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Missing the Woods for the Trees?

(a commentary on the recent debates around ecotourism)

cross-posted from EQUATIONS August 2012

Ecotourism is increasingly being seen as a driver for the eradication of poverty through economic development of communities, contributing to conservation of the environment and conservation education for tourists. Ecotourism particularly wildlife tourism and even more specifically tiger tourism has been in the news and hotly debated largely due to two significant developments in the recent past.

In October 2010, a case was filed in the High Court of Madhya Pradesh at Jabalpur by Ajay Dubey of Bhopal-based organisation Prayatna, asking for a ban of tourism in tiger reserves. Based on an interim order received on 19/1/2011, a Special Leave Petition (SLP) was filed in the Supreme Court in 2011.

The Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) was also in the process of drafting guidelines for ecotourism in protected areas independently, and on June 2, 2011 issued the (Draft) Guidelines for Ecotourism In and Around Protected Areas. Subsequently, the Guidelines have been finalised and submitted to the Supreme Court on July 9, 2012 as per its directions in the interim order dated April 3, 2012.

The 2 most crucial elements of the guidelines are: (1) phasing out of tourism from core areas, and (2) shifting tourism into buffer areas and therefore incentivising conversion of land from current land use to forest areas. This incentivising assumes that there are real choices and free will, which are aspects communities hardly enjoy. The impacts of this form of market led conservation, in its different avatars of Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD) and Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) on communities’ rights over natural resources have been substantially highlighted and opposed by several tribal movements across the world. Therefore, the inclusion of this form of ‘regeneration’ seems like a backdoor entry of the corporate sector and developed/industrialised countries motivated forms of addressing climate change.

EQUATIONS had sent its comments and recommendations to the MoEF on the (Draft)

Guidelines for Ecotourism In and Around Protected Areas, key among which are :

1. The guidelines need to give primacy to Gram Sabhas by ensuring that their approvals are sought in the process of tourism development as is the case for other forms of development. This is a massive lapse in the light of the 73rd and 74th amendment and hope this will be rectified in the final guidelines.

2. The Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006 (henceforth referred to as the Forest Rights Act) has not been considered while formulating these guidelines. We hope that the final guidelines will ensure that the provisions of this key Act are upheld in the context of the governance and regulation of tourism and rights of forest dwelling communities.

3. The very important resolution of the XXI meeting of the Indian Board for Wildlife in January 2002 regarding the demarcation of eco-fragile zones and guidelines for which have been issued by the Ministry on February 9, 2011 have been disregarded. The guidelines issued in February 2011 mandate regulation of tourism in a 10 kms radius from park boundaries.

4. Along with guidelines for tourism in forest and wildlife in and around protected areas, it is important that there be regulation of tourism in a range of ecosystems, not just forests.

The Supreme Court order of July 24, 2012 in the Ajay Dubey vs. National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA) & Others case is an interim order, which has disallowed the core areas in tiger reserves for tourism till final directions are issued by the court on the matter. All parties have also been given a 3-week window period to respond to the guidelines submitted by the NTCA. The matter has been posted for final arguments on August 22, 2012.

The government in particular the MoEF has welcomed the ban. The Ministry of Tourism has stated that the ban will not affect tourism. Some of the state Forest Departments are working hard to come up with novel tourism products in core areas which can be considered as sustainable! For e.g. recently it was reported that Ranthambore has received permissions to conduct tiger safaris where injured and ageing tigers would be kept in enclosures and a safari will be conducted within these enclosures. The Forest Department also feels that this will make it easier for tourists to spot the tiger!

Going by media reports so far, a large section of the high end tourism industry has raised concerns against this move. The position of many conservationists is that tourism can be detrimental to the environment and that what is needed is regulation rather than a blanket ban. Forest rights activists have been largely silent on the issue, except for a few who believe that the ban without the implementation of Forest Rights Act will make the forests vulnerable to forest mafia.

The issue of core and buffer areas in tiger reserves is a long standing one and the ramifications of this are much wider than tourism. This in fact impact the lives of people living in the forests even more. Therefore the debate on tourism in tiger reserves needs to be located within this broader context. What the case has done is bring to the fore issues that already existed in the past, but unfortunately without adequately taking into consideration legislations like The Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006 and the 73rd and 74th amendments to the Constitution.

This leads us to the other aspect of the current interim order – the mandate to notify core and buffer zones. The court had given the state governments a 3-month period to notify cores and buffers, which was ignored by most. A miffed court then gave an impractical 3 weeks resulting in a scramble to notify these areas allowing for no time to follow the prescribed process, which includes discussions and resolutions being passed in Gram Panchayats about their acceptance of the proposal of the Forest Department.

