The University of Arizona

From policing to 'social fencing': shifting moral economies of biodiversity conservation in a South Indian Tiger Reserve

Tapoja Chaudhuri


In recent years, scholarly and civil society debates regarding tiger conservation in India have been sharply divided both in favor and against the efficacy of 'fortress' models of conservation that discourage subsistence-level access to resources by the local poor. Such debates have been further intensified since 2005 due to a drastic drop in the wild tiger population – presumably due to illegal poaching – and the passing of a Forest Rights Act that grants forest lands ownership rights to traditional forest-dependent communities. This article analyzes local community-forest collaboration in the Periyar Tiger Reserve in Kerala in Southern India. Periyar Tiger Reserve has been the only 'success story' out of the seven national parks where the India Eco-Development Project was implemented in 1997. The IEDP was funded by the World Bank, the Global Environmental Facility, and the Government of India to solicit the support of forest-adjacent communities in protecting wildlife habitats by offering them market-based livelihood opportunities. Information comes from ethnographic research conducted ten years after the Eco-Development Project was first implemented, and studies of the evolving nature of state-community relationships under the umbrella of a newly formed 'Government Organized Non-Governmental Organization' or GONGO. Theoretically, the article focuses the role of emotions and identity politics in shaping the worldviews of the participating community members, and not on the economic incentives of stakeholders. In doing so, I propose a more nuanced analysis of community-state relationships than is offered by polarized debates amongst conservationists and people's rights advocates in India and elsewhere. I illustrate the sense of ownership and regional pride shared by different social actors, in the context of the continuation of the fortress model of conservation.

Keywords: Biodiversity conservation, fortress conservation, eco-development, social fencing, identity politics, indigenous communities, tiger reserve, Kerala, India.

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