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Rights of nature

When I started to understand

Rural sustainability, landscape sustainability and community rights are the core of what I do. I’ve worked on all kinds of issues and in all kinds of landscapes – national parks, wildlife and endangered species protection, tourism, world heritage, collectives, fishing, nomadic herders, the Himalayas, water, the great rivers of South Asia, forests in various places. My beginning point has always been with people, their rights and their landscapes. But this 30 year practice had to start somewhere.

I still remember the time I really began to understand things. As a young(ish) social scientist I sat at my desk in my accommodation, a small hut in a tiger reserve. My assignment was to analyse the impacts of wildlife on the people who live on the outskirts of the reserve.

At the time, the orthodox thinking was that tigers and their conservation were the focus. Some thought (and some still do) that tigers were the only focus – and they therefore took precedence over the rights of local communities.

Others thought that while the tigers were a priority, local communities needed to benefit from their protection. Usually, this was framed in terms of livelihoods and economic benefits. So the thinking here was that local communities shouldn’t wear the economic costs of protecting tigers.

At that time, I knew I sat with the second view. But I didn’t quite know what that meant.

I was about to write up the day’s notes.  It was quite late because there had been a festival at a nearby village and I had gone there to understand some more about the ways local people live.  The festival was a celebration of the forest and so it was an important one to get a sense of people’s connections to their forest, their landscapes – I knew these run deep.  It had been a full moon (hence this particular festival), and I’d returned to my room along that forest path by its silver light. The sounds of the festival reverberated around this vicinity. My fellow walkers on the path were coming from and going to the festival, some dressed in their best clothes for the celebration.

My thinking about this assignment, gained from far-away Australia and framed by Western values of national parks, tiger protection and conservation, was that things needed to be done to protect the reserve, the forest and the national parks from the impacts of people.

As I sat at my desk, the yellow light of the kerosene lamp lighting my notebook, I stared out the window at the blue-bucks grazing on the grasses, and I thought two things in quick succession.  The first was: ‘This is what fieldwork is like’ – a somewhat romantic notion of the field that had been instilled into me from the early days of studying, reading reports of fieldwork by anthropologists and, of course, the totally romantic scene that I was part of – village festivals, jungle, kerosene lamps, wildlife, saving the tiger.

The second thought was my ‘ahah’ moment.  I thought: ‘It’s not the wildlife or the forest that needs protecting, it’s the rights of local people.’

It was at that point I began to really, really understand. I understood that local people live with wildlife and conservation initiatives and that they come at a cost to them. 

I understood that the cost of conservation is not shared equally, that while we may want to, and should want to, protect tigers and forests and other species, local populations often bear the cost – a cost they can ill-afford. This cost is well beyond the economic cost, though that can be substantial. It’s a cost of cultural and historical connections to landscapes, usually shaped by generations.

Economics doesn’t cover access to medicinal plants. It doesn’t cover the locations in forests where dead ancestors still provide safety and a surety of the forest. It doesn’t cover the local deities that are tigers, worshipped to ensure that local people are protected in the forest. Most of all, it doesn’t cover the rights of local people to all of the above, their rights to make informed decisions and their rights to have their voices heard across tiger landscapes and their conservation efforts.

And I understood that it’s very simple to see black and white solutions.

As a result, and perhaps most of all, I understood that life is complicated.  Seeing tigers in the wild is spectacular.  Seeing them on posters imploring donations to save them, doesn’t do justice to the complex economic, political, cultural and historical connections that people have with their forests, their landscapes and their livelihoods. All the tiger ecology in the world will not save them until all these other things are understood, integrated into protection and the rights of local people are protected. Most of all, I understood that doing this required collaboration and cooperation. 

A tiger is in the scrub of the forest
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Personhood and the rights of nature

Over the last few years there’s been increasing debates in some quarters about the rights of nature and the feasibility of bestowing ‘personhood’ to landscapes or parts of landscapes. This is something that has many parts. It can be about legal protections, recognition of the ways First Nations people view landscapes or the natural world or a deeper ethical position on the rights of nature (even though, for some, bestowing personhood seems to contradict the idea of nature’s rights).

They’re interesting debates with some contradictions and limitations. However, they do share a common attempt to strengthen the rights of and protection of nature. You can see an interesting recent piece from The Guardian, written by Patrick Barkham, here.

*This is also published at localslowtravel.com

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