In the year 2005, two bills were introduced in the Parliament: (i) The Scheduled Tribes (Recognition of Forest Rights) Bill, 2005 and (ii) Wildlife (Protection) Amendment Bill, 2005. While both Bills were passed in 2006, the Wildlife (Protection) Amendment Act, 2006 (hence forth referred to as WLPA amendment of 2006) was notified in the same year and the Forest Rights Act in 2007 with implementation to be effected from January 2008. The WLPA amendment of 2006 legislated on the creation of Critical Tiger Habitats (CTHs), while the Forest Rights Act provides for Critical Wildlife Habitats (CWHs). (For a detailed difference please refer to a presentation by C.R. Bijoy titled “Special Areas and FRA – CTH & CWH”).

The Ministry is using the fact that CTHs have not been mentioned in the FRA and CWHs have not been mentioned in the WLPA amendment of 2006 to highlight that CTHs are outside the purview of the Forest Rights Act. However, it should not be forgotten that the Forest Rights Act over-rules all other legislations prior to and after the passing of the Forest Rights Act if they are impinging on the rights of adivasis and other forest dwellers to be granted. Given the gross violations in terms of process in declaring National Parks, CTHs and TRs, whether in the case of the Indian Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972 and amendments made to it 1993, 2003 and 2006 and the FRA, implies that every single such declaration has to be checked for its legality.

There are three arguments that the tourism industry and conservationists make in favour of allowing tourism in protected areas: Employment to local communities, contribution to conservation, and controlling of poaching. However, a realistic view of the way tourism operates and is conducted, seriously challenges all these arguments.

Over the last few days, many varying estimates of how much employment tourism generates has been reported. Very few of these can claim research or sound statistical data at the local level to substantiate them. That the existing tourism linked statistics in the country is rather unreliable is a well acknowledged fact. The current debates therefore only underscore the need for rigorous data and analysis on impacts and spin offs of tourism, which the State Forest Departments and Departments of Tourism need to take up.

Three significant studies that have been conducted and we can learn from are by the Madhya Pradesh Ecotourism Development Board (MPEDB) titled ‘Contribution of Ecotourism to Livelihood – Bandhavgarh National Park’ (date unknown), Karanth, K & DeFries, R (2010) titled ‘Nature-based tourism in Indian Protected Areas: New Challenges for Park Management’ and Swaminathan, L.P. & Purshothaman, S (2000) titled ‘Forest Conservation Tourism and ‘Extraction: An Economic Perspective’

Karanth and DeFries states that less than 0.001% of population living with 10 kms. of a PA find employment in the tourism industry. However, the MPEDB study shows that 62% of the people involved in tourism activity at Tala (a small village near Bandavgarh National Park with an approximate population of 1220) are local people. However, they are all largely involved in the unorganised sector of drivers, cooks, labour, guide and general business. All the managerial level work is conducted by outsiders.

Therefore, while it is true that tourism development generates employment opportunities for the local communities this “fact” needs to be understood not just through numbers but from multiple perspectives. Firstly, the issue of self determination. In areas around Protected Areas adivasis who used to own land, have due to poverty been forced to sell out to the resorts/hotels and become employees as guides and drivers (with luck), but usually end up working as security guards, gardeners or waiters at the restaurant. Therefore the mere generation of employment does not take into account the disempowerment and lack of dignified life that the adivasis experience.

Furthermore, there is the question of ownership within the tourism industry as most of the establishments, whether lodge owners or jeep owners are usually not from the region and more often than not from cities/towns. As seen in the case of Kanha National Park, they can be from as far away places as Delhi, Kolkata and Mumbai. The income thus generated from tourism is taken away from the region and into the bigger cities. In fact the question of who constitutes the term ‘local’ is contentious. It is interpreted differently by communities in the vicinity of the tourism establishments, for whom local is anyone from within that community while the owner of an establishment interprets the term as per their convenience. The tourism industry at Kanha and Bandhavgarh for example have identified all those who live anywhere along the Park boundary to be local, even if they are from a village several tens of kilometers away and very often from the neighbouring district.

This brings us to the question of the local economy. It is common knowledge that resort owners are rarely from the village where the establishments are. This has 2 implications – (i) people from the local communities are alienated from their land. (ii) a source of livelihood is lost for both the landed and the landless agricultural labourers. This is evident in the Kabini area, where large tracts of land have been sold to people from Bangalore and Mysore. While those who sold the land, have moved to cities to ensure better education for their children and in search of other avenues for livelihoods, the people from the landless communities have been forced to migrate out of the district in search of work. Some villagers have shared that an average of 200 people were employed by one land owner, but one establishment would not be able to provide employment to so many people. Therefore the understanding of costs and benefit of tourism needs to take these layered experiences and perspectives into account.

According to researchers, on the issue of tourism contributing to conservation, estimating the costs of regeneration and the sources of funds received by the Forest Department is a difficult task. Firstly, identifying and segregating different cost components is a challenge since administrative costs overlap various activities including conservation and management. Secondly, identifying the source of resources (both revenue and income) is also a challenge.

