Mainstreaming community-based conservation approach in Arunachal

[ Kamal Medhi & Harshad Sambamurthy ]

In Zemithang, the locals recently named a mountain ridge along the Kharman/T-Gompa road ‘Goral Point’ for the frequency of sighting that particular ungulate. While travelling there, I was lucky to sight seven Himalayan goral foraging. Located on the north-western corner of Tawang district, amid a backdrop of snow-capped mountains surrounded by lush forests and high-altitude lakes, this has quickly become a popular attraction.

The natural resources of these areas have historically been governed by the local communities. However, these age-old relationships have gradually begun to erode, leading to significant land-use changes. Natural resource extraction has multiplied with demands from neighbouring townships, and is expected to consistently rise due to urbanization, linear infrastructure, hydroelectric power projects, and changing lifestyle aspirations.

The forests of Northeast India account for more than 65 percent of its geographical area, or approximately 17 million hectares. This region, falling under the Eastern Himalayan and Indo-Burma biodiversity hotspots, is rich in floral and faunal diversity, encompasses 120 important bird areas and is home to more than 45 million indigenous people. These forests are predominantly governed at the

community-level through traditional institutions empowered with various provisions in the Indian constitution.

At a global level, the post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework proposes an expansion of conservation areas, especially when growing evidence links biodiversity loss with threats to economic prosperity. Specifically, biodiversity loss can lead to flooding, spread of transmissible diseases, clean water shortage, crop damage, and climate change. Regionally, we have many areas outside protected area networks which contribute to effective in-situ biodiversity conservation. Appropriately recognizing, reporting and supporting such areas will become increasingly important in the context of biodiversity loss and climate change.

In Arunachal Pradesh, more than 60 percent of the state’s forests (3 million hectares) are de facto under the custodianship of local communities. These forests are home to a range of diverse species, including the elusive red panda and snow leopard. Since 2004, in close collaboration with the local community, WWF-India has helped kick-start a community-based conservation model in the western districts of Tawang and West Kameng by setting up community-conserved areas (CCA), where local communities set aside a certain portion of their forests for conservation and frame participatory management rules for use, livelihood promotion, and prevention of any misuse of natural resources.

Though the CCAs fall outside any designated protected area, they continue to demonstrate how local communities can concurrently strengthen livelihoods, derive crucial ecosystem services and secure critical wildlife habitat. To date, nine CCAs, covering a combined total area of 1,50,000 hectares, have been created. Other approaches similar to the CCA model have also been adopted by the Gumin Rego Kilaju (GRK) and the EB Project-Basar. Necessary government support and resources to scale up such approaches can help define a conservation policy framework that safeguards forests through community stewardship.

Arunachal Pradesh possesses immense potential to play a pivotal role in mainstreaming community-led biodiversity conservation on the world stage. While protected areas achieve a centralized conservation objective, Arunachal Pradesh should define its conservation roadmap with more focus on a decentralized community-centric approach. Grassroots-level institutions such as the panchayats, and traditional bodies like mangma should be enabled to make management and conservation decisions under the purview of the state policy, and map forest resources that fall within their traditional customary jurisdiction.

Ensuring biodiversity conservation is at the heart of innovative and well-designed livelihood programmes, and would help maintain economic wellbeing while safeguarding forests. Bringing other resource organizations, academic institutions and state machineries to the table will also promote a more inclusive approach to biodiversity conservation in Arunachal Pradesh, necessitating an improved clarity in the state’s conservation policy that clearly defines the role of local communities and incorporates pre-existing rights and privileges. (The contributors work for WWF-India. The views expressed in this article are personal.)