Conservation is Development

Near the little Himalayan town in which I live a hill draped in green forest rises above the road. It's  a wild place: Ghoral sun themselves on prominent shoulders, an occasional leopard lopes through and on a morning walk once a friend’s child was surprised by a bear. This remnant of wildness used to be a favourite place for me to run under rhododendrons, surprise a pheasant or perhaps a deer, traverse a shoulder to a village below and run home. No more.

As good as it gets: lungs  filled with pure wild air. 

As good as it gets: lungs  filled with pure wild air. 

Its a conservation estate now. A senior figure from the Delhi office of an international conservation NGO comes from my town.  Captivated by this exquisite piece of nature she acquired the long term lease and had teams of biologists survey it. A board with a name and fence proves its status as a private reserve and village women in a plastic shelter enforce the admission fee.  This tourist town supplies foreigners and well off Indians who’ll pay.  An elite international school pays for its students to come too.  Undesirable species have been weeded, a water tank has been constructed to attract deer and other desirable species.  Strategies have been developed to keep village cows as well as non-paying locals out.  No morning runs, but protected wilderness this close to a town and locals including women getting (a small) financial benefit has to be good, yes? A sustainable conservation model! No!

Not for me, this exclusionary model: Wilderness privately owned and managed available to  those who can pay.  Anyway is wilderness being preserved? Weeding and making water tanks verges on gardening not conservation. I’d let Mother Nature reclaim the land as she wants to, incrementally and magically through succession. Of course her time frame might be longer than mans, but in conservation whose counts? Bigger picture are questions about the lease holder's  vision of humans’ role in this landscape in this user pays, old style conservation model relying on market forces. 

Deliberate conservation started as a Man/Nature dualism.  Lines drawn on maps and  fences across land defined the places where nature reigned supreme. Laws and (sometimes armed) conservation officers were the real world enforcers. The majority was for humanity to dominate and control with mines, roads, factories, rapacious neo-liberal economics ...and the rest. Either or. But the lines on maps approach failed. Growing populations supervene lines on maps and rhinoceros horn, valuable minerals and other resources always overcome fences and armed guards. Pollution doesn’t respect boundaries (CO2 is a prime example), nor do people - some poach illegally, others legally change laws to prise open protected land for their ‘development’. Exclusionary conservation doesn’t preserve wilderness for long.

What does? Think of NCF in Spiti (Himachal Pradesh, India) trying to conserve snow leopards with large ranges, sparse population and low reproduction. Old style either/or conservation would prescribe huge areas be cleared of people- people with low ecological impacts into whose culture is braided together with the very landscape we want to clear them from. This so that other humans with no relationship to the land and huge carbon footprints might see snow leopards. Is this conservation? Think of the indigenous Cambodians I worked with last year spiritually connected to the forest being felled around them. They're relocated, to sniff glue and work the brothels of jungle towns while (with luck) national parks are set up in tiny corners of the land where they once lived.  Economic progress turns the rest into rosewood tables in China, tinned cashew nuts on aeroplanes and rubber for the world's economy.  The demand for cashew nuts is greater than for trees so wilderness is a market failure. Indigenous cultures too.  Exclusionary conservation is doomed. But then what.

Its about changes in people’s heads and hearts not fences across the landscape. Conservation is the sum of our attitudes to wilderness around us, our relationships to others who are also sustained by this wilderness (the whole of humanity) and ultimately our behaviour, how we treat small and large wild spaces we come into contact with. Conservation for me is more akin to NCF's approach. They work with villagers and deliberately build in ways to learn from people who’ve coexisted forever with snow leopards. Their vision is more about bringing some of their mountain culture  to wider humanity than vice versa. Conservation is enshrining justice in laws to allow indigenous people to continue their spiritual connection to their forests....and enforcing those laws. It is relinquishing cashew nuts and rosewood tables (not to mention rubber and oil) because we value the wild places and cultures that are raped to provide those products.

This is huge stuff, cutting to the heart of who we are, how we think and how we structure our world. Changed attitudes inform culture which becomes the force that protects land and landscapes, landscapes of which humans are a part.  In this model rather than rules and laws to preserve wilderness by excluding people and opening other  areas to rapacious resource exploitation we would have sustainable development everywhere (thinking deeply what that elusive term actually means). Conservation is development not its antithesis.

This all sounds far fetched, dreamy even. It is, but not as far fetched as imagining business as usual stopping climate change, neo-liberal economics saving wild alpine landscapes where snow leopards roam and fences keeping indigenous people looking after ancestral forests rippling with biodiversity and tropical hardwoods. 

I ran past the reserve this morning. The women were there with their entry book. “Waiting for the Tourist people” they told me. Rakesh, the bandy legged, likeable old rogue who carries cans of milk up from his village, waters it down and sells ‘pure village milk’ to foreigners in town came walking up the road.“Kya Hal?” he shouted.

I stopped, we conversed, I asked if he’d ever gone in to the reserve.

 “It’s for the videshis (foreigners), not me” he said, laughed and listed off, milk can over his shoulder.

I ran on, wondering what attitudes, relationships or behaviour the new reserve has changed.

Not in the distant Himalayas,  look for conservation in these village youths' hearts and minds. 

Not in the distant Himalayas,  look for conservation in these village youths' hearts and minds. 

While you are thinking about conservation and the human development trajectory here's a a famous biologist's challenging contemporary view (June 15. 2016) on conservation at planetary scales. How does his vision of setting aside half the planet fit with the inclusion/exclusion argument?