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Militarised Conservation Practices: Forests or Fortresses?

Do the militarised conversation practices really have the forest's best interests in mind?

Artwork by Tanishk Katalkar

Horen Doley, a 22-year-old student from Numaligarh College, went missing during his summer vacation in June 2014. An avid woodcarver, he had chosen to spend time in his uncle's village, which was close to KNP (Kaziranga National Park). One night, after dinner with his aunt, Horen sneaked away to smoke and party with friends from the village. Unfortunately, he never returned home that night.


A few days later, Horen's uncle received the devastating news that the body of a poacher had been sent to the morgue in Golaghat town, over 50 kilometers away. Fearing the worst, Horen's father and uncle went to Golaghat, where they discovered Horen's decaying and maggot-filled body. The circumstances of his death were similar to the questionable killings of insurgents by security forces in the 1990s. However, there was no evidence linking Horen to rhino poachers.


Such incidents of violence were not uncommon in KNP, where as many as 24 individuals, alleged to be poachers, were killed in and around the core area of the park in 2014 alone. Families of the deceased, including Horen's, believed that the forest department was involved in these killings. They questioned the timing and reliability of the First Information Reports (FIR) filed by the department after encounters with poachers.


This pattern of mistreatment and abuse is not isolated to KNP but is seen across India, where indigenous people suffer in the name of conservation efforts. Governments, in the pursuit of wildlife, tourism, and industry, are displacing endangered communities from their ancestral lands, causing immense human suffering.

India's conservation model needs a fundamental shift to include and empower tribal communities. Recognizing their rights and knowledge as custodians of the land can lead to more effective conservation efforts. Collaboration with and respect for indigenous communities is essential in preserving Earth's biological and cultural diversity.


Exclusion of Tribal People and Militarisation in India's Conservation Model


The current conservation model in India excludes tribal people due to policies that prevent human settlements within park boundaries. This has forced marginalized tribes into conflict with other communities as they seek land resources. Instead of recognizing these tribes as key contributors to forest conservation, they are labeled as "encroachers" and "exploiters" of forests. The government's environmental policy has disregarded the historical socio-cultural relationship that these communities had with nature, viewing forests merely as habitats for wildlife that require protection. As a result, corporations have exploited timber and forest resources, while tribal communities, such as the Misings, living near protected areas, have been adversely affected by aggressive conservation practices.


Conservation-centric policies, such as the introduction of categories like "tiger reserves" and "wildlife corridors," have isolated local communities living in and around protected areas. The confusing and non-legal terms used in these policies complicate their implementation on the ground. Conflicts within protected areas have become more frequent, partly due to authorities criminalizing community activities and militarising conservation efforts. Shoot-at-sight orders around Kaziranga National Park and the increased presence of military units have led to violence and even the loss of lives.


India's "fortress model" of conservation ignores the true reasons for wildlife population decline, such as historically intensive hunting and the continuous loss of wildlife habitat due to infrastructure projects. The current system puts in danger not only human lives but also the very ecosystem it is meant to preserve.


An estimated Rs. 50 trillion (US$ 688 billion), a significant portion of India's GDP, would be required to resettle tribal communities and forest dwellers outside important biodiversity areas. Alternatively, a much lower cost of Rs. 28.47 billion (US$ 0.39 billion) would be needed to implement community-led rights-based conservation by recognizing their tenure rights on these lands.



The Problematic Nature of Militarised Conservation


Militarised conservation can lead to recreating past injustices and alienating the inhabitants of conservation spaces. The negative experiences of local inhabitants with forceful conservation approaches are often overlooked, portraying rangers as heroes. However, presenting militarised conservation as inherently good makes it difficult to address potential abuses by conservation staff, leading to a loss of accountability and legitimacy in the eyes of local communities and the international community. Understanding the impact of militarisation on local communities is crucial to comprehend the counterproductive effects of forceful conservation in the long term.


While some argue that militarised conservation is necessary in areas of intense armed conflict, little is known about how conservation intersects with wider dynamics of violence. However, an emerging body of work suggests that militarised conservation can further embed conflict dynamics instead of resolving them. Using force in conservation can lead to an escalation of violence and arms proliferation, making it challenging to de-escalate conflicts.


Claims that poaching funds militias and terrorist networks are often sensationalized and lack evidence. Despite the lack of proof, these claims have led to a push towards more militarised conservation efforts. Conservationists must critically examine such claims to avoid exacerbating conflict dynamics.


Collaborations between conservationists and military actors can be problematic. Military institutions often take sides in conflicts, compromising the neutrality of conservation efforts. Furthermore, military training and equipment provided to rangers can be misused against wildlife and local communities. Additionally, working with military partners with a history of human rights abuses can damage the reputation of conservation efforts on the international stage.


The redistribution of resources resulting from militarisation has broader ecological impacts. In areas where military personnel have decision-making power, conservation activities may be negatively affected. Resources are often diverted from essential conservation priorities, such as ecological monitoring and management, towards militarised enforcement approaches. This trend jeopardizes the long-term ecological integrity of protected areas.


