Community Conserved Areas: The Transformative Territories Of Life

First published in Sanctuary Asia, Vol. 41 No. 10, October 2021

By Neema Pathak Broome

We will never let our forests be mined, and we stand with all adivasis who are resisting such destruction. These forests are the foundation of our lives, our sustenance – they give us medicines, food… we get more from the forests than we get from our agricultural lands.” – Narobai Hodi, Zendepar village.

It is because of the forests that we have clean water, clean air, fewer illnesses – our forests make us feel safe. If mining happens, our water and air will be polluted, and women and children will no longer be safe.” – Babita Naitam, Nandli Panchayat.

These forests are important for all of us, humans, birds or animals, not just adivasis. We are adivasis; we do not have temples. These stones, trees, twigs, forests, these are our gods. The spirit of our ancestors lives in these forests. If they forcefully relocate us, we will go but what about the gods of the forests, the spirits, the birds, the animals… where will they go? They cannot leave these forests.” – Chamaru Kallo, gram sabha, Zendepar village.

These are quotes from various conversations that my colleagues and I have had over the past few years, mainly during annual cultural meets, and gatherings organised by village communities to discuss and resist mining in their forests. Our presence here was part of a collaborative research project with the members of gram sabhas (village assemblies) part of a federation of 90 villages in Korchi taluka, Gadchiroli district, Maharashtra.

Gadchiroli district is special to me. This is where my journey of self-transformation began several decades ago, when I was fresh out of college, armed with degrees in environmental science and wildlife management, and an avid birder and wildlifer. My first and ‘dream’ job involved data collection for a report on the management status of PAs in Maharashtra. This meant visiting all the fabulous 35 (then) PAs in the state, including night walks, birdwatching and more. The one thing that I had not counted on, but my superiors insisted I do, was to visit the villages and meet the local people! While I thoroughly enjoyed these trips for the wildlife that I came across and beautiful friendships with some of the most marvellous forest officers and staff, the visits to the villages did something completely different. They tormented, inspired and transformed me...

New Perspectives

This was my first direct experience of human-nature interactions in all their complexity. I was disturbed by the injustice, mistrust and negative interactions with the forest staff, restricted rights and access-induced poverty. Equally, I was enchanted by the ceremonies, dances, songs, food, long walks in the forests to collect firewood or with livestock or fishing, and unending conversations about local perceptions and stories of wildlife, spirits of the forests, or even family issues. These trips dented the very strong perception that local communities were destroyers of forests and ecosystems! In fact, every time local kids would rummage through my toilet case and ask me about my shampoos and soap, I was reminded of my own consumption and carbon footprint. Who was really destroying the forests, I wondered? My desire to understand more about local people’s relationship with their surrounding ecosystem grew. 

Thanks to Mohan Hirabai Hiralal, a veteran activist, I landed up in a small village in Gadchiroli called Mendha-Lekha, which was not an official ‘Protected Area’ but where people were still ‘protecting’ their forests. It was Hiralal, an environmental activist, who introduced the people to conservation. With the slogan “Dilli, Mumbai hamari sarkar, hamare gaon main ham he sarkar” the community was claiming the right to self-determination, which also included management and conservation of their traditional forests. They were resisting the Forest Department’s lease to a paper mill; this, they posited, destroyed the biodiversity essential to sustain human and wildlife. I wrote about Mendha diligently, trying to bring greater visibility to what the people were saying and doing and their way of being, their perceptions of ‘development’ and ‘conservation’. An allegation that Mendha was a one-off village of its kind triggered my search for more such villages across the country. This journey resulted in a Directory of Community Conserved Areas (CCAs) in India in 2009.

However, none of these, nor the efforts of dozens of researchers and grassroots movements have succeeded in changing conservation policies and practices in our country. These remain more or less the same as what I observed over 20 years ago. In some ways they have become more fortressed, more criminalising of local people and the consequent arming and militarisation of areas of conservation significance. Thousands of families have been relocated either coerced or under duress and thousands more are earmarked to be relocated from PAs. Such policies remain non-inclusive of rights and responsibilities of adivasi and other traditional local communities. Consequently, CCAs remain unrecognised, unheard of and highly threatened.

Even as I write this article, the Korchi villages are fighting against mining leases in the forests they are protecting and managing; Sanwta and Rasla villages in Jaisalmer in Rajasthan are fighting to save their 610-year-old, 15,000 ha. spread of Shree Degray Mataji Oran, home to a healthy population of endangered Great Indian Bustards, from a solar energy project; five villages in Kutchh are struggling to save their 500-year-old sacred grove called the Sangnara forest from windmills by Sulzon. The windmills could destroy the tropical thorny forests, spread over 500 sq. km. that supports a huge diversity of threatened flora and fauna including chinkara, wolf, caracal, ratel, hyena, desert cat, Indian fox, spiny-tailed lizard, desert monitor, White Naped-Tit, vultures, and many more. 

