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Conservation through private initiative: A case study in the Western Ghats, India

CEESP News - by Venkat Ramakrishnan, CEESP member

This is the story of indigenous people living in or near one of the Western Ghats’ forests, and their right to continue living there with a sense of dignity and purpose.

Bamboo Products by Indigenous Women

Photo: Dr. Manju Vasudevan of River Resource Center

Conservation Through Private Initiative: A Case Study in the Western Ghats, India

Photo: Dr. Manju Vasudevan

Western Ghats is a biodiversity site in India, home to 5000 flowering plants, 139 mammals, 508 birds, 179 amphibian species, and 325 globally threatened species. It is under distress due to agriculture and human population growth. Venkat Ramakrishnan shares a case study of private enterprise protecting biodiversity in the Western Ghats. The range covers  60,000km 2  and forms the catchment area for complex river systems that drain almost 40% of that of India. The Western Ghats is a  UNESCO  World Heritage Site.

Environmental Degradation in the Western Ghats The Western Ghats were once covered in dense forests. Today, a large part of the range has converted into agricultural land for tea, coffee, rubber, and oil palm, or cleared for livestock grazing, reservoirs, and roads. The growth of human populations around protected areas and other forests has also led to habitat destruction, increased fragmentation, wildlife poaching and human-wildlife conflict. Shares  Dr. Manju Vasudevan , who leads the Livelihoods Program of River Research Center   ( RRC ) in Thrissur, Kerala: “In the Kadar village of Vazhachal in southern Indian state of Kerala, the context for our work was set by the 12-years long crusade against the proposed  Athirappily Hydroelectric Dam . The Western Ghats Ecology Expert Panel ( WGEEP ), headed by  Prof. Madhav Gadgil,  conducted extensive and transparent consultations with all stakeholders, and concluded that the dam would completely alter the river’s ecology and would seriously affect the livelihoods of the Kadars, even those whose settlements didn’t fall within the submergence areas.

Stone turtles

Background and Livelihood Of The People

In May 2014, Kadars living in this region were recognized as a “Particularly Vulnerable Tribal Group”. The  gram sabhas  (village councils) received Community Forest Rights  titles over 40,000 hectares. Despite this, public hearings were never conducted to get the views of Kadars about the Athirappilly dam project. Kadar chieftan Geetha then wrote an open letter to the State explaining how the dam project  “ will destroy 28.5 hectares of riparian forests that sustain our way of life. ”  Kadars are one of the oldest indigenous populations in the Western Ghats. They are mainly hunter-gatherers; 89% of them live in the forest.

Case study of private enterprise protecting biodiversity in the Western Ghats

Strategy To Empower The People

The Livelihoods team at River Research Centre embarked on a project to involve indigenous women’s groups to form forest-based enterprises, and develop food and lifestyle products. This enables creative and dignified sources of income, so that they are not forced to move to towns to seek menial jobs. This ensures forest conservation, as they continue to engage with the forest and its resources. A Project In Action

The project works with four women’s groups in Vazhachal, Malayattur and Chalakudy Forest Divisions for income generation activities. In less than 3 years, skill development has enhanced local economy. Alongside, it has addressed deeper issues of gender and equality, enabling confidence-building and decision-making. A few women in Vazhachal and Pokalapara are employed by Vana Samrakshana Samiti jobs. The  Karikkadav Collective  women on the banks of Karuvannur river are engaged in beeswax and wild food processing,  Anapandam  women in seed jewellery-making and harvesting  Asparagus racemosus, Cycas circinalis , Wild Grape ( Ampelocissus  sp.),   Adichilthotti  women in the Edamalayar valley in traditional bamboo weaving and contemporary design craft. Marketing efforts for selling these products are done by the RRC team.

The indigenous people preserve the knowledge of the forest and keep an eye on its status. They become the true stewards of conservation. Enabling them through environment-friendly employment protects their well-being as well as the biodiversity! 

About the author :

Conservation Through Private Initiative: A Case Study
 of the Western Ghats, India

Venkat can be reached here .

Case study photographs by Dr. Manju Vasudevan of River Research Centre, Thrissur, Kerala, India

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Current World Environment

An international research journal of environmental science.

ISSN:0973-4929, Online ISSN:2320-8031

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Natural Resource Management in Eastern Himalaya: A case study of fringe Villages of Shergaon Forest Division, Arunachal Pradesh

Govinda Pangging 1 * , Madhubala Sharma 1 , Chaman Lal Sharma 1 and Aribam Sandeep Sharma 1

Corresponding author Email: [email protected]

DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.12944/CWE.11.3.15

The natural resource management (NRM) practice has been considered as an important aspect of ethnic communities. The present study emphasized on the documentation of NRM practices of the Sherdukpen tribe of Arunachal Pradesh. The study was done in the three fringe villages Membachur, Mukhuthing and Thongre of Shergaon Forest division, West Kameng district of Arunachal Pradesh. The data was collected  from 97 informants through questionnaire. The NRM practices of Sherdukpen tribe consisted of traditional maize cultivation, management of individual forest, community forest, etc. About 90% of the tribe are involved in farming practice. The average agricultural land holding and average individual forest land holding per HH that range from 0.72 ha to 1.2 ha and 0.6 ha to 0.8 ha, respectively.

Copy the following to cite this article:

Pangging G, Sharma M, Sharma C. L, Sharma A. S. Natural Resource Management in eastern Himalaya: A case study of fringe Villages of Shergaon Forest Division, Arunachal Pradesh. Curr World Environ 2016;11(3). DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.12944/CWE.11.3.15

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Pangging G, Sharma M, Sharma C. L, Sharma A. S. Natural Resource Management in eastern Himalaya: A case study of fringe Villages of Shergaon Forest Division, Arunachal Pradesh. Curr World Environ 2016;11(3). Available from: http://www.cwejournal.org/?p=16

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Introduction Natural resource management (NRM) has been considered as one of the important social-cultural practices of the local community since time immemorial. It has been practiced worldwide for meeting the social, cultural and economic needs. The eastern Himalaya is world widely renowned as a biodiversity hotspot. 1  The traditional knowledge system (TKS) of local people is unique and  is used for managing the valuable natural resources. 2,3  However, resource utilization is mostly done at sustenance level. 4,5  Traditional forest management is an important aspect of NRM that has direct or indirect link with other land use systems like farming system, agroforestry, etc., 4  The informal institution, locally known as village council, plays a significant role in the management and resolving inter/intra village conflict in NRM practices. 6,7  The traditional knowledge of ethnic community helps in the utilization & conservation of natural resources. 8 Arunachal Pradesh is one of the 29 states of India, which is an integral part of eastern Himalaya. 9  It has diverse ethnicity, biological diversity, endemism and unique natural resource management practices. The Shedukpen tribe is one of the tribes of Arunachal Pradesh and mainly settled in the West Kameng district of Arunachal Pradesh. 10  The agriculture is the main occupation of Sherdukpen tribe. 11  and they also practice terrace cultivation for agriculture. 12 The main agricultural and horticultural crops raised are tomato, potato and apple. 11  The faunal resources are conserved at the regional level through imposing taboos, totem and establishment of sacred sites. 13,14  The religious practices of the tribe also help in the conservation of biological diversity by utilizing certain plants. 15 The village council of Sherdukpen is called Jung and it play an important role in the management and conservation of natural resources. 10  Hunting has been considered as a traditional practice of Sherdukpen tribe and the village council played an important role in its regulation at village level. 13  The forest has been classified into five types: Blu dongsek (Community forest) , khik donsek (Village forest) , Sangthing dongsek (Individual forest) , Donsek achok (Sacred groves) and Nyor see (Grazing land). 10 The present study aims to document the NRM practices of Sherdukpen tribe of Arunachal Pradesh, which may help in the conservation of biological resources and also assist in finding the gap in the existing NRM practices, which will collectively contribute in the attainment of sustainable development through NRM. 16,17,18 Materials and Methods Three fringe villages of Shergaon Forest Division, Arunachal Pradesh viz. Membachur, Mukhuthing and Thongre have been selected for the study. The study site was located in the West Kameng District of Arunachal Pradesh. It is situated between 91⁰30’ to 92⁰40’ E longitude and 26⁰56’ to 28⁰01’ N latitude. The land use pattern of the West Kamang district consisted of cultivable land, forest land, pastoral land, etc. (Table 1). The household survey was done with standardized questionnaire through random sampling and 97 households were interviewed. The information related to social aspects, economical aspect and ecological aspect were collected from the respondents based on age groups, educational status, gender, village head (Gaon Bura), etc. The data was collected for a period of 4 months i.e., December, 2011 to April, 2012. Table 1: Land use pattern of West Kameng district.