Militarised conservation presents numerous challenges and potential negative consequences. Understanding the experiences of local communities, questioning claims about the link between poaching and armed conflict, and critically examining collaborations with military institutions are essential steps in reevaluating conservation approaches. To ensure effective and sustainable conservation efforts, a more balanced and comprehensive approach is required, one that respects the rights and needs of local communities while safeguarding biodiversity.

Problems in Militarised Conservation

Proposed Solutions

​Alienation of local inhabitants in conservation spaces

​Emphasize community involvement and consultation in conservation decisions

Conservation portrayed as inherently good, leading to lack of accountability

​Encourage transparency, independent oversight, and reporting mechanisms for conservation efforts

​Overlooking negative experiences of locals with forceful conservation

Acknowledge and learn from local perspectives to create more inclusive approaches

​Potential escalation of violence and arms proliferation

​Shift focus to conflict resolution and community engagement in conservation strategies

​Sensationalised claims about poaching funding terrorism.

​Rely on evidence-based research and avoid hasty militarisation based on unverified claims

Compromised neutrality due to collaborations with military actors

​ Seek partnerships with non-partisan organizations and prioritize civilian-led conservation efforts

​Risk of military training and equipment misuse

Implement strict regulations and accountability measures for military involvement in conservation

​Damage to conservation reputation due to human rights abuses

​Align with reputable and ethical partners to maintain integrity in conservation efforts

​Redistribution of resources impacting ecological priorities

​Prioritize ecological monitoring and management over militarised enforcement approaches

​Jeopardizing long-term ecological integrity of protected areas

​Balance military presence and conservation efforts to ensure sustainability

Embracing Indigenous Knowledge for Decolonizing Conservation


The continued use of the wilderness concept in conservation practices undermines Indigenous and local peoples' empowerment and perpetuates the false belief that nature exists free from human influence. It is time to abandon this notion, prioritize Indigenous and local knowledge systems, and adopt relational approaches to ecosystem management. Indigenous and local knowledge is not just a collection of facts but is shaped by practices, experiences, and social relations over time and space. Integrating multiscalar and locally situated Indigenous knowledge is crucial for understanding the relationships between people and place in conservation efforts.


Incorporating Indigenous and local knowledge into ecosystem and landscape management is essential. Protecting and supporting Indigenous livelihoods, customs, and languages is crucial, as they hold vast reservoirs of environmental knowledge and beliefs that sustain lands, forests, and waters. Linguistically diverse regions often coincide with areas of high biological diversity. Recognizing and supporting Indigenous and community conserved areas (ICCAs) and similar rights-based initiatives can empower Indigenous and local peoples, allowing them greater control over their territories and fostering cultural and environmental connections.


Decolonizing conservation involves genuine consultation and collaboration with Indigenous and local peoples. Power-sharing, recognizing Indigenous authority and rights, and respecting free and prior informed consent is essential. Collaborative efforts can provide valuable insights into sustainable resource management practices that predate conventional conservation approaches. External conservation initiatives should align with Indigenous and local governance initiatives and prioritize the voices and needs of those who have long coexisted with nature.



Way Forward

Throughout history, there has been a profound co-evolution between people and their surroundings, especially when it comes to managed forests and the cultural, spiritual, and economic needs of Indigenous peoples and local communities. This relationship has developed over millennia, shaping ecosystems and human lives in tandem. However, a troubling trend has emerged, where the idea of creating "pristine" conservation areas has led to the displacement of humans from their lands. This approach not only violates human rights and sparks territorial conflicts but also neglects the valuable biodiversity that thrives in ecosystems where human intervention and conservation coexist. Furthermore, it disregards the wealth of knowledge held by Indigenous communities in forest management, hindering conservation efforts.


The concept of "pristine wilderness" has perpetuated the notion that humans and nature are in opposition, with humans seen as civilized and the wilderness as primitive and wild. This perspective has fostered the belief that humans can dominate and control nature, including "uncivilized" Indigenous peoples, without facing any adverse consequences for humanity.


To create a more inclusive and effective conservation approach, it is crucial to abandon the wilderness paradigm and instead embrace Indigenous knowledge and practices. By empowering Indigenous and local communities and working collaboratively with them, conservation efforts can become more sustainable and respectful of cultural and ecological diversity. Prioritizing the rights and agency of Indigenous and local communities is essential to achieve meaningful and decolonized conservation practices.



References

Duffy, R., Massé, F., Smidt, E., Marijnen, E., Büscher, B., Verweijen, J., Ramutsindela, M., Simlai, T., Joanny, L., & Lunstrum, E. (2019). Why we must question the militarisation of conservation. Biological Conservation, 232, 66–73.


Barbora, S. (2017). Riding the Rhino: Conservation, Conflicts, and Militarisation of Kaziranga National Park in Assam. Antipode, 49(5), 1145–1163. doi:10.1111/anti.12329


Fletcher, M., Hamilton, R., Dressler, W., & Palmer, L. (2021). Indigenous knowledge and the shackles of wilderness. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 118(40).



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