Story | 31 May, 2020

Participatory Conservation Economies in Kerala, India: A Stepping Stone to Resilience

CEESP News: by Aditi Bhardwaj, Anil Kumar Bhardwaj and Sunil C.G.*

The participatory Integrated Conservation Development Programmes in major Protected Areas of Kerala, India, have led to the gradual empowerment of the local communities. With financial, social, human and institutional capital accumulated over the decades, these conservation economies are, today, more resilient to face adversities such as the current pandemic. 

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Photo: Job J. Neriamparambil

Distribution of mask and sanitizers in Luckhamkudy Tribal Colony, Eravikulam National Park, Kerala. Photo by Mr. Job J. Neriamparambil, Range Officer, Eravikulam National Park

When the globe is grappling with the spread of COVID-19 pandemic, India stands as no exception. Although, in India, the state of Kerala first reported the virus, it has managed to contain it quite effectively.  What is even more interesting is that, within Kerala, the forest-dwelling communities in and around major Protected Areas (PAs) have so far not reported any case of the infection. These areas are conservation economies, working with twin objectives of biodiversity conservation and livelihood creation for the local communities through Integrated Conservation Development Programmes (ICDPs).

Given the common link of ICDPs across these areas, the important question, therefore, to be investigated is if these conservation economies are more resilient to handle such calamities compared to mainstream economies and, if yes, what are the drivers for this resilience?

In the wake of the nation-wide lockdown to arrest the spread of Coronavirus, a number of steps were taken by the forest department, in support with other line agencies and local governments, to ensure the safety and security of forest-dwelling communities. The foremost was to spread the message of ‘Breaking the Chain’ of the virus through the principles of social distancing and sanitation. This was complemented by distribution of free ration, essential medicines, masks, soaps, and sanitizers.

Additionally, the financial security of the people was guaranteed through no cuts in the wages of the people involved in ecodevelopment activities, thanks to the corpus funds created by PAs under ICDPs. 

Village Committee Members advocate measures to maintain personal hygiene to fight COVID-19.       Photo: Syam Krishnan P.G.

Village Committee Members of Palliyakudy Tribal Settlement Colony of Periyar Tiger Reserve, Kerala, advocating measures to maintain personal hygiene to fight COVID-19. Photo by Syam Krishnan P.G., Eco Tourism Officer, Periyar Tiger Conservation Foundation 

Given that similar initiatives have been implemented across the state, one may be puzzled why only these pockets remained safe. The answer lies in the proactive role of the community through village micro-institutions. These institutions, originally established for protection and ecotourism, demonstrated their dynamism and resilience in serving the needs of the community during the pandemic by providing much-needed local leadership to effectively communicate and implement various government guidelines. Acting as a bridge between the community and government, these micro-institutions could not only steer effective awareness-generation, but also keep a vigil on the health of the members. The efficient implementation of these initiatives was possible due to financial, social, natural and human capital generated through ICDPs over last three decades. 

Several alternative modes of engagement were designed by collaborative efforts of the forest department and the community. These include volunteer patrolling of forests to avoid illegal inter-state border crossing, doorstep delivery of ration, other government supplies, and initiating community kitchens. Sensing the need of the hour, communities quickly adapted to new avenues of livelihood such as preparation of surgical masks and sanitizers, which were in acute shortage. People have also ‘gone local’ in growing of vegetables and other food-crops, in light of their non-availability from adjoining states. Short-term loans provided by village institutions using their Community Funds reflect their financial stability. 

Participatory Conservation Economies in Kerala, India: A Stepping Stone to Resilience       Photo: Syam Krishnan P.G.
Village Committee Members of Palliyakudy Tribal Settlement Colony of Periyar Tiger Reserve, Kerala, advocating measures to maintain personal hygiene to fight COVID-19. Photo by Syam Krishnan P.G., Eco Tourism Officer, Periyar Tiger Conservation Foundation 

Several lessons have emerged from this research. Firstly, local leadership in participatory governance has emerged as a key to future sustainability of current ICDPs. Secondly, the physical resilience of the communities to face such future adversities is dependent on their social, economic and institutional resilience. Therefore, ICDPs need to broaden their horizon to accommodate newer areas of engagement with communities, which go beyond the realms of biodiversity conservation and eco-friendly livelihoods. In this context, it is of utmost importance that the focus must now be on building a self-sustaining local conservation economy by re-assessment of gaps and diversification of livelihoods. While it is important to technologically upgrade tourist guides, it is equally critical to focus on investment in organic agriculture and horticulture, however limited in scale. 

The process of strengthening livelihoods is also required to be backed by adequate capacity building. Implementing tailored training programmes based on diverse groups - already employed, youth and women- has been one of the important demands of the community. Horticulture, organic farming, sanitation, waste management, rainwater harvesting and e-marketing are some of the core areas requiring inputs in this regard. Lastly, learning from the recent experiences of floods and the current pandemic, it has been realized that strengthening existing micro-institution is critical for the future. Focusing on financial robustness in terms of maintaining an emergency corpus, preparing disaster management plans, creating awareness, as well as supporting women self-help groups and nature clubs are important for future sustainability.

* Ms. Aditi Bhardwaj- M.Phil-Ph.D Scholar, Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai; Dr. Anil Kumar Bhardwaj- Senior Professional Fellow, Wildlife Institute of India, Dehradun; Mr. Sunil C. G.- Assistant Nature Education Officer, Periyar Tiger Conservation Foundation, Kerala