Imagining an alternative future – an Interview

By Darryl D'MonteonMay. 01, 2018in Perspectives

  • Alternative futures: India unshackled’ is a recently published book that is generating discussions in the conservation circles in India.
  • In the book, Ashish Kothari and K. J. Joy have put together 35 chapters where multiple authors have envisioned their alternative vision for the country by the end of the century, and detailed how to reach there.
  • Darryl D’Monte interviewed Ashish Kothari for Mongabay India, asking him on how his concepts link with conservation of biodiversity and protection of livelihoods.

Ashish Kothari, activist from Kalpavriksh in Pune, has co-edited with K.J. Joy a large and impressive tome called Alternative Futures: India Unshackled (Authors Upfront, 2017). They boldly attempt to predict the future trajectory of various aspects of Indian society and how, with more people-centric approaches to conservation and development, it will be possible to guarantee a country that is more sustainable in its use of natural resources while establishing a more equitable society. These broad-ranging aspects are tackled in 35 chapters with an array of authors, all experts in their fields. Mongabay-India spoke with Kothari about the thrust of the book, particularly with regard to new paradigms for conserving the country’s biodiversity.

Can you briefly describe this book, why you and K. J. Joy put it together, and what subjects or themes are included in it?

I have been feeling for many years a certain frustration with our constant firefighting mode, in which we are resisting and protesting development projects and policies that destroy the environment and displace people. This is obviously crucial, but equally important is to search for and promote alternatives, where we supplement what we are saying ‘no’ to with what we are saying ‘yes’ to. This search for pathways that meet human needs and aspirations without trashing the earth and without creating enormous inequalities, has led me to various parts of India and the world.

Ashish Kothari with the headgear of Kutchi Maldhari pastoralists. Photo by Iokine Rodriguez.

Simultaneously I’ve felt the desire to do some ‘dreaming’, or visioning of what kind of world I would want. From this came the thought that perhaps we could ask several people who are experienced in their fields, to do similar visioning. Once Joy came on board, we listed out the subjects and authors who could do this. We then gave them the challenge of explaining the current context, then visioning their dream India in 2100, and then coming back to earth and describing pathways of getting to such a utopia.

The book is extremely wide-ranging, covering about 30 subjects across ecological, political, economic, social and cultural spheres. Its central thread is that without a significant transformation along all these axes, no isolated attempt at creating greater justice, equality, and ecological sustainability will be successful in the long run.

Co-existing with nature

How do you explain that despite being one of the 17 mega-diversity countries in the world, and host to four biodiversity hot spots, India has perhaps lost fewer of its large vertebrates to complete extinction than many others?

This is largely due to traditions and practices of communities that have learnt to co-exist with wildlife, tolerating certain levels of crop and animal damage, even sometimes loss of human life. Certain government policies and laws have also helped, especially in recent times when ‘development’ has threatened natural ecosystems.

A tribal village in the Similipal Tiger Reserve in Odisha. Photo by Pankaj Sekhsaria.

However, unfortunately these policies are also colonial in their attitude, holding local communities to be ‘enemies’, ignoring their own knowledge and practices that are often very conservationist, and propagating exclusionary strategies, especially in schemes such as Project Tiger. Anything between 100,000 and 600,000 people have been displaced, and several hundred thousand more denied access to ecosystems and resources on which their livelihoods depend.

On the other hand, mass tourism has been allowed into the same areas, and often they have even been given over to industries, mining, etc. This has generated enormous hostility amongst the tribal and other local communities, the breakdown of co-existence attitudes, and often a backlash with detrimental impacts on wildlife itself.

Tourists wait for the gate of the Periyar Tiger Reserve to open. Photo by S. Gopikrishna Warrier/Mongabay.

When and how did the official policies regarding this process undergo a change? Thus in the 1980s, we witnessed the setting up of Integrated Conservation Development Projects. Did Indira Gandhi have anything to do with such a paradigm shift?

There have indeed been some changes in official policies, towards programmes like ecodevelopment, and some participation in buffer areas of protected areas. However, essentially the policies remain very top-down, participatory only in token ways, with no real sharing of decision-making power, and no genuine acknowledgment of the role that community knowledge and practices can play in effective conservation.

Forest rights good for conservation

Was the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006 a major landmark? Why have some conservationists opposed this law?

Indeed this is perhaps the most fundamental shift in policy, but it is worth remembering that this happened more as a rights-based movement rather than one coming from ‘conservationists’ (by which I mean those groups in urban areas working formally on wildlife issues). Some of these groups and individuals, including from the forest departments, opposed the Forest Rights Act (FRA) because they feared it would lead to destruction of forests, or because they feared loss of their power over forests.

