who has spent decades working at Manu National Park in Peru.

One recent analysis suggested that "no other sector spreads wealth and jobs across developing countries like tourism does". 

With ecotourists now spending hundreds of billions of dollars annually, it's gratifying to know that local communities and nature are also seeing some real benefits.