IMPACT OF COMMUNITY TITLES ON WILDLIFE HABITAT AND HUMAN LIVELIHOODS – A STUDY IN THE CRITICAL WILDLIFE ZONE OF CENTRAL INDIA

Until recently, it was widely believed that human impact on complex ecological systems like tropical forests needs to be removed or minimized in order to maintain critical wildlife habitat, ecosystem structure and ecosystem function. However, several empirical studies have shown that local communities living in such critical forest ecosystems often have a positive effect on habitat quality. It is argued that these communities invest in designing rules and self-governance systems to ensure the availability of forest services that are beneficial to both local livelihoods and wildlife. In this emerging literature, security of tenure for local communities is proposed to be the primary driver of such synergies.

With the implementation of the Forest Rights Act, 2006, many forest-dwelling communities in protected areas and wildlife corridors received titles over local forests with management rights. While there is research indicating the positive outcomes of community forest management on livelihoods, conservationists argue that local communities tend to overuse forest resources, thus causing habitat degradation.

Our research aims to estimate the impact of community titles on wildlife habitat and livelihoods in the critical wildlife zone of Central India. The study will analyze the impact of forest use patterns, local institutional arrangements, and management practices on wildlife habitat and human livelihoods in local communities with community rights and those without community rights. We are also interested in examining the relational nuances between wildlife habitat and human livelihoods in relation to community titles.

OVERVIEW OF THE STUDY SITE

The study site is situated near Nagzira Tiger Reserve and Navegaon National Park. For our exploratory analysis, we visited settlements with and without community titles with support from Vidarbha Nature Conservation Society (VNCS), a local non-government organization. We found that the forest area approved is less than the forest area claimed by the communities across all settlements in the site. The area claimed but not approved is still considered a part of the traditional forest boundary where the communities exercise only access rights, they are not included in management decisions pertaining to this segment of forest land. Settlements without community titles are either exclusively under the jurisdiction of the government or are jointly managed by communities and the forest department.

KEY OBSERVATIONS

In forest land managed by communities, they have formed rules in relation to extraction, grazing, watershed management, fire management and other restrictions. Grazing is significantly minimized or stopped in forest areas with community titles resulting in an increase in the ground cover and vegetation due to natural regeneration. However, grazing has increased in forest areas that are not managed by communities. The rules of fire management restrict the community from igniting fire in the forest during the tendu and mahua season. Even while some communities practise rotational patrolling as a monitoring mechanism, management rules are well-enforced.  We also noted that all the settlements in the study area with community titles had invested in watershed activities. Since the irrigation facilities in the study area are inadequate, the management committee has channeled investments towards activities such as pond deepening, canal building and pisciculture. These development activities play a significant role in reducing out-migration as the communities are now able to generate more employment opportunities.

Harvesting Practice

A significant improvement in management of forests after receiving titles is communities’ efficient strategizing of the tendu collection and sale process. The practice of pruning during tendu collection has been discarded in order to harvest and market tendu fruits along with the leaves.

Recognition of community rights and transfer of management rights to local governing bodies has created opportunities for better negotiation between right holders and investors. This along with direct negotiations with government and private contractors increased profits from the sale of Tendu. Also, we observed that communities with forest rights are less susceptible to exploitation by external agencies and middle-men.

This change in institutional arrangement and resource management has almost doubled the household income from the sale of tendu. Improvements in the process of tendu collection have doubled the household income in terms of wages and an additional share in total profit. Further, diversion of funds towards village developmental activities has also increased.

Impact by External factors:

External factors like LPG, government driven job schemes, and ban on hunting also impact wildlife habitat condition. After the government introduced LPG at a subsidized price, the dependence on fuelwood reduced significantly. Similarly, as job opportunities are present outside the village, there is reduced dependence on forests for livelihoods during that time period.

In 2005, the Wildlife Department began to strictly enforce the ban on hunting in Gondia. Prior to this, the system was lax, and hunting was common among the communities and the upper class (Patels).

Also, collaboration of the forest department with a local NGO incentivized the ban by offering a reward to those who support the forest department in penalizing offenders. This could have contributed to the improvement in wildlife numbers in the area. Communities are witnessing an increased presence of wildlife in forest areas bordering settlements. In settlements where the community forest area is close to the wildlife reserve boundary, communities spotted tigers, cheetahs and bears. In settlements away from the corridor, wild boars and sambar deer are commonly spotted. Crop damage by wild boars has increased in the past four to five years. Since hunting is banned, farmers burst fire crackers in the fields to scare the wild boars away. While the ban on hunting has improved the wildlife numbers in the forest area with community titles, restrictions on grazing, cutting, pruning and fire have simultaneously increased natural regeneration. The forest condition has improved and could potentially improve the corridor connectivity. This explanation suggests that wildlife movement in the study area has improved.

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