A Political Ecology of Forest Conservation in India

Date: 27 May 2022

Author: Amrita Sen

Biodiversity and its conservation have been at the centre-stage of environmental social science scholarship, with a wide range of recent works looking even deeper and exploring into newer conceptual engagements on conservation policies.

In India, conservation literature has increasingly and critically focused on the politics of resource management instituted by global environmental bodies and state-level organisations. Growing incidences of dispossession and resource conflicts in multiple protected forest areas have drawn in a combination of critical policy analysis and epistemic approaches in grounding conservation as a contested and inherently political process.

Political ecology, an environmental social-science-focused interdisciplinary field of study, has provided one of the broadest analytical contexts in foregrounding the variously defined ‘conservation politics’ - one effected by growing conflicts and dynamic negotiations around the emerging resource management policies.

In recent times, there are multiple political conditions under which wildlife conservation in India has turned out to be a complex issue. Political ecology is an analytical perspective that looks into conservation as a process driven by power relations, political-economic structures and capitalist development- one which inherently drives local ecologies into politically complex systems.

In recent years, political ecology has drawn on insights from environmental justice and policy changes through discursive framings on governmentality and eco-socialism, which suggest newer environmental subjectivities as embedded within local and micro-local ecologies, through the newer institutional mechanism of conservation. Recent conservation organisations and NGOs have rather strongly contributed to what is now being referred to as ‘militarisation of conservation’.

My book, A political ecology of forest conservation in India: communities, wildlife and the state (Routledge 2022), is a critical exploration on the political ecology of wildlife conservation and the role of the state in politicising conservation frameworks, drawing on examples from the Indian Sundarbans in the West Bengal region.

The Sundarbans are one of the largest trails of riverine mangrove forests, situated at the mouth of the Ganges delta. The forests are shared between the two countries of India and Bangladesh, with Bangladesh occupying the larger faction. Sundarbans is the prime habitat of the Royal Bengal Tiger.

Indian Sundarbans is notified as a protected forest and has been ascribed global conservation standards by numerous wildlife organisations. Sundarbans is an ecologically vulnerable tract of wilderness, which is also the habitat of a large number of people. Human settlements around the forest areas are endangered, on the one hand due to frequent climatic rifts like cyclones, sea-level rise and river erosion and on the other, due to the restrictive conservation policies impinging of forest-based livelihoods.

Submerged mangroves during high tide (Picture courtesy: Amrita Sen)

The political ecology framework offered in this book foregrounds issues of power asymmetries, inequities and social injustice as imperatives in framing forest conservation politics in India, moving beyond discourses which see conservation as strictly defined by the state or those that rely on a simplistic portrayal of local communities.

It prompts readers towards recognising ecological conflicts as chequered and nonlinear, shifting discourses towards capturing complexities within place-based framings—on the impact of conservation norms on diverse stakeholders.

There are seven chapters in the book, attempting to explore interlinkages between humans and the environment in multiple ways. While the introductory chapters introduce readers to historical conservation structures instituting forest governance in the Sundarbans, the subsequent chapters explore deep into social structures shaped by institutional approaches to forest conservation.

Here, the book offers ways to understand how political actions become ‘viable’ strategies for inhabiting globally recognised conservation landscapes. It also sets out a detailed qualitative methodology that has been used while operationalising the field visit for this work.

Mud huts in interior forest adjoining villages, inhabited by forest dependent communities (Picture courtesy: Amrita Sen)

In the following chapters, the book focuses on the forest-based livelihoods of Sundarbans and a chequered politics of belongingness that is shaped through insipient political activism on the recognition of rights. Communities residing in the Indian Sundarbans are migrants- the recent structure of forest conservation has no accommodation of such alternative knowledge systems.

Recent studies focus considerably on structural hierarchies, while they play out aligning with the predominant conservation processes in the region. Alongside exploring the precariousness of forest-based livelihoods due to human-tiger interface and loss of lives, the fourth chapter of the book sums up a political ecology of legitimising claims in globally recognised tiger conservation landscapes. It details an ethnography of prawn harvesting, an occupation prevalent in the region, and describes a critical political ecology perspective on environmental degradation becoming proximate to political influences.

For instance, the book mentions, ‘the economically elite sections of the village that usually set up the prawn farms have a direct influence in mobilising the support base of the state functionaries. While fisheries are set up illegally at the riverside destroying the protective embankments and mangrove plantations, the fishery owners can summon the clout of the politically powerful leaders to stop state officials from intervening in the issues of embankment collapse’.

Fishing boats loaded being with essentials, like food and water, before communities venture inside the forests (Picture courtesy: Amrita Sen)

Shrine of mother Bonbibi, a forest goddess worshipped by people to escape tiger attacks (Picture courtesy: Amrita Sen)

The book also focuses on rights-based and participatory forest conservation regulations like the Forest Rights Act (FRA) and Joint Forest Management (JFM). A political agenda of FRA and key strategies of implementation at the sub-national and supra-local levels, the book mentions, are deeply implicated within local politics.

FRA is not implemented in the Indian Sundarban region, despite significant scope- I see this more as a process of operational power relations with long standing political networks subverting the spirit of implementation.

JFM is also deeply implicated within local political-party based rivalry, where partisan interests safeguard the rights of its own political faction and opposing those of its opponents, in allocating forest management duties.

Instances from rights-based frameworks reveal that a mere re-designing of institutional categories would not ensure success since historical trajectories of monopolistic control increase complexity of implementation.

In the concluding chapters, the book focuses on a political ecology of non-human subjectification in the Indian Sundarbans. It argues that political ecology can make a significant effort in expanding deliberations on justice frameworks, by accounting for subjective representations of non-humans in a political process.

A recent study deliberate on the fact that ‘animals ought to be viewed as dynamic beings, inextricable to political processes, and integral to the formation and operation of the political networks that regulate, protect and exploit them’.

Drawing on the complexities of tiger conservation regulations in the Indian Sundarbans, I argued that moralising perspectives on wildlife conservation and the ideological basis of imagining predators are thus political processes, ultimately linked to production of territorial hegemony and processes enabling capital intensive regimes of conservation and management.

The book would be helpful towards gaining a comprehensive understanding on how social structures, institutional politics and power provide key imports to contemporary neoliberal conservation politics in India.