Source: Directorate of Economics and Statistics, Ministry of agriculture, Govt. of India (2011-2012) Results and Discussion Socioeconomic Condition Sherdukpen tribe is found to be the dominant tribe among the selected villages viz., Membachur, Mukhuthing and Thongri. About 90% of the respondent follows the Buddhism religion. The prevalent family type found is joint family that ranges from 78% to 86%. The highest number of family members per household is found in Membachur village, which is 6 (six), followed by Thongri (5) and Mukhuthing (5). The highest literacy rate is found in Thongri village, which is 61%, followed by Membachur (40%) and Mukhuthing (35%). In all the selected villages, traditional village council and Panchayati raj institution are co-existing and plays an important role in the management of natural resources (Table 2). Table 2: Socio-cultural status of Shedukpen tribes of fringe villages of Shergaon Forest division.

The average annual income of the household of the selected fringe villages varies from Rs. 47,000 to Rs. 1,35,000. Farming is the main occupation of the tribe and ranges from 90% to 95%. However, merely 5% to 15% of the populations are under government job (Table 3). Table 3: Economic aspect of the Shedukpen tribe.

The highest average agricultural land holding per household (HH) is found in Thongri village, which is about 1.2 ha, followed by Membachur village (0.8 ha) and Mukhuthing village (0.72 ha). The highest average forest land holding per HH is found in both Mukhuthing village and Membachur village which is about 0.8 ha (Table 4). Table 4: Landholding of the villages.

Documentation of Natural Resource Management of Sherdukpen tribe The NRM practices of the Sherdupen tribe consists of traditional maize cultivation, community forest, individual forest management, etc. (Table 5). Table 5: Documentation of traditional natural resource management practices of Sherdukpens tribe.

In the present study, agriculture is reported as a the main occupation of Sherdukpen tribe, which is similar to the findings of Shimrah et al. 11  The leaves of Quercus sp. is traditionally utilized for Zea mays cultivation, which help in replenishing the nutrient loss, mulching, etc., and similar finding was reported by Dollo et al., 10  Forest played an important role in meeting the needs of social, cultural and religious aspect of Sherdukpen tribe. It has been classified based on ownership, such as (i) community forest and (ii) individual forest. The community forest (CF) is further classified into two sub-types based on the function such as (i) CF (exclusively for religious purposes) and (ii) CF (meeting the requirement of the local people). However, five types of forest have been reported based on land use viz., community forest, village forest, individual forest, sacred groves and community grazing land by Dollo et al., 10  Hunting has been reported to be traditional practices of Sherdukpen, which is similar to the finding of Mazumdar et al., 13  The village council is a traditional institution, which played an important role in the management and conservation of forest resources, which is similar to findings of Mazumdar et al., 13 The NRM practices of the Sherdukpen tribes are diverse and this practice not only helps in meeting the basic needs of the community but also helps in the protection of biological diversity. At present, the traditional land use systems are under constant anthropogenic pressure due to change in land use pattern. In Arunachal Pradesh, the area of maize cultivation has been declining gradually from 15.1% (1990-91) to 12.07% (2013-14). 18  A similar trend has been found in the studied fringe villages of the Shergaon Forest Division. Although, the traditional maize cultivation provides various goods and environmental services viz. staple food, supplements the fodder requirement during the winter, soil and water conservation, conservation of Quercus sp ., etc. This form of farming need to be preserved and restored as it fulfills all the aspects of sustainable development principle. At present, the area under horticultural crop in Arunachal Pradesh has tremendously increased from 7.4% (1990-91) to 22.86% (2013-14). 18  Both cash cropping and horticultural crop are also exerting pressure on the Community forest land, which are gradually converted due to better economic return and scarcity of land resource. Moreover, the use of inorganic chemical inputs in these land use systems is a matter of concern, which needs to be replaced with organic farming and complimentary land use systems. Conclusion The NRM practices of Sherdukpen tribe consist of traditional maize cultivation, cash cropping, horticultural crop, individual forest and community forest management. These natural resource management practices meet all the needs of the community viz., social, cultural and economic needs. However, change in forest and traditional agricultural land use system to cash cropping and horticulture may affect the traditional NRM practices of Sherdukpen tribe in the long run and is a matter of concern from the conservation of biological diversity point of view. At the transaction stage of state development, the interlinking of sectoral policies should be emphasized and there should be a synergy between development activities and conservation of biological diversity at all levels. Acknowledgement The authors are grateful to the villagers of Membachur, Thongri and Mukhuthing village of Rupa, West Kameng district and DFO, Shergaon Forest Division, Arunachal Pradesh for extending their cooperation. References  

  • Myers, N., Mittermeier, R. A., Mittermeier, C. G., Da Fonseca, G.A.B. and Kent, J. Biodiversity hotspots for conservation priorities. Nature , 403(24) : 853-858 (2002)
  • Farooquee, N. A., Dollo, M. and Kala, C.P. Traditional Wisdom of Apatani Community in the management and sharing of natural resources in North Eastern India. In Misra, K K. (ed.), Traditional Knowledge in Contemporary Societies: Challenges and Opportunities. Pratibha Prakashan , Shakti Nagar, Delhi, India, 110-126 (2007)
  • Dollo, M., Chaudhury, S. and Sundriyal, R.C. Traditional farming and land tenure systems in West Kameng district, Arunachal Pradesh. In Ramakrishnan, P.S.,  Sexena, K.G. and Rao, K.S. (eds.), Shifting agriculture and sustainable development of North-Eastern India. UNESCO-MAB series , Oxford & IBH, New Delhi, India, 293-315 (2006)
  • Pangging, G., Arunachalam, A., Mawphlang, I.S.L. and Biswas, S. Traditional management practices of natural resources of forest dependent communities in Arunachal Pradesh- A case study of fringe villages in Banderdewa forest range. Indian Journal of Traditional Knowledge , 10 (2) : 269-275 (2011)
  • Ramakrishnan, P.S., Purohit, A.N., Saxena, K.G. and Rao, K.S. Himalayan Environment and Sustainable Development. Indian National Science Academy , New Delhi, 84 (1994)
  • Chatterjee, S., Saikia, A., Dutta, P., Ghosh, D., Pangging, G. and Goswami, A.K.  Background paper on “Biodiversity Significance of North East India. WWF-India , New Delhi, 29 (2006)
  • Hedge, S. N. Arunachal Pradesh state Biodiversity Strategy & Action Plan (Final Report ). State Forest Research Institute , Arunachal Pradesh, Itanagar (2002)
  • Medhi, R.P. & Chakrabarti, S. Traditional Knowledge of NE people on conservation of wild orchids. Indian Journal of Traditional Knowledge . 8(1): 11-16 (2009)
  • Rodgers, W. A. and Panwar, H.S. Planning a wildlife protected area network in India. WII , Dehradun (I), 339 (1998)
  • Dollo, M., Samal, P.K., and Megejee, D. Biodiversity linked value system of the Monpas and Sherdukpens of Arunachal Pradesh. In Ramakrishnan, P.S., Saxena, K.G., Rao, K.S. and Sharma, G (eds.), Cultural Landscape The basis for linking biodiversity conservation with the sustainable development, UNESCO , NIE , New Delhi 59-82 (2012)
  • Shimrah, T., Bharali, S., Rao, K.S., and Saxena, K.G. Cultural Landscape: The basis for linking biodiversity conservation with the sustainable development in West Kameng, Arunachal Pradesh. In Ramakrishnan, P.S., Saxena, K.G., Rao, K.S. and Sharma, G (eds.), Cultural Landscape The basis for linking biodiversity conservation with the sustainable development, UNESCO , NIE , New Delhi 105-147 (2012)
  • Choudhury, M. Land and Forest in the Eastern Himalayas: A critique on Agriculture and Agroforestry in Arunachal Pradesh. Dialogue . 10(4) (2009)
  • Mazumdar, K., and Samal, P.K. Conservation, Management and Hunting of Faunal Resources among Monpas and Sherdukpens in Arunachal Pradesh, Eastern Himalaya. In Ramakrishnan, P.S., Saxena, K.G., Rao, K.S. and Sharma, G (eds.), Cultural Landscape The basis for linking biodiversity conservation with the sustainable development, UNESCO , NIE , New Delhi 92-103 (2012)
  • Bharali, S and Khan, M.L. Religious taboo among the tribes of West Kameng – an excellent traditional system of conserving biodiversity. Current Science . 103(8) (2012).
  • Samal, P.K., Mazumdar, K., Megejee, D., and Dollo, M.  Culture linked biodiversity conservation values of Monpas and Sherdukpens of Arunachal Pradesh. In Ramakrishnan, P.S., Saxena, K.G., Rao, K.S. and Sharma, G (eds.), Cultural Landscape The basis for linking biodiversity conservation with the sustainable development, UNESCO , NIE , New Delhi 92-103 (2012)
  • Convention on Biological diversity. Rio de Janeiro (Brasil), 5 th June 1992.
  • Kunte, K., Joglekar, A., Utkarsh, G., and Padmanabhan, P. Patterns of butterfly, bird and tree diversity in the Western Ghats. Current Science 77: 577-586 (1999).
  • Lama, M. Crop diversification and farm income in the hills of North East India: A Case study of Arunachal Pradesh. International Journal of Food, Agriculture and Vetenenary Sciences , 6 (2) 15-21 (2016).

