Can Sustainable Livelihoods and Biodiversity Conservation Overlap in India?

Master of Natural Resources students with children from Delhi slums

By: Iris Picat, Jennifer Sevin

Last month, in January, a group of CLiGS graduate students spent ten days in Uttarakhand, India, to conduct a cross-sector assessment of sustainable livelihood programs in the western Terai-Arc Tiger Conservation Landscape, using tiger conservation as a framework for their International Field Experience (IFE) project.

This project was timely for India, as scientists believe that the Terai-Arc Tiger Conservation Landscape, the study area in question, can maintain more tigers than are currently estimated to be present. However, the already fragmented habitat and degraded environments continue to be plagued by a number of challenges, including development, which is a priority for the  new Prime Minister.

There is no doubt development is needed in India; and while it always seems to be at odds with conservation, it does not have to be. At the same time, it is obvious that win-win situations are not always possible and inevitably trade-offs need to be made. So the question becomes: how can different sectors work together to make informed decisions that achieve both short and long-term goals?

Master of Natural Resources students in India for their International Field Experience (IFE).The project was conducted in collaboration with the Global Tiger Forum (GTF), a secretariat based in India and composed of members from countries with tiger populations, which focuses on implementing practices to address tiger conservation. As part of the Global Tiger Initiative of 2012, the 13 tiger range countries pledged to double the tiger population by 2022. Presently, about half of the world’s tiger population resides in India. This biodiverse-rich and human-dominated landscape provided an excellent opportunity to explore the topic of sustainable livelihoods in the face of large-scale poverty (20-50% of the population is estimated to live under the poverty line) and natural biodiversity pressures in India.

“For me, the biggest takeaway was the reiteration that everyone’s story is different and each county, city, and/or village has their own unique obstacles to overcome,” says Tiona Johnson, one of the students who embarked on the trip. “Because of the place-based or individualized experience there is no room for judgments or unnecessary comparisons, people are doing the best that they can with what they have.”

Students conducted direct research via observations, interviews and discussions while on the ground, and explored urban and rural poor communities, with the opportunity to engage with local people. In addition to their larger team research question, each student was assigned a controversial topic related to the tiger landscape with broader implications. They wrote a position on the topic prior to their trip, then investigated these topics further and led discussions on them while on the ground in India.

Master of Natural Resources students visiting Van Gujar tribe near Rajaji National Park in India.The international visit gave the students the ability to understand the issues more deeply by experiencing them first hand; it allowed them the opportunity to question their own perceptions and biases; and it forced them to realize that addressing natural resource issues is complex and multidisciplinary. In turn, it helped them investigate the challenges and opportunities in bridging multiple sustainable development components into one common agenda.

“A lack of resources paired with the absence of education is an issue that the global community needs to relentlessly address. While India, its tiger reserves, and its people may be thousands of miles from our own homes, we are all still interconnected, and therefore we, as global citizens, have a responsibility to acknowledge the ills of today’s world and improve upon them for the sake of tomorrow,” concludes Tiona.

The students are in the process of writing a report that will synthesize the information they gathered. The report will focus on the threats, challenges, accomplishments, gaps and opportunities they see on sustainable livelihoods in the Corbett-Rajaji landscape. It will hopefully bring attention to the important intersections of development and conservation and be useful by GTF and other stakeholders in achieving their goals. For a more in-depth view of what students accomplished and the recommendations that stemmed from this trip, please keep an eye out for the report coming soon.