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Save the rhino: wear a condom

February 14, 2004 12:00 AM
By Ben Vickers in Ben Vickers examines the balance between conservation and the needs of local

A few weeks ago a crocodile wandered into a village pond on the edge of Koshi Tappu national park in Eastern Nepal. Strapping on my cork hat and lasso, I went to investigate. The croc did not oblige me with an appearance but the villagers assured me that it had already made a meal of two young goats and the pond was, for the time being, useless for watering livestock.

In my capacity as technical adviser to a project attempting to reconcile forest conservation and rural livelihoods in this region I took the opportunity to ask these farmers how they satisfied their fuelwood requirements. "From the national park" came the unruffled answer. How often do they make these visits? At least every second day. Don't they worry about trouble from the park authorities? An old man nodded in the direction of a lichen-encrusted bunker next to the pond. "That's the local park range post. It hasn't been manned for the last two years. Even if the ranger was here we would still collect wood from the park, despite the risk. What choice do we have?"

This encounter encapsulated the problems faced by conservation projects, not only in Nepal but wherever parks and people meet. Thirty years ago, when national parks were first established in this country, the accepted wisdom of conservation bodies worldwide was that parks were not compatible with people. The solution? Remove the offending communities. The imperatives of ecosystem preservation demanded no less.

Relocation was a widely favoured strategy. Nepal's national park network received its impetus from the nature-loving King Mahendra and the first protected areas were designated from 1973 onwards. Many of the initial management plans, drawn up with the help of FAO experts, explicitly recommended that local communities be relocated. They were deemed incompatible with conservation objectives.

In Rara Lake National Park, the smallest and most remote of the lot and centred on Nepal's largest body of water, two villages containing some 70 households were considered a threat to the long-term integrity of the lake and its surrounds. These hill pastoralists were allotted poor quality land 3,000 metres lower down in the sub-tropical Terai plains. They were not accustomed to the radically different farming practices and many succumbed to malaria and other diseases for which they were completely unprepared.

In Koshi Tappu up to a thousand households were relocated. They were not submitted to such a radical change in environment but, due to the rapid growth of the Terai population during this period, very limited areas of fertile land remained. Due to a lack of co-ordination between government departments, some of these families were settled on land which was designated as national forest, making them encroachers in the eyes of the Forest Ministry. Nepal was by no means alone in making such insensitive blunders in the process of setting up its national park infrastructure. They were the result of strategies which were, it must be stressed, sanctioned or recommended by international advisors.

However, the World Parks Congress in Durban last September reaffirmed a paradigm shift in the conservation community which has been steadily emerging over the past decade. The drive to shield protected areas from human interference has been replaced by a recognition that national and supranational conservation priorities must be reconciled with the subsistence needs of local communities. Broadly, three strategies present themselves. We can use relocation, as before, to reduce pressure on sensitive environments.

Alternatively, park authorities could bend to reality and allow more controlled exploitation of natural resources for subsistence use. If neither of these is palatable, compensation must be provided to those whose livelihoods are affected by restrictions on resource use either in the form of resources from elsewhere or through direct financial payments.

Clearly, the social injustices evident from past eviction schemes make it politically and morally untenable for western societies to countenance bankrolling or supporting such moves in the future.

There are many parks and protected areas where the ecosystems might not only withstand a greater intensity of resource extraction but would actually benefit from such active management.

Nevertheless, in areas such as Koshi Tappu, a 150 km2 area of river and floodplain surrounded by 80,000 people within 3 km of its borders, the demand for subsistence products cannot possibly be met by sustainable means. The reserve is Nepal's only Ramsar site and is of international importance as a wetland habitat for migratory birds, but the conservation objectives are irrevocably at odds with the needs of local people.

So to the third strategy - compensation. Those of us who are serious about conservation must be prepared to be honest with the public and our governments about the costs. Rural communities throughout the developing world are paying a high price for our belated awakening to the sanctity of nature. We have had our turn at raping our part of the world and must pay up to persuade those at a different stage of development from doing the same. Equitable sharing of ecotourism revenues is a neat solution to this problem and has worked well in Nepal's Chitwan National Park, for example. Communities in this area receive direct financial benefit from the park's existence and, for the most part, co-operate enthusiastically in conservation strategies despite the rich pickings in subsistence and economic products that would otherwise be available.

However, tourism is a notoriously erratic market in terms of numbers and, more significantly, inflexible in terms of location. Koshi Tappu will never attract enough tourists to generate revenue which reflects its conservation value or the cost its existence presents to local communities. Such areas require direct cash injections to local communities for their support, essential for the long-term survival of the reserves, to be forthcoming. It is time for conservation bodies to admit this unsavoury truth, make the calculations and present the true cost of humanity's daily impact on our most sensitive ecosystems to a largely complacent public.

Even such exorbitant funding will not address the most fundamental conflict. The advocates of relocation were right about one thing. The population pressures on many important ecosystems are simply too great. No amount of money will convert whole regions away from their dependence on firewood in a few short years. So if eviction is not an option, what is?

The answer, as so often, is sex. Too much of it with too few prophylactics. Average family sizes in Nepal are greatly inflated by the preference for male children. Women have little or no control over their reproductive future and limited access to contraceptives or family planning advice.

Population control is the only certain route to curbing pressures on parks and reserves. It may well be that the best friend of the conservation lobby is the little rubber sheath.