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  • Published: 06 February 2023

Prioritizing India’s landscapes for biodiversity, ecosystem services and human well-being

  • Arjun Srivathsa   ORCID: orcid.org/0000-0003-2935-3857 1 , 2   na1 ,
  • Divya Vasudev 3   na1 ,
  • Tanaya Nair   ORCID: orcid.org/0000-0003-2622-8612 1 , 4   na1 ,
  • Stotra Chakrabarti 5 ,
  • Pranav Chanchani 6 ,
  • Ruth DeFries   ORCID: orcid.org/0000-0002-3332-4621 7 ,
  • Arpit Deomurari   ORCID: orcid.org/0000-0001-5267-9789 6 , 8 ,
  • Sutirtha Dutta 9 ,
  • Dipankar Ghose 6 ,
  • Varun R. Goswami 3 ,
  • Rajat Nayak 10 ,
  • Amrita Neelakantan 11 ,
  • Prachi Thatte 6 ,
  • Srinivas Vaidyanathan   ORCID: orcid.org/0000-0003-3642-0309 10 ,
  • Madhu Verma   ORCID: orcid.org/0000-0002-7982-9182 12 ,
  • Jagdish Krishnaswamy   ORCID: orcid.org/0000-0001-7985-0005 13 , 14 , 15   na1 ,
  • Mahesh Sankaran   ORCID: orcid.org/0000-0002-1661-6542 1 , 15 &
  • Uma Ramakrishnan   ORCID: orcid.org/0000-0002-5370-5966 1 , 15   na1  

Nature Sustainability volume  6 ,  pages 568–577 ( 2023 ) Cite this article

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An Author Correction to this article was published on 20 February 2023

This article has been updated

Biodiversity conservation and human well-being are tightly interlinked. Yet, mismatches in the scale at which these two priority issues are planned and implemented have exacerbated biodiversity loss, erosion of ecosystem services and declining human quality of life. India houses the second largest human population on the planet, while < 5% of the country’s land area is effectively protected for conservation. This warrants landscape-level conservation planning through a judicious mix of land-sharing and land-sparing approaches combined with the co-production of ecosystem services. Through a multifaceted assessment, we prioritize spatial extents of land parcels that, in the face of anthropogenic threats, can safeguard conservation landscapes across India’s biogeographic zones. We found that only a fraction (~15%) of the priority areas identified here are encompassed under India’s extant Protected Area network, and furthermore, that several landscapes of high importance were omitted from all previous global-scale assessments. We then examined the spatial congruence of priority areas with administrative units earmarked for economic development by the Indian government and propose management zoning through state-driven and participatory approaches. Our spatially explicit insights can help meet the twin goals of biodiversity conservation and sustainable development in India and other countries across the Global South.

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The concomitant impacts of biodiversity decline, climate change, unsustainable land use and inequitable extraction of natural resources have degraded the quality of human life 1 , 2 , 3 . Biodiversity underpins several provisioning, regulatory and cultural or aesthetic ecosystem services. Ecosystem services linked to biodiversity, in turn, are crucial for ensuring long-term human well-being 4 . Recent discourse on nature-based solutions acknowledges nature’s contribution as humanity’s ‘safety net’ 5 , 6 and that ecological processes are shaped by a complex interplay between ecological and social systems 7 , 8 . A sustainable future can only be ensured by adopting an ecosystem approach to conservation that emphasizes the links between human and natural systems to address global-, regional- and biome-scale threats to their functioning 9 . Siloed management approaches to meet conservation targets that ignore this interplay have failed to yield equitable and sustainable progress 10 , 11 . A renewed global resolve will need to consider nature in the Anthropocene and explicitly reconcile land-use planning for economic development with ecosystem functioning, biodiversity conservation and long-term human well-being.

For nearly two decades, several priority-setting tools have been proposed the world over to identify and rank species, habitats and locations based on their relative importance, vulnerability or ease of management intervention 12 . These approaches generally adopt systematic spatial conservation planning—a set of decision-making tools that help determine the spatial locations where resources and actions need to be directed to optimize conservation gains 13 , 14 . Earlier iterations of these tools largely involved identifying locations to demarcate Protected Areas (PAs), determine optimal reserve design or propose conservation corridors 15 . However, human interests such as economic aspirations, infrastructure development and agricultural expansion to ensure food security must be integrated with conservation goals to enhance traction with policymakers 16 . This necessitates the adoption of ‘landscape approaches’ to conservation 17 so as to offer pragmatic solutions in the Anthropocene. Such considerations led to the idea of ‘zoning’ landscapes, whereby assessors not only identify priority locations, but also stratify them into various zones and determine appropriate management interventions 18 , 19 . This combination of prioritization and zoning therefore holds promise to guide a better management of landscapes in an increasingly human-modified world.

Since its conception, the idea of prioritizing areas for conservation at the global level has seen wide application in scientific studies. While these investigations can offer important insights at the macroscale, their real-world applications have been limited 20 . One reason for this is perhaps the lack of alignment between scientific ‘boundaries’ (sampling units) and administrative jurisdictions; yet, it is within these jurisdictions that implementation typically occurs 4 . Aligning ecological findings with administrative boundaries, or existing policy, may thus increase the utility of prioritization exercises. A second reason may be that making assessments at global scales potentially compromises the spatial resolution of analyses, hampered by the lack of availability and comparability of data at scale, or miss out on local socio-political nuances 21 , 22 . Finally, macro-scale analyses could entail intrinsic biases in the representation of key features or attributes. For example, certain historically overlooked biomes may continue to remain ignored 23 , habitats presumed to be ‘unproductive’ may not be prioritized (for example, grasslands 24 ), indices such as species richness, which ignore community composition, may discount rarity or endemism 25 , PAs or ‘intact’ wilderness areas may take precedence over heterogeneous multi-use conservation landscapes 26 , 27 and important dimensions, such as human populations, may be excluded altogether 28 .

