National Park’s Fatal Flaw
When thinking about wildlife conservation, most people think of humans as playing the role of observer (except for your park ranger). They see humans’ role in the environment as something that should be kept to a minimum. When looking at protected land around the world such as national parks or wildlife sanctuaries, it is rare to find humans living inside their boundaries. Most protected lands have restrictions on who can enter, where one can go, and when one can go. These rules and regulations protect the land from human touch, but not all of it as tourism, even ecotourism, leaves its mark. Conservation laws have made great strides towards protecting our environment. They keep modern society from destroying what is left of some the most beautiful places on earth, but they seem to have one fatal flaw.
As is the case around much of the world, protected areas were sanctioned on tribal lands. This can be seen all across India, but it is not unique to this country. Tribes have been removed from their lands in the name of conservation all over the world; in the US parks like Yellowstone are primary examples of this issue. Boundaries were set to limit human interaction in the hopes that it would conserve what remains of our dying earth. These new parks were sanctioned on areas which tribal people had been both living and depending on for generations. When implementing these laws, ignorance and lack of understanding of the crucial role tribes play in conservation, stripped groups from the rights to the lands they called home.
Tribal people practiced “conservation” long before anybody knew what the word meant. They practiced it for several reasons. Primarily, because the welfare of the group depended on the welfare of their environment. If a sustainable way of life was not practiced, then they would kill the environment on which their society depended. Death of their resources inevitably meant the demise of their group. Sustainability was a way of life because it had to be; the health of the ecosystem was directly correlated with the health of the tribe. Survival International, a group who fights for the rights of tribal communities across the globe, points out that tribal groups have had sophisticated codes of conservation to stop overhunting and preserve biodiversity for thousands of years. Without these practices, tribes would not have existed this long.
Tribesmen were key members of the ecosystems in which they lived. The displacement of tribes from their land meant the removal of an area’s protector, sustainer, and top predator, causing an imbalance in the ecosystem. In nature, tribes can almost be thought of as an umbrella species. Protect tribes and you protect the environment in which they live.
A Case Study of India and Asia
In 1972, India passed the Wildlife Protection Act (WPA), disturbing a balance in nature that cannot easily be recreated. This piece of legislation made it illegal for people to live inside of national parks and wildlife sanctuaries, ending a symbiotic relationship between tribal people and their environment that had been developing for generations. Yes, this act was a huge victory for conservation as it protected biodiverse areas from harmful human touch, but it failed to recognize that not all human touch is harmful.
Since the implementation of the WPA, the Indian government has been evicting tribal peoples in the name of creating parks and sanctuaries. The often small human impact of the tribal people has been replaced with one far more detrimental: tourism. People who depended on the wellbeing of the land around them were replaced by droves of people whose livelihood does not depend on the health of these areas. This does not mean that all tourists mistreat these areas intentionally, but it does point to the fact that many people are entering into areas of which they are not as connected. Not only does this have negative effects on the tribal peoples as they are removed from a way of life that they know, but it also brings new threats to species living in these areas.
A prime example of this is seen in Chitwan National Park in Nepal. Tiger numbers went down when tribals were evicted out fear of human impact, but were replaced with tourist. Tribes were seen as a threat to tigers when in fact, they were the very people who kept them safe. Indigenous people in Chitwan were the eyes and ears that kept tigers and other large game animals safe from poachers. This misunderstanding of tribal life led to a decrease in tiger population.
The concept of tribal conservation was something that had never crossed my mind until I visited the Andaman Islands where I worked with a group of conservation biologists. Our group spent two days working with this group of researchers and educators from a group called Andaman and Nicobar Environment Team (ANET). ANET was established in the 1980’s to study endemic species by working closely with communities there. It was set up by researchers that realized the value of working with tribal groups who know the land and its inhabitants better than any outsider.
One of the groups ANET works with is the Karen community. Although they are not natives to the islands, they came over from Burma in the early 20th century and live a life off of the land. Many of these people are naturalists; children study traditional ways of life, such as hunting and fishing. A member of this community spoke to us about his tribe and others on the islands who live lives that use their surroundings in a sustainable way. We talked about issues that have arisen due of the removal of tribes in India as well as around the world. Quickly, I began to realize that both the environment and tribe are healthier when the interaction between the two is not disrupted.
What makes the Andamans special?
Although Andamanese people have lost many rights to their lands, the Indian government has given them legal protection. Across the majority of India and most of the world, biological conservation and tribal life do not go hand in hand. The protection of tribes is not seen as the protection of the environment. This is not the case in the Andamans, where the protection of tribes and their land is practiced. This is not done only to preserve their cultures, but it is seen as a pathway to conservation. The Andaman’s are a rarity and although its tribes, such as the Jarawas and Karens, are still oppressed in many ways; they are allowed to interact with the environment as they always have. The idea that tribal life is harmful to nature is ignored. Laws have been set up allowing these tribes to live alongside nature as they have done for thousands of years.
The Indian Tribal Cultural Heritage Organization speaks on the benefits that come from tribes living within national parks in the Andamans. They found that forest protected legally in the islands as tribal reserves have been more important for wildlife and biodiversity conservation than areas protected under the WPA which do not allow tribes to remain on the land. Mahima Jaini, an ANET member, spoke on what is lost when tribes can no longer live a traditional life. The disappearance of these cultures causes the disappearance of knowledge that had been acquired over several generations. Everything from tracking skills to knowledge on natural medicine can be lost.
When national parks are created pushing indigenous people out, animals are given new roles as a key player in their ecosystem is taken away. Many species lose their top predator as they are no longer being hunted by humans. Once an area is deemed as protected, tribes can no longer hunt without being labeled as poachers. This strips them of their ability to be self sufficient. With the loss of the rights to the land they once called home and the food they depended on, tribes have no choice but to leave. This leaves both flora and fauna vulnerable to new threats from which they were once protected. An ecosystem is now left disrupted as not only a top predator, but a protector is suddenly removed.
What change needs to happen…
For most, tribal rights and conservation of biodiversity do not go hand in hand. This mindset needs to change. To disrupt a system that has worked for thousands of years simply because the modern idea of conservation does not align with tradition disturbs a natural balance. There needs to be a realization worldwide that the protection of tribal land and rights is a key to conservation. While huge amounts of money are spent on trying to develop conservation practices, looking to traditional practices can be a cheaper solution.
Upholding tribal land rights will allow the people who depend on the biodiversity of the land to continue to maintain an ecosystem’s health for years to come. This system that has worked for thousands of years has only recently been disrupted with new ideas of what conservation should be. Humans are trying to compensate for their destruction of this world’s natural resources by pushing all humans out. We have destroyed this world so much that we try to conserve what is left by taking the people out of nature instead of building nature back up around people.
Jaini, Mahima (2017) Communities of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. Lecture, Andaman and Nicobar Environmental Team. 17 October 2017.
T. Rabikumar (2017) Laws Governing Biodiversity in India. Lecture, Womens Christian College. 11 October 2017.