The lofty rhetoric of prominent leaders that ‘saving the environment is essential to our well-being doesn’t seem to suffice to address the environmental crisis the world is facing today.
Let alone climate change, human activity is causing unprecedented decline in ecosystems and species—rising human-animal conflicts, for instance.
Case I: Man-animal conflict
Emerging cases of asymmetric man-animal conflict in the Indian state of Karnataka raise numerous wildlife protection and forest conservation questions.
As per the 2020–2021 data of the Forest Department of the state, there were 24,740 cases related to crop damage by wild animals, 3,019 cases of cattle kill, and 36 cases of the human kill. The total amount paid as compensation in all cases put together was 21.64 crores.
Case II: Overlapping boundaries
The June 3, 2022, verdict by a three-judge bench of the Supreme Court directed that every protected forest, national park, and wildlife sanctuary across the country should have a mandatory buffer or eco-sensitive zone (ESZ) of a minimum of 1 km starting from their demarcated boundaries.
The idea is that these zones would act as transition zones between areas with high protection and those involving less protection. However, this verdict has been subjected to protests by farmers living in the Western Ghats.
What are buffer zones?
According to the International Union for Conversation of Nature (IUCN), protected areas are referred to as a clearly defined geographical space, recognized, dedicated, and managed, through legal or other effective means, to achieve the long-term conversation of nature with associated ecosystem services and cultural values.
Zones are used to protect sensitive landscapes, such as wildlife reserves, from external threats and pressures.
The Wild Life (Protection) Act 1972 was enacted to protect plants and wild animal species. The 42nd Amendment Act of 1976 inserted clause 17 (A) forests and incorporated protection of wild animals, including birds, into the concurrent lists.
Furthermore, following the June verdict of the Supreme Court and various interventions by the court, the Ministry of Environment formulated guidelines highlighting the necessity of having ESZ around protected areas of the country as a ‘shock absorber’.
Chaos and protests ensued in the region, leading to the formation of a committee headed by Justice Thottathil Radhakrishnan that found 70158 structures in eco-sensitive zones, of which more than half were residential properties.
What is the extent of animal populations found in buffer zones?
According the data of 2016, India is home to 7-8 percent of the recorded species of the world, including 46,000 plant species, and 91,000 animal species.
These protected zones are meant to serve the dual purpose of an extension of core habitat areas and ‘socio buffering’ to facilitate the flow of goods and services to human beings.
Despite it playing a predominant role in the forest’s environmental and economic health, the study of the occurrence of wildlife in buffer zones has largely been untapped.
However, a study published by CSIRO Publishing in 2010 titled ‘Wildlife Research’ revealed that most of the wildlife species were more abundant at distances of more than 2000m from the buffer zone edge.
In addition, the analysis has flagged that ‘effects on wildlife of distance in itself are separated from the effects of human disturbances and the occurrence of domestic animals’.
Repressive colonial laws & the relevant effects:
At the advent of the Industrial Revolution in Britain in the 19th century, the cost of timber was skyrocketing. In consequence, domestic quantities became difficult to obtain and scarce.
Even though a number of industries were forced to change to other substitutes, England exhausted its domestic supply of timber and wood and became dependent on other nations for such resources, especially the colonies.
Hence, to meet the demand for locomotives, the gradual process of deforestation under the umbrella of economic development became more systematic and extensive.
Deforestation and the road to present Conundrum:
The British encouraged the production of commercial crops like jute, indigo, cotton etc., yet ‘colonialism became a fetter on India’s agriculture.’
Although agricultural activities were meant to generate more revenue than forest, that led to the clearing of more forest land for cultivation.
On a similar line of thought, landlords and moneylenders found renting tenants and sharecroppers far more profitable and highly safe way of generating productive investments. This ultimately led to crippling sociopolitical scenarios and stark differences in living standards.
The Indian Forest Act of 1865
An act that not only extended British colonialism in India and facilitated their claim over Indian forests but also served as a precursor for the Forest Act of 1878, which maximized British government control over the forests and chopped off an array of traditional rights of plenty of communities.
This systematic extortion paved the way for many uprisings, such as the Koya Uprising in 1879, which became one of the primary causes of tribal revolts. Nevertheless, extensive deforestation had a significant impact on Indian ecosystems.
Status of protection in these zones and the looming fear of failure:
It is not uncommon for ecological conditions to have unprecedented effects, especially when local environmental conditions are not taken into consideration. For example, the flood plains in Kaziranga National Park in 1998.
There have been instances wherein in the spirit of protecting various species, new forestry species have been introduced, although they were not adapted to the local climate or soil.
Overlapping boundaries of forests and residential structures have resulted in the constant occurrence of attacks and raids by wild animals from the forests, followed by a handsome amount of money as reparation.
Therefore, the idea behind conserving such protected areas or buffer zones is to generate awareness and sensitivity among people towards the last strongholds of the country that supports wildlife.
In addition, to minimize the negative impact of human settlements in such areas and address the socio-economic needs and wants of the affected population.
The term ‘buffer zone’ gained prominence in the early 1970s and later became institutionalized through the Integrated Conservation and Development Projects (ICDPs).
Arrangements like the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) do not explicitly address buffer zones, yet in a few chapters; it talks about such a concept in a cursory manner.
For instance, section 8(e) of CBD states: “Promote environmentally sound and sustainable development in the areas adjacent to the protected areas with a view to furthering the protection of these areas”.
Even though not all buffer zones involve interaction with indigenous peoples, they can undoubtedly facilitate the protection of their traditional rights.
Hence, convention 107 of the International Labour Organization (ILO) grants recognition to the rights of tribal and indigenous people to secure the ownership of their traditional land.