Achieving conservation goals, sustaining ecosystem services and ensuring human well-being while balancing economic development present formidable challenges in implementation 3 . India exemplifies this premise for the following reasons: (1) it is a large, diverse country with ten distinct biogeographic zones and four biodiversity hotspots, (2) its PA network, conservation landscapes and riverscapes support several ecologically important and evolutionarily distinct species assemblages, (3) it has the second largest human population in the world, with a large proportion of the people directly dependent on resources drawn from natural ecosystems and (4) with rapid infrastructure development and liberal investment policies, India is currently among the fastest-growing economies in Asia. In this study we (1) identified spatial scale(s), resolutions and thematic dimensions for a priority-setting exercise across the country (Fig. 1 ), (2) used a systematic spatial prioritization approach to optimize landscapes for habitat protection, biodiversity conservation and ecosystem service gains while penalizing locations facing negative anthropogenic impacts, and (3) aligned our results with global biodiversity targets (Post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework 29 , COP15) and the Indian government’s development initiative to identify ‘aspirational’ economic districts. We provide insights that can guide future environmental planning and policy to help meet the twin goals of biodiversity conservation and sustainable development in a strategically important country for Asia. More broadly, our framework can be adapted and applied to conservation planning in ecoregions of other developing countries.

figure 1

Themes and input layers identified for spatial prioritization: (1) Habitats (28 vegetation classes depicted as five composite panels), (2) Ecosystem services (blue water flux, above- and below-ground carbon and green water flux), (3) Biodiversity (PAs, key biodiversity areas and beta-diversity index of threatened mammals, birds, reptiles and amphibians) and (4) Threats (human population density, livestock population density, urbanization, linear infrastructure, mines, river fragmentation, agricultural expansion, vegetation greening, vegetation browning, future climate warming and future rainfall anomaly).

Overlap in priority sites across themes

Priority maps generated independently for the three themes of Habitats, Ecosystem Services and Biodiversity (Fig. 2a ) represented sites of high value in isolation, that is, sites that are (1) representative of important and rare natural habitats, (2) responsible for the provision of key ecosystem services, namely, water and carbon, and (3) important solely from the perspective of threatened species diversity and turnover. We found moderate overlap between these three layers, which varied across biogeographic zones (hereafter, ‘zones’; Fig. 2 ). The overlap of priority sites for biodiversity (defined as the top 30% rankings) and habitats was 37% across the country, ranging from 30% in deserts to 48% in the Western Ghats (Supplementary Fig. 1 ). There was a substantial increase in overlap sites when ecosystem services were included as a criterion in addition to biodiversity and habitats. Around 38% of priority sites for ecosystem services were not covered by either biodiversity or habitat priority sites; these locations collectively contain a population of 2.3 million people (based on spatial overlap alone) who are directly dependent on these watersheds (Supplementary Fig. 1 ).

figure 2

a , Priority maps based on Habitats (top left), Ecosystem Services (centre left), Biodiversity (bottom left) and the composite analysis of the three themes (right). b , Theme-specific results from the prioritization analysis of Threats.

Conservationists often highlight the mismatches in priority sites when different criteria are used to assign a ‘conservation value’ 30 , 31 . Our findings support this concern (Fig. 2 ) and point to the value of incorporating multiple contributors to conservation value. Of significance, our multicriterion approach selected for India’s Open Natural Ecosystems 32 (prioritized on the basis of habitats, but not biodiversity), encompassing open grasslands, savannas, hot and cold deserts, ravines, rocky boulders and escarpments. These systems are extremely fragile, with unique endemic flora and fauna, but are inappropriately classified as ‘wastelands’ as per India’s land-use and conservation policy 33 . Similarly, areas ranked high for habitat and biodiversity, but low in terms of ecosystem services represent some locations in the arid/semi-arid dry zones of western India, the cold deserts of the Trans-Himalayas and parts of the Terai grasslands along the India/Nepal border (Fig. 2a ). Conversely, areas ranked high for ecosystem services, critical for water and carbon storage, did not rank high for biodiversity or habitats in some places (for example, parts of Northeast India). This, perhaps, is due to the low coverage of traditional PAs or insufficient data on biodiversity in the region.

Appraisal of anthropogenic pressures

Reconciling biodiversity conservation concerns with the demands of economic development is one of the greatest challenges of the twenty-first century. We explicitly incorporated Threats (Fig. 2b ) as a factor that makes conservation more costly and also such that the final priority ranks represent such a reconciliation (Fig. 3 ). Across zones, we observed as a consistent pattern the compounding effects of agricultural expansion and urbanization, coupled with vegetation greening (indicative of increased year-round irrigation in agriculture areas) and linear infrastructure (Fig. 2b ). Thus, urban hotspots, representing major cities and the agricultural belts of (1) the northern semi-arid zone, (2) the lowland plains of Northeast India and (3) the western and southern parts of the Deccan peninsula were ranked the highest in terms of anthropogenic pressures (Fig. 2b and Supplementary Fig. 1 ). Of these, the northern semi-arid zone and the western parts of the Deccan peninsula also had pronounced signatures of vegetation browning and greening, respectively. Vegetation browning could arise from forest degradation, deforestation or forest fires, but it could also be due to natural shifts in woody vegetation to grass-dominated systems or the loss of green foliar biomass due to climate change impacts. Vegetation greening could be due to ecological restoration or natural regeneration of native species, but the more ubiquitous source is CO 2 fertilization and the proliferation of invasive alien species (for example, Prosopis and Lantana 34 , 35 , 36 ).

figure 3

a , Conservation priority ranks for India, computed zone-wise and combined. b , Top 30% priority areas in each zone demarcated as a set of three 10% blocks. Designated PAs are overlaid to show the extent of overlap and spatial congruence with high priority locations.

Our results pertaining to threats, when viewed in the context of projected human population growth and the demands of meeting future food security concerns, are representative of areas that either have or will soon surpass thresholds beyond which interventions for sustainable land-use practices may not be feasible 37 . However, our analyses could not fully elicit the broader deleterious impacts of certain human activities. These include threats that are (1) rapidly evolving in terms of scale, extent and impacts, for example, hydropower dams and road networks 38 , 39 , (2) peculiar to certain regions of the country (for example, the expansion of oil palm plantations 40 ) or (3) difficult to quantify in terms of their long-term consequences (for example, loss of connectivity 41 ). While we did incorporate projected temperature increases and future rainfall anomalies to account for climate change impacts, zones that are likely to be the most vulnerable to these threats, that is, coastal areas and island systems, were not part of our assessment. Nevertheless, climate change is still projected to impact various ecosystems considered in our analysis in significant ways. For example, predicted increases in the magnitude and frequency of major floods can shape the distribution of biodiversity on the floodplains of Northeast India 42 . Such influences underscore the importance of spatial conservation planning based on prioritization efforts of the kind we undertook in this study. We also note that climatic influences on terrestrial systems are extremely dynamic and are pivotally linked to future national and global policy changes.

Landscape-level approach to conservation

Recent conservation literature has highlighted the importance of viewing shared habitats as coupled human–natural systems that are encompassed within ‘conservation landscapes’ 41 , 43 . Across zones, we found that most designated PAs, which constitute ~5% of India’s land area and span an average area of ~300 km 2 (ref. 44 ), were included as priority sites. But these were embedded within larger landscapes that also included high priority non-PA locations. Contrary to our expectation that PAs would be over-represented in our results, 85% of the top 30% priority sites were outside PAs (Fig. 3 ). This finding was reinforced by the specific inclusion of ecosystems (such as the Open Natural Ecosystems referred to above) that are not part of India’s PA network and sites critical for the supply of ecosystem services. Interestingly, locations that constituted the top 30% priority ranks in our study were largely connected (Fig. 3 ), even when we did not explicitly impose connectivity parameters via the prioritization model. To examine this further, we generated the ‘clumpiness’ index, which compares priority adjacencies with what would be expected at random 45 . The index ranges from −1 (disaggregated) to +1 (clumped). When examined at the countrywide level, the index value was 0.80; within-zone analyses produced index values ranging from 0.77 to 0.88, indicating the high aggregation of priority sites at both spatial scales. Although our zone-wise analyses allowed for better geographic representation of sites, they still indicated a lack of contiguity across some zone boundaries (Fig. 3a ). These aspects together emphasize that functional connectivity is an important consideration when implementing landscape-scale conservation interventions within our priority sites 46 .

Traditional PAs, which typify a land-sparing approach to conservation, are mostly focused on forested habitats in the country. A substantially large proportion of biodiversity continues to inhabit unprotected, human-use landscapes, warranting a land-sharing approach. Realizing conservation and human well-being goals in the landscapes that encompass the 30% priority areas will therefore necessitate invoking other effective area-based conservation measures (OECMs). The core tenets of these approaches hinge fundamentally on effective and equitable models of governance that are fully cognizant of the complexities of socio-ecological systems, which are only beginning to be recognized in environmental and conservation policy 47 . In India, this may be achieved through the implementation of existing frameworks, for instance, in locations where communities are granted Community Forest Rights, and by declaring areas as Critical Wildlife Habitats under the Forest Rights Act, provisions that, at present, remain extremely underused. Our spatially explicit landscape approach that considers that linked biodiversity–ecosystem service dimensions can only succeed if the beneficiaries of ecological restoration, and those who may be otherwise impacted (typically the marginalized sections of society), are addressed in policies and implementation.

