COMMUNITY RESERVES: A boon or bane for conservation?
By Bahar Dutt

Even as rampant destruction of the environment in its varied forms and associated efforts continue to rise, there have been practises among communities in India where people themselves have protected and nurtured biodiversity (Pathak, 2002). Across the country there are numerous examples of areas that may not be designated as protected areas as per the official records, yet are rich in biodiversity due to substantial involvement or protection by local communities. In Mendha village in Maharashtra nearly 1800 hectares of forest are being protected by a Gond tribal community. In Kokrebellur in Karnataka the endangered Spot billed pelican are known as the 'daughters of the village' as they come once a year to nest on the trees on the village commons. The fledglings are protected by local villagers. None of the above mentioned areas fall in the traditional categories of protected areas. Given that nearly 50% of wildlife species are to be found outside the traditional protected area network, the above mentioned examples demonstrate that community action can play a significant role in protecting biodiversity.

Recognising such efforts the latest amendment to the Indian Wildlife Protection Act, has introduced a new concept and calls for the creation of a new category of protected areas namely a 'Community Reserve'.

The relevant provisions under these Acts have tried to move away from the conventional exclusionary and non-participatory model of conservation. These changes are indeed progressive, as they could help conserve and sustainably manage several hundred community conserved biodiversity rich sites in the country, which may want or need a legal backing. However, the way the provisions have been mentioned in the Act is very unclear, and leaves much to interpretations; additionally, some aspects of the provisions could be counter-productive. For instance, the Act calls for creation of uniform institutions envisaged to manage Community Reserves which could create more conflicts than resolutions in areas where there are already robust community institutions. Further , Kalpavriksh an NGO that has been documenting hundreds of community conserved areas across India has noted that community protection of forests has been taken up on government land whereas the amendments in the Wildlife Protection Act does not acknowledge existence of such efforts on lands other than under the ownership of the communities or private bodies, including on government land.

Community based conservation is to be a reality in India the need of the hour is to create legal instruments and guidelines that support efforts made by communities for biodiversity conservation rather than impose new institutions or laws.

Bahar Dutt has been working for the past five years on issues related to community based conservation and sustainable livelihoods.

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