In fact, the opening up of more and more lands and resources for corporations in the guise of development projects is amongst the greatest direct threats to our biodiversity and wildlife. These diversions happen in some of the most biologically rich areas, wildlife corridors and habitats of particularly highly threatened and unique cultural societies, including CCAs. By simultaneously destroying the wildlife habitats and forest dependent communities, human wildlife conflicts are created and exacerbated. Yet PAs themselves are not safe when extractable resources are found within – 200 ha. of PAs was diverted in 2019 alone!

The people of the Shankarghola village in the North Salmara taluka of Bongaigaon district, Assam, are stellar examples of the success of Community Conserved Areas, because they invested time and effort to restore and protect their community forests. Photo:Ashish Kothari

Transformative Action

One is thus not surprised that the seventh session of the United Nations Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) in May 2019 revealed alarming trends. It found that globally 1,000,000 species currently stand threatened with extinction. The IPBES chair emphasised the need for ‘transformative’ actions if biodiversity and consequently humanity has to survive.

What would these transformative actions be? For that we need to look deeper to see the underlying, often invisible, structural causes of biodiversity decline and climate change. These include, inequity and injustice, loss of cultures, life and livelihoods, extractivist models of human development, centralised and hierarchical state systems of decision making, land and resource grab by corporations, representative based electoral politics undermining direct democracy, patriarchy, caste and class based non inclusions and most importantly our alienation from the rest of nature and from our internal spiritual selves that is fuelling and is fuelled by hugely consumptive lifestyles.

The gram sabhas of Korchi and Mendha-Lekha are not only resisting the ongoing direct onslaught on biodiversity but are also voicing the need to look for fundamental alternatives to these underlying causes. They are moving towards such alternatives by gaining self-empowerment including through rights-based legislation such as the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006, (FRA) and Panchayat Extension to Scheduled Areas Act, 1996 (PESA). Ninety gram sabhas in Korchi have come together to form a collective called Maha Gramsabha (federation of gram sabhas). Simultaneously, women’s collectives have also federated as Mahila Parisar Sangh to assert their voice in the newly emerging village and taluka level decision-making institutions. These collectives are emerging as platforms to resist mining, localise forest-based economy, restore ecological balance through biodiversity conservation, revive cultural identity, raise social and equity concerns, assert direct and engendered democracy, and question existing models of development. The emergence and evolution of these processes is largely based on a cultural ethos, learning by doing, people-to-people exchanges, and regular and open, all-inclusive consultations, debates and dialogues.

Supporting Communities to Stem Biodiversity Decline

The customs and cultures of many indigenous peoples and other local communities (IPLCs) have helped address some of the fundamental causes of loss of biodiversity. In fact, the IPBES report mentions that the 22 per cent of area under the governance of IPLCs globally has a much slower rate of biodiversity decline. Internationally, the diverse institutions and practices of IPLCs that contribute to conservation are referred to by the umbrella term ICCAs or territories and areas conserved by indigenous peoples and local community. The IUCN describes ICCAs as “natural and modified ecosystems, including significant biodiversity, ecological services and cultural values, voluntarily conserved by indigenous and local communities through customary laws or other effective means”.  

Appropriate recognition, support and promotion of CCAs is one of the critical steps towards arresting biodiversity decline. ‘Appropriate’ is the key word here; no blanket uniform law or policy will help and this is why it is important to understand what ‘diversity’ within CCAs mean.  

The objectives of CCAs can vary hugely and their primary goal may not necessarily be biodiversity conservation. Instead, it could be resource enhancement and/or maintenance; to counter ecological threats of reduced soil fertility, drought, or water scarcity; to resist external threats; for religious sentiments or to preserve cultural practices and traditional systems; political economy e.g as part of larger movements towards self-determination and local empowerment where rights and responsibilities over natural ecosystems and species therein are considered very much a part of overall rights and responsibilities of the local inhabitants. 

CCAs could either be a continuation of strong traditional practices; or the revival of broken down traditional practices; or even the establishment of new management and conservation systems to address newer challenges. Communities also employ a diversity of institutional arrangements for the governance of their CCAs. This includes decision-making by the village as a whole, representative bodies, set up by the entire village, or even by independently functioning and established sub-units such as youth groups, or women’s groups.

