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new internationalist
issue 225 - November 1991

A taste for tigers
Is deep ecology a politics designed for well-heeled nature lovers?
Ramachandra Guha gives a view from the Indian subcontinent.

LEEDS ANIMATION WORKSHOP While in the US recently I was struck by how vigorous and widespread the environmental movement has become. There is a great deal of popular involvement across a wide range of issues, including pollution and urban environments.

But concern about the protection of wilderness and national parks seems to have become the most influential strand – and one that elicits intense moral fervour. Over a period of time the thinkers involved have been developing a theory of ‘deep ecology’ which they claim is applicable not merely to the US but to the entire world. And it makes wilderness protection a priority.

This is all very well for a developed country like the US. But I think it has serious negative implications when transferred to India or Africa. If the protection of national parks, wilderness and biological diversity becomes a primary concern here then the other more basic environmental concerns, like the provision of fuelwood and clean drinking water or the control of pollution, will inevitably become marginal.

I come from a left-wing tradition. For me questions of distribution are always central, not least in the environmental debate. And in India it is difficult to identify with the kind of philosophical speculations which American deep ecologists indulge in the question of equality of the species, for example.

Let me explain. In India we have a fairly good system of around 400 national parks covering about four per cent of our land area. Eighteen months ago the Government set up a high-powered committee to reassess forest policy. The chair of this committee was a senior member of the World Wildlife Fund who believed that the function of the forests should be simply to protect biological diversity. This is the point of view of the wilderness movement and it is extremely influential, drawing support from people in international organizations who have close links with the political elite. But it has no social base.

The man in charge of the committee used global concern with climatic change and biological diversity to bolster his own love of the wilderness. In his view the main enemy were local villagers. His policy would be to extend the whole system of protected areas from four per cent to maybe 20 per cent of India’s land area.

In effect he was saying: ‘These are compelling issues. This loss of biological diversity, this climatic change, this soil erosion all point to a crisis. We are all going down the tube. The only way is for each of the 35,000 forest guards to have a gun and protect these areas.’

Now, he’s representative of a group of wealthy nature lovers who – in India at least – don’t have any sensitivity at all to human suffering. What is happening today is that these moral arguments about ‘deep ecology’, about ‘anthropocentrism’, being the same as arrogance, are being used to pursue what I see as very narrow ends.

I think it’s important to restore the balance. We must look at forestry from the point of view of restoring local control and stopping industrial exploitation. We need to design policy alternatives which have some environmental sensitivity but are also sensitive to the survival needs of the people living in the area.

Before the British took over the forests in the nineteenth century there were a variety of mechanisms by which local communities managed forests. Some environmentalists in India today recognize the existence of these traditions of responsible management and the greater knowledge of ecology they displayed. They have argued that the forests should be given back to village communities. The State has clearly failed, they say.

To my mind this is too simplistic. Those communities have changed. There has been a divergence of interests, a growth of individualism. Now there is a greater market for forest produce, which means that there is greater incentive for influential individuals in a village to break customary sanctions.

In some areas, because of the growth of powerful popular movements like the Chipko women ‘tree-huggers’, people do work together in a concerted way for the protection and management of forests. But for large parts of India this is not the case. There is also a long-standing suspicion of the intentions of the Forest Department with which local people have often been involved in violent conflict. Except in some isolated cases, giving state forests back to local communities simply won’t work.

What will work is a genuine partnership between the State and local communities. This is beginning to emerge in some areas. It is based on a fundamental reorientation of state policy so that there is no industrial exploitation of state forests at all.

In West Bengal there’s a very interesting experiment, with the State and local people working together. The Forest Department has signed agreements with 800 individual villages. The villages provide protection – for example, they don’t allow grazing and they keep out strangers. In return villagers get access to fuel and fodder when it’s harvested and they get a percentage of anything sold. This agreement has been working well. Regeneration of forests has been good and tensions have been diminished. It shows how the State and village communities can act as a check on each other.

But there is, I am afraid, no great cause for optimism. The processes of environmental destruction are so powerful. And the section of society which most wants to save the tiger is the one that also consumes most intensively. A conflict of interests between these people and the poor people who depend upon the forests for their livelihood seems to me to be inevitable.

Ramachandra Guha lives in New Delhi. His books include The Unquiet Woods; Ecological Change and Peasant Resistance in the Himalayas (Oxford University Press in the UK, University of California Press in the US) and This Fissured Land; An Ecological History of India (forthcoming from OUP).

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