Synergies and trade-offs within and between themes

In the final prioritization assessment, we assigned equal weighting to all input themes (equal but negative weight for Threats). We ascertained the synergies and trade-offs between themes by examining alternative scenarios in which (1) areas with high human impacts were prioritized rather than penalized, that is, Threats-focused assessment, and (2) Habitats, Ecosystem Services and Biodiversity were each iteratively afforded higher weighting than the others (see the Methods section for details). While there was reasonable concordance between the results from our balanced scenario (themes with equal weights) and those from individual theme-focused scenarios, some locations showed stark mismatches indicative of trade-offs (Supplementary Figs. 3–5 ). These trade-offs may reflect regional peculiarities: biodiversity conservation could constrain provisioning services such as non-timber forest products or livestock grazing in certain locations (such as PAs), and an increase in tree cover through habitat (mis)management could alter hydrological services 48 . Such trade-offs could also be spatially asynchronous: upstream water abstraction from rivers and disruption of sediment transport by dams can have deleterious impacts on aquatic biodiversity and ecosystem services downstream. All these cases collectively highlight the problems of prioritizing areas based on single themes or biasing prioritization on one theme over the other(s). Of course, there is also a trade-off in choosing locations that are of high conservation value and relatively secure (avoiding regions of high Threats) or those that are vulnerable (prioritizing Threats). Ideally, the former are suited to interventions involving preservation (for example, reserve design and OECMs), and the latter, to interventions involving mitigation or restoration (for example, mitigation of linear infrastructure impacts).

Besides the differences between the themes described above, we acknowledge that there could be trade-offs even within the thematic dimensions considered here. For instance, we found very low spatial concordance between carbon and blue water flux, and a marginally higher correlation between carbon and green water flux; the spatial mismatch was more pronounced at locations where values of above- and below-ground carbon reached very high levels (Supplementary Fig. 6 ). This relationship is not unique to our study area, with a previous report indicating that carbon sequestration and hydrological services do not necessarily work in synergy 49 . Regulatory services, such as hydrological or water services, can be generated only for a certain size of catchment, depending on factors such as climate, soil, geology and vegetation type. And while there could be synergy between carbon and water services to people at a local or regional scale 50 , transpiration from a large patch of forest can increase rainfall in other regions and benefit agriculture and communities elsewhere 51 . These considerations of synergies and trade-offs are particularly relevant when viewed in the context of the drastic biodiversity declines documented in the recent Living Planet Report 52 . This report reiterates the important links between biodiversity loss, climate change, ecosystem services (water) and food security—aspects addressed in this study through our multicriteria assessment and by allocating equal importance (weights) to the constituent input attributes.

Linking landscape prioritization and administration

Overlaying administrative (district) boundaries, we highlight 338 districts that play a key role in maintaining India’s biodiversity and ecosystem services (Fig. 4a,b ). Of these, 169 are ‘high priority’ districts, where natural habitats, biodiversity and ecosystem services are currently at optimal levels and span a large spatial extent. The next 169 are ‘potential priority’ districts (Fig. 4b ), where the three aspects are currently at suboptimal levels in terms of the extent of coverage. At this point, our aim was also to link our results with India’s aspirational districts, identified by the Indian government for economic development (that is, the National Institute for Transforming India (NITI) Aayog aspirational districts; see Methods for details).

figure 4

a , Proportions of each district covered by areas identified as the top 30% priority locations. b , Districts in the top quantile (25%) identified as ‘high priority’ districts (169) and the next 25% quantile identified as 169 ‘potential priority’ districts (169). c , NITI Aayog aspirational districts (112) earmarked by the Government of India and their overlap with the 338 priority districts identified in this study (72 districts overlap). The darker lines in b and c denote state boundaries.

Considered in conjunction with our results, we recommend that for locations where the NITI aspirational districts overlap with ‘high priority’ districts (Fig. 4c ), the management focus needs to be on the retention of habitats, ecosystem services and biodiversity through both state-driven and participatory approaches. This will require deprioritizing mega-infrastructure projects while promoting equitable models of nature protection in addition to the demarcation of PAs. Such approaches may entail community stewardship for biodiversity protection, co-management of habitats outside PAs and nature-friendly livelihood development within larger conservation landscapes. In locations where aspirational districts overlap with ‘potential priority’ districts, the management focus, in addition to the retention of important sites, should also aim for proactive rewilding and ecological restoration efforts. Here, targeted actions are essential to mitigate the negative impacts of infrastructure development through economically incentivized instruments, such as paying for ecosystem services, promoting agroforestry and, where appropriate, demarcating conservation and/or community reserves (PA categories that are not exclusionary but mandate sustainable use of resources by local communities). These localized efforts and interventions need to be synergistically integrated into district- and state-level plans to ensure tangible impacts. For further deliberation, we provide maps showing the spatial overlaps between NITI aspirational districts and (1) the top 30% priority areas and (2) threat ranks across the country in Supplementary Fig. 7 .

Practical considerations for on-ground implementation

This study represents a country-level assessment that attempts to link eco-socio-administrative dimensions for landscape-level prioritization in India. We submit, however, that the spatial scale and resolution at which we carried out this assessment were constrained by several limitations associated with data availability that are commonplace across developing countries as well as for global-level datasets alike. Our metric of species diversity, for instance, relied on range maps derived from the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) that do not have uniform accuracy across species 53 . In fact, range maps for many rare, endemic and data-deficient species in India were either unavailable or excluded from our assessment because they were completely inaccurate. We also used only a subset of ecosystem services deemed important for human well-being; services such as pollination, forest produce extraction, rangeland services or freshwater dependence could not be included due to the unavailability of spatially explicit data. Incorporating these features (when such information becomes available) may yield a more accurate and comprehensive assessment of priority locations and landscapes.

The relationship between ecosystem services and poverty alleviation (especially in the aspirational and poorer districts of India, as defined by the NITI Aayog discussed above) is also driven by the political economy of negotiations between stakeholders and those who manage or regulate ecosystem services 54 . A detailed understanding of the associated vulnerabilities is important to enable ecosystem services to benefit the poor. If not internalized, an ecosystem services approach to conservation planning may fail because of resistance from those who are excluded or those who stand to lose most from such undertakings. The actions discussed above will also be critical in other countries of the Global South, where a large proportion of the people are directly dependent on forests and other natural ecosystems for their livelihoods. The nuances and location-based differences in prescriptive actions that we have discussed here reiterate the importance of (1) spatially explicit prioritization assessments incorporating regional expertise on biodiversity and threats, and (2) mainstreaming biodiversity and ecosystem service goals into district and state management plans for socio-economic development. In this context, India’s ambitious endeavours on climate change mitigation through the reversal of land degradation (26 million ha), the Green India Mission 55 and renewable energy projects initiated under the intended Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC) will require a degree of reorientation to include biodiversity and ecosystem service considerations.

The recognition of links between ecosystem integrity and human health has led to broad and ambitious goals under global targets such as the Post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework. However, repercussions of the COVID-19 pandemic have underscored the wide geographical imbalance in the capacities, resources and vulnerabilities of different countries to achieve such goals. The Global South, in particular, aims to conserve biodiversity and meet climate change goals under scenarios in which people have high dependency on natural resources 56 , coupled with aspirations of economic progress and better standards of human life. To address these expectations, national-scale prioritization exercises such as ours, which combine conservation priorities, human well-being indices, economic development and infrastructure considerations, can guide countries and governments towards meeting international targets set for the next decade (for example, see ref. 57 ); linkages between prioritization exercises and existing government schemes and administrative boundaries are crucial in this regard 53 , 58 . In the context of elevated competition for scarce land and water, exacerbated by climate change, the importance of our framework lies in its ability to objectively and effectively address trade-offs at the intersection of sustainable development goals, conservation of biodiversity and ecosystem services.

