The Kalpavalli Community Conservation Area is an experiment in regeneration and community-led conservation started over 20 years ago and has today become an example of coexistence
The other week, Ravi - a community forest watcher - picked up the phone and called in his latest sighting. He had spotted a breeding pair of Indian grey wolves inside the Kalpavalli Community Conservation Area (KCCA).
The KCCA is an area of 9,000 acres restored, protected and conserved as a biodiversity reserve by some of India's most impoverished communities in the state of Andhra Pradesh in Southern India. The conserved land is village common land, which serves as a zone of multiple-uses - it is where people and wildlife co-exist side-by-side. Rural community members access a variety of non-timber forest produce including thatch grass and fodder, while large carnivores like wolves, leopards, hyenas and sloth bears share the same space.
The KCCA is an experiment in regeneration and community-led conservation started over 20 years ago and has today become an example of coexistence. The project started with restoring degraded common lands to improve soil fertility, boost the local watershed and empower rural communities. In the early 1990s, following months of community mobilisation, a plot of hundred acres in the hills surrounding Mustikovilla Village was chosen by the Boya Community for restoration. Within the year, soil salinity reduced and spurred the grasses and shrubs to bounce back. Shepherds from the neighbouring village of Shapuram trespassed onto this slow-flourishing piece of land. They grazed their sheep and goats and cut a few saplings much to the annoyance of the people from Mustikovilla. A minor altercation ensued and the erring shepherds were fined a few hundred rupees.
This incident led to the people of Shapuram to approach the Timbaktu Collective to initiate their own restoration efforts on the common lands of their village. Over the years, this concept has spread to other villages and today over 2,000 members from 10 villages have pooled together resources to protect common lands in their villages. Collectively, they protect the resources of 9,000 acres of land.
For the first decade, the project focussed on improving the watersheds within the conservation area - slowing down rainwater, reducing erosion, and planting native shrubs, grasses and trees - which were critical to restoring riparian habitat. This process was spearheaded by the time volunteered by community members and in addition small grants were raised to offer basic support. Another important component was educating the youth and children on the importance of protecting the upstream watershed.
Over the past five years, we at Timbaktu Collective have noticed the increase in the diversity and abundance of wildlife in these areas. This has encouraged us to engage the service of a full-time wildlife conservation team. Our conservation approach blends wildlife conservation with the idea of improving people's access to water, fodder and other non-timber forest produce.
Our approach, which has been to catalyse nature conservation and give importance to wildlife within the framework of a "development" organisation, is still uncommon in India. Although the majority of India's wildlife is outside traditional protected areas like National Parks and Wildlife Sanctuaries most existing approaches to conservation are still based on these models of "Fortress Conservation". This dominant approach creates government-owned inviolate spaces which excludes local communities and where management decisions are taken unilaterally by centralised agencies. In contrast, the model of conservation at the Timbaktu Collective is a bottom-up approach. For example, the conservation area doesn't have a physical fence but instead works on social fencing which is founded on communication, trust and strong social interconnections at the village level. Regular community mobilisation takes place alongside training programmes and focused conservation education.
Our model is also one of the few, which focuses on protecting savannah ecosystems which are accorded little legal protection thereby leaving them out of mainstream conservation. Grasslands in India continue to be treated and termed as "wastelands" to be exploited for industrial purposes. This leaves the communities and wildlife which depend on these grasslands vulnerable. For example, the Indian grey wolf, a keystone species of the grassland is fast losing habitat and a prey base.
Our region the Anantapur District has one of the highest densities of sheep and goat in the country, all of whom depend on healthy savannahs. The shepherds are mostly nomadic and thereby get ignored by any census methods so although they are contributors to the region's economy this is not reflected on the balance sheet. In addition, they remain largely a nameless people who do not constitute a captive vote bank.
We argue that it is equally important for both wildlife conservationist and traditional "Social Development" organisations to look for collaborative opportunities, which focus on people's rights and empowerment as well as the wellbeing of the wildlife and environment.
Unfortunately, most conservation organisations have struggled to find the trust and rapport with local communities as they are seen as prioritising wildlife over people. In addition, a majority of conservation groups in India focus far too much on data collection and research and less on community building and empowerment, which are the real drivers of conservation.
The distinction between research and conservation should be clearer so that we're able to prioritise the limited conservation funding and capacity in the right channels. The important role of science and research in wildlife conservation cannot be denied but the tendency to confuse these investigations with actual conservation action is all too often in countries like India. The other aspect of this argument is the underrepresentation and regard for traditional wisdom and traditional ecological knowledge in the conservation sphere. Ignoring this has dual impacts - first, it loses a valuable management tool and secondly, it continues to alienate communities, who have lived on these lands for generations.
Our driving line at the Timbatku Collective is "Life We Celebrate You". Now, we have extended this to different forms of life such as that of the breeding wolves. Our work at Timbaktu Collective has taken on a new dimension. It is our plea to other social workers and conservationists alike to take the steps to collaborate and find new opportunities to regenerate fractured communities and wild spaces.
Siddharth Rao is a conservation biologist and the Director for Ecology at the Timbaktu Collective (www.timbaktu.org). His work focuses on environmental justice, large carnivore biology, community based conservation and conservation outreach and education. He also co-leads the Adavi Trust, (www.adavi.org).
The 2017 Lush Spring Prize for regeneration was co-ordinated by Ethical Consumer (www.ethicalconsumer.org). For more on the launch of the prize which will become an annual event see here: http://bit.ly/2hXlLTa
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