Eco-tourism alone will not help conserve wildlife- or biodiversity-rich areas, say

June 1st: At a recent meeting in Kohima, Nagaland, a senior wildlife biologist asked about the viability of eco-tourism as an income source at multiple locations in places like Nagaland and Meghalaya. The demand is, as of now, low due to remote locations and the way these states are projected in the media. There were other questions too: How many tourists can be expected in these not easily accessible areas? Can wildlife-based tourism take off in places where dense vegetation does not help mammal sightings? At that point, we were discussing Community Conserved Areas (CCA) in Nagaland and exploring potential sources of income for the people who are the custodians of the amazingly rich biodiversity in these areas.

A few weeks later, we found ourselves reviewing an eco-tourism initiative: the Samrakshan Trust’s community-based conservation initiative in Baghmara (Garo Hills, Meghalaya). Campsites have been set up at Siju and Gongrot villages with focus on butterfly tourism. These lie in the Baghmara Balpakram area that also houses the Siju Wildlife Sanctuary (WLS), Baghmara Reserve Forest (RF) and the Balpakram National Park (NP). A landscape with few equals in the area of biodiversity values, it is also an Important Bird Area (IBA) and Elephant Reserve (ER).

As we delved deeper, a critical question came up: whether an option like eco-tourism could be considered an ‘alternative livelihood’. What were the chances of ‘eco-tourism’ being the ‘primary source of livelihood’ for these families when coal mine labour was paying twice (and more) the rates of the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MNREGA)? Not to mention, of course, the range of cultivation practices from jhum to orchards and wet rice cultivation to plantations.

We also recalled a similar situation faced by an organisation working on similar lines in Arunachal Pradesh. The quandary they faced was in competing with labour rates offered by construction of roads and dams. Moreover, these ‘development/construction’ projects exist through the year compared to tourism dictated by seasons. The more we thought about it the more we wondered if eco-tourism was just one more option in the basket of livelihood options! People could take a call on which of the multiple options they want to take up; for what duration of the year and in what proportions.

We began to search for other perspectives on livelihoods generated by eco-tourism in other biodiversity-rich parts of India. Two recent, interesting and nuanced takes helped broaden our horizon. M.D. Madhusudan and Pavithra Sankaran in their article ‘Eco-tourist, tread carefully’ (Deccan Herald ) talk about the increasing number of tourists in Bandipur National Park (Karnataka) and state “ecotourism not only means commercial but non-extractive use of forests, but also sharing of economic benefits with local communities. To be equitable and successful, ecotourism also has to offset the loss of livelihood for people who depend on extractive use of the forest.”

In the other piece, ‘Value Chain Mapping of Tourism in Ladakh’, Kiran Rajashekariah and Pankaj Chandan wrote “eco-tourism and community tourism have generated major interest amongst the key decision-makers in Ladakh (Jammu and Kashmir). These concepts focus on the need to ensure that tourism is not detrimental to the environmental and cultural base on which it is dependent and does not, ultimately, erode these resources. However, an additional challenge is the integration of poor communities and people within these sustainable models in order to direct tourism towards poverty alleviation in a destination site.”

As we pondered on these, we recalled conversations with friends that made us realise that each place could have its advantages (and vice-versa) and it was not wise to paint the entire country with the same brush. Ramki Sreenivasan, a well-known wildlife photographer, talked of how difficult it was for one of the better-know bird-guides at Kachchh, Gujarat, to get tourists (read business) beyond the season, which lasts for just four to five months a year.

However, Dharmendra Khandal, a conservation-biologist based at Sawai Madhopur (Rajasthan), had a different view. He talked of the direct involvement in tourism of approximately 6,000 to 7,000 individuals in the vicinity of Ranthambore National Park for eight to 10 months a year. This, he added, would only increase since the Forest Department was opening up more areas for tourism leading to an increase in the number of tourists and tourism paraphernalia. This led to another question: Can tiger-tourism (or rather the way in which it manifests in India today) be considered eco-tourism?

This led us back to certain uncomfortable questions: Does it make sense to invest in eco-tourism without investing in sustained communications on institution-building and ecological sensitivity? Continued public support is the crux on which a programme of this nature is built. During recent times there was a sad example in Assam when an eco-tourism camp-site was burnt down by people, though operations have now been restarted. The northeast also faces challenges of another kind. Most people tend to view the eight states as one unit and, as a result, a bomb blast in, say Manipur, leads to people cancelling their trip to Garo Hills in Meghalaya.

All these give rise to a number of questions that can present food for thought for those associated with eco-tourism. When a not-for-profit non-government organisation facilitates or owns a wildlife tourism venture, does it begin with too much weight on its saddle? How many in the not-for-profit sector possess the skills and aptitude to market eco-tourism with the zeal it warrants? Do we pay due attention to ensure that the venture to generates enough revenue to make it financially independent? How does one deal with a scenario where the facilitating organisation’s values and/or other programmes are not in sync with what augurs well for eco-tourism? In Samrakshan’s case, the organisation’s stand against hunting and mining in Baghmara backfired by being seen as against the local people.

Finally, are we expecting too much from eco-tourism? Are we, like with Self-Help Groups (SHG) though in another context, assuming that they will be the solution in all places where wildlife occurs?

Source: The Hindu