Framework for prioritization

The main goal of our study was to prioritize representative landscapes for biodiversity conservation, securing ecosystem services and human well-being targets, while balancing these with the economic aspirations of 1.4 billion people. Our prioritization exercise is part of a larger programme aimed at mainstreaming biodiversity conservation into the discourse on development and human well-being—the Government of India’s National Mission for Biodiversity and Human Well-Being (NMBHWB) 59 . Recognizing the importance of delineating, characterizing and evaluating functional landscapes, the NMBHWB set up a working group in 2020 that was tasked with deliberating on and determining landscape-level approaches to biodiversity conservation, keeping nature’s benefits to human well-being as the central theme. Through consultations with 42 experts from across the country, the working group first outlined the need for, salient features of and prerequisites for a priority-setting exercise. Subsequently, the working group engaged with 18 field and domain experts (the authors of the present study) to undertake the prioritization exercise in India.

Prioritization approach

We used a two-step prioritization approach (Fig. 1 ) to ensure representation of geographies and ecoregions across India. We first chose biogeographic zones (‘zones’) as described by Rodgers and Panwar 60 as an appropriate level of primary spatial classification. This level of classification splits the country into zones that have some similarity in biogeography, while across zones, they capture diversity of species, ecosystems and human–nature relationships. The country has ten zones: (1) Trans-Himalayas, (2) Himalayas, (3) deserts, (4) semi-arid, (5) Western Ghats, (6) Deccan plateau, (7) Gangetic plains, (8) Northeast India, (9) coasts and (10) islands. We excluded coasts and islands from our analyses as we deemed them to be unique and requiring a separate treatment of biodiversity, ecosystem services and threats. The eight selected zones are shown in Fig. 1 (additional descriptions are provided in Supplementary Table 1 ). We then identified three broad focus themes, each of which encompassed a set of criteria for prioritization.

We considered natural habitats that require inclusion in priority landscapes. These layers, with zone-specific sets of priority ecosystems, represented our Habitats theme.

Recognizing the increasing emphasis on human–nature links and the joint well-being of biodiversity and people, we considered Ecosystem Services as the second theme.

Species diversity, biodiversity hotspots and locations of species population sources collectively formed the Biodiversity theme.

Lastly, we included a Threats theme to recalibrate conservation priorities based on spatial variation of anthropogenic pressures and impacts on natural ecosystems and biodiverse areas that provision essential ecosystem services. The full list of input layers is presented in Fig. 1 and detailed in Supplementary Table 2 .

Spatial prioritization

There are several approaches to conducting spatial prioritization analyses, depending on the objectives of the study, type(s) of spatial data available and the optimization functions of interest, along with the corresponding software programs, of which MARXAN and Zonation are the most widely used 18 , 61 , 62 , 63 , 64 . Zonation takes information on multiple input features to produce conservation ranks across the entire area of interest. Depending on the metrics used and the analytical specifications, it is possible to use either program to yield comparable results 65 . We found Zonation to be well-suited for our analysis because it allowed us to seamlessly combine feature data (0/1) with quantitative data on ecosystem services across large regions at a relatively fine spatial resolution. The program is also robust to differences in scale (range of values) across different input layers. The program’s algorithm follows an iterative process to rank cells (in our case, 1 km 2 pixels) within the area of interest by excluding cells one at a time and measuring the collective conservation value of retained cells. In other words, cells with the lowest values are removed first and those with the highest values are retained until the end. The final output thus generated is an optimized map whose pixels are ranked according to relative priority values. For additional details, see Moilanen et al. 62 . For each zone, we conducted a set of six prioritization analyses (four theme-wise runs and two composite runs) as explained below.

We used data from Roy et al. 66 with 156 land-cover classes across the country. We first reduced the data into 28 habitat classes by grouping together similar land-cover classes, broadly following the forest-type classification of Champion and Seth 67 . For instance, the land-cover types labelled ‘Grassland’, ‘Human-made grassland’, ‘ Lasiurus–Panicum grassland’, ‘ Cenchrus–Dactyloctenium grassland’, ‘ Aristidia–Oropetium grassland’ and ‘ Sehima – Dichanthium grassland’ were reclassified collectively as ‘Grasslands’. Data from 25 m 2 pixels of the original dataset were resampled at a 1 km 2 resolution; the value assigned to each 1 km 2 pixel for each of the 28 habitat classes reflected the proportion of 25 m 2 pixels of the corresponding class. For each zone, we further subselected habitat classes to retain (1) the dominant vegetation classes (covering > 1% of the total zone area) and (2) select, rare, vulnerable habitats, determined on the basis of our experience and knowledge of the landscape(s). For example, we included wet grasslands in the Northeast India zone due to their importance for ecology and livelihood, even though this habitat class covers only 0.25% of the zone. The final number of habitat types chosen for each zone thus varied between three (deserts zone) and ten (Western Ghats zone; Supplementary Table 2 ). All habitats were assigned equal weights for prioritization. We chose the ‘core-area zonation’ cell removal rule as it prioritizes pixels with the most important yet rare features; this way, pixels that contained high proportions of rare habitats were retained even if the other zone-wide dominant habitats within these pixels were low.

Ecosystem services

We identified and used three layers that collectively reflect key ecosystem services, for which we were able to obtain or generate spatially explicit metrics across the country. These were (1) blue water flux, the amount of flowing water or ground water available to help meet utilitarian needs and for ecological flows in rivers, (2) green water flux, the amount of water lost through surface evapo-transpiration, which contributes to multiple ecosystem services, from flood control in very wet regions to recycling as rainfall in other regions, and (3) carbon stock, a harmonized metric of above- and below-ground biomass carbon density calculated using woody plant, grassland and cropland biomass (Supplementary Table 2 ). While these do not represent a comprehensive set of ecosystem services, we believe that they capture two critical policy mandates for India: water security and climate change mitigation. We assigned equal weights to all three layers and chose the ‘additive benefit function’ (ABF) cell removal rule in Zonation to ensure that locations with relatively high values of all three features are prioritized higher than areas where individual features or subsets of the three features had high values.

India supports an extremely high diversity of wildlife (inside and outside designated PAs); most of these species are found in higher densities here than elsewhere across their range. In considering attributes that best represent biodiversity, our goal was twofold. First, we wanted to include areas that support high populations of species and, second, those areas that support and adequately represent the wide diversity of species outside PAs. We therefore used PAs, reasonably assuming that these locations currently harbour source populations of many species. In addition, we also used Key Biodiversity Areas (KBAs) 68 to include locations outside designated PAs with a high diversity of species that are of ecological or conservation importance (that is, PAs and KBAs did not spatially overlap in our analysis and were 0/1 data). Next, we collated distribution ranges of imperilled mammals, birds, amphibians and reptiles—species categorized as Critically Endangered, Endangered, Vulnerable or Threatened as per the IUCN Red List (IUCN 2020). We limited our criteria to only include species for which the range distribution data were reliable; for a subset of species, we also corrected and modified the IUCN maps (based on expert consultation) before inclusion in our analyses. For each zone, we stacked the species maps and generated a beta-diversity index, calculated as the Bray–Curtis distance between a focal cell and a hypothetical reference cell that had all threatened species of the corresponding zone. This gave us an index of zone-wise species turnover. We assigned equal weights to all three layers (treating PAs and KBAs with high population densities with the same importance as the layer characterizing species turnover) and chose the ABF cell removal rule in Zonation to prioritize areas based on this theme.

We identified 11 attributes that negatively impact biodiversity, ecosystem services and habitats to varying degrees and that are likely to reduce the ease of implementing conservation actions. These were human population density, livestock population density, urbanization, linear infrastructure, mines, river fragmentation, agricultural expansion, vegetation greening and vegetation browning (both of which can have positive or negative impacts on ecosystem services and biodiversity), future climate warming and future rainfall anomaly (see Supplementary Table 2 for details). We assigned zone-specific weights to these layers following a consensus approach based on the collective field knowledge of the assessors. The weights assigned to the threats varied across zones, reflecting the relative severity of impacts in each zone (see Supplementary Table 3 for zone-wise threat ranks). We chose the ABF cell removal rule again so that locations under more severe threat and those under multiple threats were ranked high. This ranking thus combines information on the presence and intensity of threats across space.

