Monday, February 13, 2017

Second Sanskriti Anveshak Lecture on Forest Community Interface

Community participation with support from NGOs and the Forest Department has triggered successful conservation efforts, as witnessed in many ecologically sensitive areas across the world. In parts of North East India also, local community involvement has enabled the emergence of positive environmental stories, according to Dr Bibhuti Prasad Lahkar, a noted conservationist from Assam.

Speaking on the topic ‘Contribution of Local Communities to Conservation,’ in the Second Sanskriti Anveshak Lecture on February 13, Dr Lahkar pointed to Protected Areas in Western Assam in particular where local communities are now helping preserve Manas National Park and neighbouring Reserve Forests.

“Once a community identifies themselves with a forest, and realises its value for them, they make efforts to protect the flora and fauna therein,” said the IUCN’s World Heritage Hero (People’s Choice), 2016.

It is, however, a challenge to motivate the communities to do that. It may take years before local people become aware about their dependence on a forest, before they act in a strong and cohesive manner to save it.

Dr Lahkar, who has been working in the Manas landscape for the NGO, Aaaranyak for close to two decades first stepped inside Manas to carry out research work for his Ph. D on the grassland ecosystem of the National Park. 

Manas was devastated during a violent phase in which armed extremists carried out massive tree felling inside the Park, decimating vegetation that had evolved over hundreds of years. Rampant poaching obliterated tiger and rhino population. Forest Department infrastructure was burnt down.

In its aftermath, Dr. Lahkar faced difficulties in building ties with members of local Bodo community. He started interacting with some of the youths, who he trained in wildlife observation. The boys, in time, became knowledgeable to act as guides to visitors and researchers. Some of them were encouraged to form an ecotourism society, a first for Manas National Park.

Community involvement was also witnessed in erecting an electric fence around a rural settlement to protect it from elephant depredation. Where once there were fatalities every year, today the community-maintained barrier has stopped human deaths caused by elephants which roam nearby.

Much can be achieved through community participation, because local people are more thoroughly aware about the prevailing environmental conditions than others who come for research and then move away. The Forest Department and line departments would be able to achieve much more if local communities are taken into confidence.

Referring to the present environmental situation in Assam and rest of the North East, Dr Lahkar said much remains to be done in areas such as conservation of sacred groves, preservation of seeds, watershed conservation, rescue and rehabilitation, and solid waste management, among others. These issues could also be better addressed with the collaboration of government agencies, NGOs and local communities.