The Forest Department receives money from both the state and central governments. According to the MoEF website, there are several crores of funds parked in Compensatory Afforestation Fund Management and Planning Authority (CAMPA), which is also used towards management of tiger reserves. The Government of India also receives large amounts of funding from various International Financial Institutions for forest regeneration. Thus the issue to examine is if the income generated from ecotourism activities does go back to the Forest Department and in particular attributed to conservation linked activities. Currently, all earnings from forests (NTFP, timber, entry fee etc.) go back into a common pool (except in the case of Madhya Pradesh) wherein all non-plan income of the state is parked, from where allocations for different expenses are made. There is no way in the current system of functioning to ensure that the income from tourism is ploughed back to the Forest Department for regeneration work.

In the case of tiger reserves, the WLPA amendment of 2006 has mandated all gate receipts are to be used for stakeholder development including conservation and community development. The only state which has proffered information on this is Madhya Pradesh, where the money from gate receipts is pooled together at the state level and then distributed to the National Parks based on necessity and status of Park funds.

The other argument in favour of continuing tourism in core areas of parks is that this will be a deterrent to poaching. Poachers usually operate at night, when tourists are not allowed in the parks. Poachers also know the behaviour of the animal and are able to hunt them down when tourists are not around. Further, on an average only 1/4th of the parks have marked tourism zones. In the case of Bandhavgarh and Kanha, which have healthy tiger populations, only some of them are known to habit the area in the tourism zone. The majority of them choose to inhabit the higher and interior reaches of the reserve. At a more fundamental level, considering that forest department has emptied the tiger reserves of people by displacing the villages who used to live there and who were the most obvious watch dogs for the poachers, it becomes the responsibility of the forest department to ensure that poaching does not happen instead of passing on this responsibility to the tourists.

There has also been the case for a greater regulation of tourism and there is no question about this. Tourism does need to be regulated both inside the Park as well as in the periphery. While the notion of carrying capacity is the popular way of regulation within the Park, it is limited in terms of the factors as it takes into consideration only disturbance to wildlife and not people in and around the area. Regulation at the entry gates has become a governance nightmare, with the Collector and Park Director both shifting the responsibility of the same. The outcome of this is the chaos witnessed at all the gates of tiger parks. The rampant and ugly growth of tourism establishments in the periphery has been critiqued but seen little regulation.

We also need to recognise that several tiger reserves are also pilgrimage destinations like Ranthambore Tiger Reserve, Kalakkad-Mundanthurai Tiger Reserve, Periyar Tiger Reserve and others. These traditional places of worship is a right according to the Forest Rights Act. Therefore, a blanket ban on tourism in core areas is a simplistic approach and a more nuanced understanding of the realities of these ecosystems is required.

Our position in this debate is that tourism cannot be seen out of the context of rights of all stakeholders. While media reports have highlighted the issue of rights of citizens to see the tiger and forests of our country, it is also true that the rights of people who used to live in these very same forests has been violated. Section 4(2) of the Forest Rights Act says “The forest rights recognized under this Act in critical wildlife habitats of National Parks and Sanctuaries may subsequently be modified or resettled, provided that no forest rights holders shall be resettled or have their rights in any manner affected for the purposes of creating inviolate areas for wildlife conservation except in case all the following conditions are satisfied…”. Some of the key conditions are: “…that the activities of impact of the presence of holders of rights upon wild animals is sufficient to cause irreversible damage and threaten the existence of said species and their habitat ” and “the free informed consent of the Gram Sabhas in the area concerned to the proposed resettlement and to the package provided has been obtained in writing; ”. Just like it has not been established that tourism is harmful to tigers, so also the claim that people living in the forests have caused the decline in tigers can and should be contested.

The position that the WLPA amendment of 2006, mandates that core areas need to be inviolate, therefore tourism also should be banned seems a limited view. The issue of understanding tourism’s real impacts and contributions needs to be studied and more reliable data needs to be worked with before conclusions are drawn. However the more central issue of the implementation of the Forest Rights Act and the rights of adivasis and forest dwellers is being lost in the battle about tourism (or making the battle only about tourism). We believe this issue needs to be brought back by MoEF and NTCA into the core area of the debate!

To read the full statement click here


1. Bijoy, C.R. ‘Special Areas and FRA – CTH & CWH’,, (accessed on August 22, 2012)

2. Bijoy, C.R. (2011) ‘The Great Indian Tiger Show’, Economic and Political Weekly

3. EQUATIONS (2011), ‘Calling to Account: Image and Ethics in Corporate Accountability in Tourism’

4. Karanth, K & DeFries, R (2010), ‘Nature-based tourism in Indian protected areas: New challenges for park management’

5. Madhya Pradesh Ecotourism Development Board (MPEDB), ‘Contribution of Ecotourism to Livelihood – Bandhavgarh National Park’

6. Swaminathan, L.P. & Purshothaman, S (2000) titled ‘Forest Conservation Tourism and Extraction: An Economic Perspective

27 Aug, 2012
Posted in News, Forests and Climate Change