In addition to the four sets of theme-wise analyses described above, we also undertook two composite analyses. First, we used the outputs from the theme-wise analyses of Habitats, Ecosystem Services and Biodiversity. All input layers were assigned equal weights and the ABF cell removal rule was specified. Second, we used the aforementioned three layers along with the rank output from the Threats analysis. In this case, we assigned equal positive weights to Habitats, Ecosystem Services and Biodiversity and an equal but negative weight to Threats (that is, 1, 1, 1 and −1; see ref. 69 for the justification of using equal weights for input attributes). The first analysis thus gave us an assessment of conservation importance, while the second incorporated feasibility. To assess the sensitivity of our weighting scheme, we performed similar composite analyses to consider alternate scenarios in which (1) the Threats layer was assigned a weight of +1, such that areas with high human impacts are also prioritized rather than penalized, and (2) the Threats layer was weighted −1, but the Habitats, Ecosystem Services and Biodiversity were each iteratively assigned higher weights than the other two, that is, 1, 0.5 and 0.5. These outputs are presented in Supplementary Figs. 2–5 .

Alignment with global and national policy

We collated results across zones post-prioritization to demarcate the top 30% priority areas in the country so as to align our results with the Post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework targets. The areas were selected on the basis of the pixel ranks in each zone; these covered 30% of the area in every zone and therefore collectively included 30% of the country (excluding the coasts and islands). This approach ensured representation of unique features from each zone, encompassing a more diverse set of habitats, ecosystem services, biodiversity and associated threats. We then overlaid administrative units (districts) and calculated the proportion of each district covered by pixels with the top 30% ranks. We chose two sets of districts: (1) those in the top 25% quantile, which we term ‘high priority’ districts, and (2) those in the subsequent 25% quantile, which we term ‘potential priority’ districts. We juxtaposed these results with districts earmarked by the Government of India’s flagship Aspirational Districts Programme for economic development. India’s Aspirational Districts Programme was launched in 2018 by the Government of India through the think tank, the NITI Aayog. The NITI Aayog replaced the erstwhile Planning Commission with the aim of achieving sustainable development goals for the country. The programme has earmarked over 100 of India’s most economically backward districts as ‘aspirational’ districts to help reduce regional imbalances in development. The programme aims to reduce disparity across regions and improve baseline rankings of district-level development using real-time data on 49 indicators across five thematic sectors, namely health and nutrition, education, infrastructure, financial inclusion and skill development. Of particular relevance to our assessment is the programme’s thrust towards increasing road connectivity and intensification of agriculture 70 (additional details are available at www.niti.gov.in/aspirational-districts-programme ). Our maps were generated with the goal of directly offering prescriptive management actions for the governments of the corresponding administrative units.

Reporting summary

Further information on research design is available in the Nature Research Reporting Summary linked to this article.

Data availability

All the analyses were based on open source datasets; details are provided in Supplementary Table 2 . The input data used in the analyses can be accessed from https://doi.org/10.6084/m9.figshare.21678518 .

Change history

20 february 2023.

A Correction to this paper has been published: https://doi.org/10.1038/s41893-023-01091-y

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This work was catalysed and supported by the Office of the Principal Scientific Adviser to the Government of India as part of the National Mission for Biodiversity and Human Well-Being. A.S. was supported by the Department of Science and Technology–Government of India’s Innovation in Science Pursuit for Inspired Research Faculty Award. M.S. was supported by the Science and Engineering Research Board (SERB), Department of Science and Technology, Government of India (SERB DIA/2018/000038). We are grateful to J. Zacharias, V. Athreya, P. Bindra, A. Harihar, U. Ganguly, A. Kumar, M. Manuel, S. Babu, A. Kshettry, S. Nijhawan, M. Muralidharan, N. Namboothiri, Y. Jhala, K. S. Subin, S. Datta, M. Sen, S. Madhulkar, T. Thekaekara, V. Vasudevan, I. Anwardeen, S. Sahu, S. Reddy, V. Varadhan, K. T. Subramaniam, C. Madegowda, C. Meenakshi, K. Karanth, P. G. Krishnan, T. Dash, A. Chanchani and A. Bijoor for partaking in discussions on landscape-scale conservation in India. We thank K. Bawa and R. Chellam for their guidance, R. G. Rodrigues, A. Samrat and N. Srinivas for assistance with data processing and compilation, and the National Centre for Biological Sciences–TIFR and Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment (part of the Biodiversity Collaborative) for facilitating this study. The authors received no specific funding for this work.

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These authors contributed equally: Arjun Srivathsa, Divya Vasudev, Tanaya Nair, Jagdish Krishnaswamy, Uma Ramakrishnan.

Authors and Affiliations

National Centre for Biological Science, TIFR, Bengaluru, India

Arjun Srivathsa, Tanaya Nair, Mahesh Sankaran & Uma Ramakrishnan

Wildlife Conservation Society-India, Bengaluru, India

Arjun Srivathsa

Conservation Initiatives, Guwahati, India

Divya Vasudev & Varun R. Goswami

Division of Biosciences, University College London, London, UK

Tanaya Nair

Departments of Biology and Environmental Studies, Macalester College, Saint Paul, MN, USA

Stotra Chakrabarti

World Wildlife Fund, Delhi, India

Pranav Chanchani, Arpit Deomurari, Dipankar Ghose & Prachi Thatte

Department of Ecology, Evolution and Environmental Biology, Columbia University, New York, NY, USA

Ruth DeFries

Amity Institute of Forestry and Wildlife, Amity University, Noida, India

Arpit Deomurari

Wildlife Institute of India, Dehradun, India

Sutirtha Dutta

Foundation for Ecological Research, Advocacy and Learning, Bengaluru, India

Rajat Nayak & Srinivas Vaidyanathan

Network for Conserving Central India, Gurgaon, India

Amrita Neelakantan

World Resources Institute, New Delhi, India

Madhu Verma

School of Environment and Sustainability, Indian Institute for Human Settlements, Bengaluru, India

Jagdish Krishnaswamy

Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment, Bengaluru, India

Biodiversity Collaborative, Bengaluru, India

Jagdish Krishnaswamy, Mahesh Sankaran & Uma Ramakrishnan

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All the authors were involved in the conceptualization of the study. A.S., D.V. and T.N. led the analysis. A.S., D.V., T.N., A.D., R.N. and S.V. processed and analysed the data. A.S., D.V., V.R.G., A.N., J.K. and U.R. prepared the first draft. All authors provided critical feedback and approved the final version of the manuscript.

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Correspondence to Arjun Srivathsa or Uma Ramakrishnan .

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Srivathsa, A., Vasudev, D., Nair, T. et al. Prioritizing India’s landscapes for biodiversity, ecosystem services and human well-being. Nat Sustain 6 , 568–577 (2023). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41893-023-01063-2

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Mainstreaming Community-Conserved Areas (CCAs) for biodiversity conservation in SEPLS - A case study from Nagaland, India


The Energy and Resources Institute (TERI)


13 December 2019

India (Nagaland)

CCA; Tizu valley; Sema community; Zunheboto; Nagaland

Siddharth Edake, Pia Sethi, Yatish Lele

Summary Sheet

The summary sheet for this case study is available  here .

In Nagaland, located within the Indo-Burma and Himalaya biodiversity hotspots in India, customary rights are protected by the Indian Constitution, and the majority of natural habitats (88.3%) are owned and managed by individuals and clans overseen by village councils, district councils and other traditional institutions. However, in the absence of alternative livelihood options, most of the economic activities in the villages are based upon utilization of natural resources. This has led to over exploitation of forest resources and threats to biodiversity due to the increasing needs of local people. However, in Nagaland, traditional conservation practices have helped protect biodiversity, and there are records of Community-Conserved Areas (CCAs) being declared in the early 1800s, especially in response to forest degradation and loss of wildlife. Thus, the revival of traditional conservation practices through the creation of CCAs offers hope for conservation and ecosystem resilience, as communities set aside parcels of forests within productive, shifting cultivation landscapes. It has been documented that one-third of Nagaland’s villages have constituted CCAs, and as many as 82% of 407 CCAs have completely or partially banned tree felling and/or hunting, and enforce various regulations for conservation. These CCAs, covering more than 1,700 km 2 , also contribute to carbon storage (an estimated 120.77 tonnes per ha), and are an important mitigation and adaptation strategy for climate change.

