Tiger conservation and tourism in India: precarious livelihoods at the human-wildlife interface

It is estimated that about one million people in India — many of them Indigenous and tribal peoples — live across 657 protected areas, composed of 99 national parks, 513 wildlife sanctuaries, 41 conservation reserves and four community reserves, which cover about five per cent of the total land mass of the world’s second most populated country (Mahapatra, Tewari and Baboo, 2015). Relocation of forest-dependent communities out of protected areas, particularly from national parks and wildlife sanctuaries, is a recurring issue although it rarely makes it into the international headlines. A conservative estimate suggests that at least 100,000 people have been displaced from protected areas in India from the 1970s up to 2008 (Lascorgeix and Kothari, 2009).

There are about 50 tiger reserves in India visited by nearly 1.5 million people in 2014/2015, accounting for 32 per cent of all wildlife visits in the country (Ayyar, 2018). Consequently, there is an ongoing construction boom of hotels, resorts and eco-lodges along the boundaries of tiger reserves helping

Wildlife tourism and fortress conservation 133 to fund conservation efforts but also raising concerns about encroachment of tourists on wildlife habitats. Historically, conservationists and authorities in India have been much more preoccupied with the ostensibly negative impact of original settlers on tiger habitats and have called for their removal from the core zone of tiger reserves. Eighty villages and 2,900 families have officially been relocated from tiger reserves since 1973, but the actual numbers are likely to be far higher (Hussain, Dasgupta and Singh Bargali, 2016).

Prior to 2006, the relocation of Indigenous and tribal peoples from tiger reserves was done without a clear legal framework, was rarely based on participatory processes and free, prior and informed consent (FPIC) and involved poor compensation packages (Shahabuddin and Bhamidipati, 2014). Yet in the mid-2000s, the Indian government introduced a number of changes to its national legislation related to wildlife conservation and resettlement, most notably the promulgation of the Forest Rights Act (FRA) (see Box 7.3). Since then a number of studies have been conducted to examine whether the new laws and policies have led to better outcomes for communities relocated from tiger reserves.

Box 7.3 India’s wildlife conservation and resettlement laws and policies: A brief overview

Until the late 1990s, India had no specific policies and legal frameworks for conservation-induced displacement. Hence, communities living within tiger reserves and wildlife sanctuaries were considered unlawful residents and were liable to eviction. Resettlement processes were managed according to the Beneficiary-Oriented Tribal Development (BOTD) scheme, which consisted of a standardised compensation package of a two-hectare piece of land and INR 100,000 (about US$2,200) for land development, building material, community facilities and some other livelihood support measures. This proved insufficient for rehabilitating livelihoods in the new site, hence nearly all of the earlier resettlement schemes led to the socio-economic deterioration of relocated households.

In late 2006, after years of indigenous activism, the historic Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act (FRA) came into force. The FRA treats relocation for the cause of wildlife conservation as a last resort, to be carried out only after possible human-wildlife coexistence options have been considered. The FRA also requires that resettlement is conducted “on the basis of scientific criteria” and “after complete and just settlement of rights”. The FRA coincided with substantive amendments to India’s Wildlife Protection Act (WLPA), e.g. the inclusion of Section 38 which states, “No resettlement shall take place until facilities and land allocation at the resettlement location is complete as per the promised package.” A revised Centrally Sponsored Scheme for Integrated Development of Wildlife Habitats prescribes a wider consultative process and free, prior and informed consent by village councils andindividual families before relocation. Another significant improvement is a ten-fold increase of the compensation package to INR 1 million (about US $22,200), while the entitlement to the amount of land (2ha) remained unchanged.

Sources: Shahabuddin and Bhamidipati, 2014; Dash and Bahera, 2018

A comparative study of the quality' of resettlement and rehabilitation processes in seven tiger reserves after 2007 — i.e. following the promulgation of the FRA and the amendments to the Wildlife Protection Act and the resettlement compensation package — found that at several sites people had not been told about the option of staying in the respective tiger reserve (Shahabuddin and Bhamidipati, 2014). Administrators had ignored provisions in the Forest Rights Act; for instance, they declared that the communities caused irreversible damage to the wildlife without providing any evidence. Only in two out of seven tiger reserves had the consent of individual families to relocate been recorded — despite the resettlement being acknowledged as voluntary. At the five other sites, there was at least some form of coercion or pressure from forest officials to relocate (Shahabuddin and Bhamidipati, 2014).

One of the most extensively studied resettlement cases is the Similipal Tiger Reserve (STR) in the state of Odisha (formerly Orissa). Similipal was declared as a ‘Tiger Reserve’ under the late Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s national flagship conservation programme ‘Project Tiger’ in the year 1973. Six years later the Orissa state government declared it a wildlife sanctuary with a designated area of 2,750km". In 2009, STR was included into the World Network of Biosphere Reserves by' UNESCO. The ‘core zone’ of the STR (1,194km2) is a designated national park although the central government has yet to issue a final notification due to the fact that three villages have not been relocated to date (Dash and Bahera, 2018). There are 61 villages in the ‘buffer zone’ of the reserve where some forms of ecotourism are allowed.

The majority of the forest-dwelling population in the STR belong to the category of ‘scheduled tribes’, a term that denotes Indigenous peoples with a formally acknowledged status as ‘historically disadvantaged groups.’ Some of these groups are categorised as ‘primitive’ by' the state government of Odisha (Dash and Bahera, 2018). Yet the communities insist that their livelihood strategies are not a threat to the forest and its wildlife and that they can co-exist peacefully' with nature.

We are doing no harm to the forest and wild animals. Rather we worship them. We are living in their home. So, we should love and respect them. However, the Government has always treated us as the enemies of nature.

(Village head in the STR core zone, cited by

Dash and Bahera, 2018, p. 332)

The three villages that remain in the core zone face a range of restrictions, including a prohibition on the collection of valuable non-timber forest products (NTFPs) — their major livelihood source. While one community has been categorically opposed to relocation, another was ready to leave the tiger reserve after forest officials showed them a proposed settlement area suitable for agriculture. Despite this, villages were later told that the proposed area had been earmarked for mining and were presented with an alternative site unsuitable for farming. This led to their rejection of the proposed relocation.

The last relocation of an entire indigenous community from the STR core zone occurred in 2010, in disregard of settlement claims that villagers had filed earlier. Villagers were presented with two options, as per the Forest Rights Act: option 1 involved a one-off cash payment (without land provision and any further livelihood support), whereas option 2 required the Forest Department to relocate the villagers from the tiger reserve’s core zone to a ‘rehabilitation colony’ located 50km away from their original residential area (Shahabuddin and Bhamidipati, 2014). For the two-thirds of villagers who chose option 2 the relocation meant better access to infrastructure, such as education, electricity and health facilities. Yet, they suffered from high livestock mortality, lower agricultural productivity, reduced access to fodder, NTFPs and firewood, extreme heat conditions during summer, and a higher dependency on wage labour. Nearly all resettled villagers under option 2 reported negative impacts on their cultural values and community’ life (Dash and Bahera, 2018). The fate of the villagers who chose option 1 remains unknown.

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