Without denying that the misuse of such a law, especially its clauses on individual rights to forest land, could indeed create ecological damage (and there is some evidence that this has happened), our position has been that its larger impact would be to strengthen forest (and wildlife) conservation, especially if communities are supported in managing community forest areas over which they can claim governance rights. Our experience is that in many areas communities have used the FRA to keep out destructive ‘development’ projects, or activities like logging and monocultural plantation. For these reasons several conservation groups also supported the FRA (see

The article on the future of conservation in the book, by Kartik Shanker, Nitin Rai and Meera Anna Oommen, gives a lot of importance to the FRA and similar policies and laws for strengthening India’s conservation efforts.

Have such changed policies also addressed the alleviation of poverty?

Ecodevelopment has helped generate some livelihoods in areas where genuine attempts have been made by officials. In general though it has fallen woefully short of making up for the loss of livelihoods that exclusionary conservation has entailed. The FRA enables a reversal of this, if communities can mobilise themselves or be helped in sustainable use of forest products, as is happening in some areas such as Vidarbha in Maharashtra.

A Konda-Dora tribal sorts minor forest produce in a village in Ananthagiri Hills in Andhra Pradesh. Photo by Pankaj Sekhsaria.

Non-timber forest produce can be a major source of livelihoods for millions of forest-dwelling families, if the government stranglehold on such produce and its trade, or on forests in general, can be loosened. This however also relates to the more general political and economic issue of where decision-making power lies; until it remains concentrated in the state and in private corporations, communities will find it very difficult to achieve the potential of laws like the FRA.

This is why the book also deals with what kind of political and economic futures we need to envision and work towards. More direct or radical democracy, and greater public/community control over economic production and trade, is absolutely necessary, as is a reconfiguration of the relationship between cities and villages, and several essays in the book go into these aspects.

How can we re-imagine diversity from focussing on ‘charismatic large mammals’ to examining other species and the interconnection between them?

Kartik et al. do go into this to some extent. We certainly need a much wider focus on biodiversity, rather than only on some megafauna. There are thousands of neglected species of plants and animals. For instance, there is no ‘Project Amphibia’ though several frogs and toads are severely threatened.

It is said that if one saves the tiger, one saves many other species; this could be true for a certain range of species that co-exist with the tiger, but there are thousands that are in other kinds of habitats that will remain without protection. Attention needs to go to participatory and community-based conservation of diverse ecosystems, aquatic and terrestrial, and to species from the smallest to the biggest.

In many parts of India there are remarkable community initiatives at conservation; such ‘community conserved areas’ (CCAs) need much more support. Unfortunately the government has given only very token or even inappropriate attention to these; for instance the Wild Life (Protection) Act’s provisions for ‘community reserves’ is so straitjacketed and insulting to communities that in over 15 years of its existence, hardly any of hundreds of CCAs have opted for such recognition.

Protected areas need co-management with communities

Can you elaborate on how legal instruments like the Convention on Biological Diversity’s Programme of Work on Protected Areas (PoWPA), which require India to move towards a rights-based, participatory approach, have not been implemented?

The CBD’s PoWPA is a significant global shift in conservation paradigm, towards more participatory, inclusive, community-based or co-management strategies. Unfortunately though India is legally bound to implement it, our officials have been reluctant to do so. Protected areas remain without co-management (which as per the CBD entails sharing of power, not only occasional consultation), and CCAs remain mostly unrecognised.

A pastoralist in Himachal Pradesh. Photo by Achinthya/Wikimedia Commons.

Do expand on how Kalpavriksh has been in the forefront of initiatives like the National Biodiversity Strategy & Action Plan?

In the early 2000s we were given the task of coordinating India’s NBSAP. After four years of an extensive process involving tens of thousands of people, and bottom-up visioning with over 100 local, state, ecoregional, and thematic action plans culminating in a national plan, the central government summarily rejected it! Since it was so people-centred, the final plan called for major changes in macro-economic and political policies and structures, which the government found unpalatable. It is clear though that without such changes, there is no future for biodiversity (including wildlife and domesticated biodiversity) in India.

Need to enhance livelihoods without major ecological damage

What would you wish for India’s biodiversity in 2050?

Biodiversity needs to be conserved across the landscape and seascape, not only in some protected area islands (for such islands will not survive if surrounds are systematically destroyed, as we are seeing across India). This means that human activity needs substantial rethinking and reorientation. For instance, we urgently need a shift to organic, biologically diverse agriculture and pastoralism (which relevant essays in this book go into in detail). We need a reconceptualisation of human settlements including cities, to make them more wildlife-friendly.

A tribal village in Ananthagiri Hills in Andhra Pradesh. Photo by Pankaj Sekhsaria.

We need to rethink ‘development’ to move away from the mega-industrial and mega-infrastructure focus to decentralised, smaller scale interventions that enhance livelihoods without major ecological damage. We have to align conservation movements with those seeking justice for tribals, women, the backward castes, and other oppressed or marginalised sections of society.

The book has many many examples of where people are already showing the feasibility of such equitable, just, sustainable approaches (see for a few hundred examples). We hope that the book will bring some attention to these alternatives amongst a wide cross-section of people, leading to greater dialogue and supportive action.

First published by Mongabay

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