Nearly all documented CCAs are found to have written or oral rules and regulations, in fact, Panchgaon village in Maharashtra has as many as 118 written rules for their CCA. The most commonly used rules include, Zonation for use and no use, collective patrolling, closely monitored and regulated extraction, and hunting taboos and regulations.

The greatest threats to CCAs are the lack of recognition of legal rights and responsibilities over the territories, forests and waters that are used, conserved and managed by local communities.  The recognition of these rights is one of the most appropriate forms of recognition for CCAs. This will allow greater autonomy, and freedom to choose locally appropriate mechanisms to achieve objectives, strengthen local livelihoods, and respect towards local people’s own agency and knowledge systems.

A spiny-tailed lizard emerges from its burrow. Winning the support of local communities against the destruction and degradation of their lands in the name of ‘development’ is vital to secure the future of both people and biodiversity. Photo:Anuroop Krishnan

Supporting Community Conserved Areas 

The experience of implementation of the FRA, has been crucial in demonstrating this. The FRA provides for the ‘...right to protect, regenerate or conserve or manage traditional community forest’ and also empowers communities to ensure protection of catchments, water sources and other ecologically sensitive areas by constituting committees and formulating conservation and management plans and strategies. 

Although this Act faces much opposition from certain sectors making its implementation really slow, it is already showing positive conservation impacts where implemented properly. For example, Payvihir village of Maharashtra’s Amravati district received community forest resource (CFR) rights in 2012 and subsequent management and governance has led to regenerated forests, return of wildlife, and livelihoods through forest-based activities, inspiring the neighbouring villages to also do the same. Pachgaon village on the outskirts of the Tadoba Tiger Reserve in Chandrapur district of Maharashtra, after receiving CFR rights in 2012 has been nearly self-sufficient in generating local livelihood from regulated bamboo harvest, and in turn also helped maintain biodiversity and protect wildlife. They have over 118 rules and regulations for their entire 2,486.90 acres, including 85 acres of a strictly protected critical zone for wildlife, including tigers. Inspired by this, other villages located in the buffer zone of Tadoba Tiger Reserve, are currently in the process of developing conservation and development plans. 

Finally, another important way to support CCAs is to move towards low consumption lifestyles based on contentment, moving towards well-being rather than ‘development by destruction of nature’. This will put less pressure on forests, biodiversity, wildlife and the local communities, which are resisting such destruction by risking their lives and property or being labelled, harassed and even imprisoned as Maoist for their resistance. I try to remember an inspiring saying from the Gond tribe: “If you want to lead a good or a happy life then it is important that every individual is aware of her/his responsibility and commits to their duty”. This applies to us as a singular human tribe!

The diversity and spread of Community Conserved Areas
Estimated sacred sites range between 1,00,000 to 1,50,000, including over 25,000 Orans (sacred pasture lands) in Rajasthan alone and over 7,000 sacred groves documented by the M.S. Swaminathan Institute. There are over 10,000 forest protecting communities in Odisha covering 10-12 per cent of total forest in the state. Over 700 documented forest and river protection sites lie in Nagaland including Khonoma, Sendenyu, Luzophuhu, Chizami, and Ghoshu village committees, now constituting a state level federation of CCAs. Hundreds have documented and mapped endangered golden langurs sites in villages in Assam. The only remaining habitats of the Black-necked Crane are being protected by communities in Arunachal Pradesh. Among the highest densities of tigers at high altitudes are protected because of cultural taboos and belief systems of the Mishmi community in Arunachal Pradesh. Van Panchayats abound in Uttarakhand, including about 1,439 sq. km. in Gori Ganga basin. Hundreds of protected heronries include Kokkare Bellur (Karnataka), Nellapattu, Vedurapattu, and Veerapuram (Andhra Pradesh), Chittarangudi and Vedanthangal (Tamil Nadu). Turtle nesting sites are being protected in Goa, Kerala, and Odisha; blackbuck in Odisha, Punjab and Haryana; Demoiselle Cranes in Khichan (Rajasthan); migratory bird habitats in Mangalajodi (at Chilika, Odisha), and so many other documented and undocumented examples.

(This article is part of the October 2021 cover story 'Four Decades of Conservation'. Read the other parts here.)

A member of Kalpavriksh, Neema Pathak Broome coordinates the Conservation and Livelihoods Programme. She is also the South Asia Coordinator for ICCA Consortium, a global Consortium of ICCA territories of life. Neema, along with her husband Vivek and family, lives in an urban forest farm in Pune, where the family’s decades of effort has restored and enriched biodiversity and created a repository of wetland species, grasses, medicinal plants, bamboos and indigenous trees. 

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