A pilot scale project was initiated in the three villages of Sukhai, Kivikhu and Ghukhuyi in Zunheboto district of Nagaland, which aimed at creating and linking Community-Conserved Areas across the landscape and supporting conservation through livelihood creation. The model adopted aimed at strengthening the resilience of these mountain communities and their forests by rejuvenating traditional conservation practices and providing supplementary livelihoods. Activities included compiling information on Indigenous Ecological Knowledge (IEK), developing long-term ecological monitoring mechanisms, motivation and sensitization on landscape conservation and capacity building of the community members in biodiversity identification, documentation and monitoring, as well as promoting ecotourism as a livelihood option. Today, the project has yielded positive results in terms of sustainable use of biological resources by adopting long-term sustainability, enhanced governance and effective conservation of SEPLs. Around 222 species of birds and 200 species of butterflies have been documented and protected by declaring 939 hectares as CCAs and banning hunting and destructive fishing across the remaining landscape of forests and rivers (total area being 3,751 hectares). The positive impacts of the project activities were evident at the end of the project as communities reported increased protection of natural resources after the formation of a joint CCA and improvement in management of common resources of SEPLs. The elders were satisfied with the documentation of their indigenous knowledge in the People’s Biodiversity Registers (PBRs) while the youth, women’s groups and the marginalized members of the community reported increased household income due to ecotourism. This model of biodiversity conservation is being mainstreamed within the governance mechanism and up-scaled through a multi-pronged approach including financial support, legal recognition and long-term ecological monitoring.

case study on conservation of natural resources in india

Figure 2. Land use, land cover and contour map of case study sites – CCA (Source: TERI 2017)

1. Introduction

The state of Nagaland in India, which is a part of both the Indo-Burma and Himalaya biodiversity hotspots, has a forest cover of 12,868 km² that accounts for 77.62% of the state’s total geographical area (FSI 2017). It also supports remarkable floral and faunal diversity with high levels of endemism. Naga tribes who inhabit Nagaland follow customary laws and procedures, and their customary rights are protected under Article 371 A of the Constitution of India (see Box 1). These customary laws are plural in nature and differ from tribe to tribe and village to village. The Nagas belong to an oral culture which they have practiced through the ages till present times, where every aspect of life is governed through time-honored customs and practices. These practices have not yet been codified.

Box 1 Article 371 A of the Indian Constitution

Article 371 A: Special provision with respect to the State of Nagaland

Notwithstanding anything in this Constitution, no Act of Parliament in respect of:

–  Religious or social practices of Nagas

–  Naga customary law and procedure

–  Administration of civil & criminal justice involving decisions according to Naga customary law, &

– Ownership and transfer of land and its resources,

… shall apply to the State of Nagaland unless the Legislative Assembly of Nagaland by a resolution so decides.

The governance structure in Nagaland is a combination of customary decision-making processes combined with a statutory system set up by the state and central governments (Pathak and Hazarika, 2012). Hence as per the customary rights, the majority of natural habitats are owned and managed by individuals and clans overseen by village and district councils and other traditional institutions. But, in the absence of alternative livelihood options, most of the economic activity in the villages is based upon utilization of natural resources leading to over exploitation of forest resources. Wildlife hunting has always been a way of life for the Naga tribes, but rampant and unregulated hunting has seriously depleted wildlife populations. Nevertheless, traditional conservation practices help protect biodiversity, and there are records of Community-Conserved Areas being declared in the early 1800s, especially in response to forest degradation and loss of wildlife (Pathak 2009). According to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, Community-Conserved Areas (CCAs) are defined as, “natural and/or modified ecosystems containing significant biodiversity values, ecological services and cultural values, voluntarily conserved by indigenous, mobile and local communities through customary laws and other effective means” (IUCN 2009). These CCAs include forests, freshwater resources, grasslands as well as agricultural-forest complexes within their ambit. One of the major characteristics of these CCAs is that the communities are the decision-makers, and have the capability to enforce regulations. Regulations and rules range from provisioning rules like patrolling and social fencing to appropriation rules like regulating collection of different forest products, restrictions on grazing, bans on felling of trees or bans on hunting. These bans may take many forms depending on the local situation. For example, a wide range of practices are in force for regulating hunting, which may range from blanket bans on hunting of all species through the year, to seasonal restrictions (e.g. during the breeding season), to bans on hunting particular species believed to be particularly vulnerable. Furthermore, when populations are perceived to be endangered, then the types of hunting weapons may be specified (e.g. use of only traditional traps and snares that are less detrimental than guns, or of fishing nets and traditional traps, while dynamite, electric currents, use of glue and poison are shunned). Similarly, the local communities may restrict wild meat consumption for subsistence purposes, banning the sale of wildlife or forest products in local markets or for commercial purposes. The motivations for declaring the CCA appear to be multiple—foremost being concern for forest degradation, followed by declining numbers of key wildlife species due to hunting and water scarcity (TERI 2015). However, CCAs face numerous challenges in their creation, effectiveness and sustainability and require sustained efforts for their conservation. This case study highlights the importance of Community-Conserved Areas (CCAs) in the socio-ecological production landscape (SEPL) of Nagaland in India.

2.1 Study site

Three villages, Sukhai, Ghukhuyi and Kivikhu, lying in the southern region of Zunheboto district bordering Phek district in the state of Nagaland, were selected as a pilot site under the work initiated by The Energy and Resources Institute (TERI) with support from Conservation International Japan via a Global Environment Facility (GEF) Satoyama grant (see Fig. 1). The pilot site lies in the heart of Nagaland at an altitude of 1,900 m and has sub-tropical wet hill forest primarily overlapping with the sub-tropical pine forest (see Fig. 2). The area acts as an important green corridor between the biodiversity-rich forests of the Satoi range and the Ghosu bird sanctuary and harbors endangered and threatened species like the Blyth’s tragopan ( Tragopan blythii ), fishing cat ( Prionailurus viverrinus ) and Chinese pangolin ( Manis pentadactyla ). The Tizu River, which flows through to these villages, harbors a number of IUCN Red List fish species.

The pilot villages are dominated by the Sema tribe, and the economy is largely agriculture and forest-centered. Though farming is mainly for subsistence, high dependence prevails on the other abundant resources of jhum (shifting cultivation) lands, which include timber, medicinal plants and non-timber forests products. Wildlife is an important resource for the communities and is exploited for various reasons, including food, additional income, cultural practices and as a sport. The overall socio-ecological production landscape (SEPL) comprises of a mosaic of different vegetation types and can be broadly categorized as primary forests, secondary forests, jhum land and plantations.

2.2 Multiple values of the SEPLs and challenging issues faced

The socio-ecological production landscapes of Zunheboto provide the local people with almost all of their daily subsistence and survival needs, apart from contributing to their rich cultural heritage, folklore and traditions. Landscapes of this area are comprised of diverse elements—subtropical forests interspersed with jhum fields and differentially aged, regenerating jhum fallows. Jhum is basically ‘farming the forest’, where patches of forests are cleared for cultivation and then abandoned to fallow for several years. In Nagaland, this system of shifting cultivation ensures that even landless farmers are allocated patches of forest to farm and is perhaps a reason for the high forest cover of Northeast India (Northeastern forests account for 25% of India’s forest cover). Consequently, the people farm in the forest and the two are perceived to be inextricably linked by the local communities. The forests provide enormous benefits to the local communities in terms of ecosystem services such as timber, fuelwood and forest products. Food production is enhanced owing to the location within the forests (for example through enhanced pollination, water flows, nutrient enrichment, and natural fertilizers). The jhum fields sustain a diversity of local varieties of crops (e.g. Miyeghu , which is the local variety of paddy) that feed the people and their livestock. The rivers flowing through their lands irrigate their fields and forests and provide them with fish. In the valley areas adjoining the rivers, the people also grow paddy in a pani-kheti system (water fed agriculture/terrace farming). Local landraces are preferred and grown, including the Naga Mircha ( Capsicum chinense ) and the Nagaland tree tomato or tamarillo ( Cyphomandra betacca ), that have recently acquired the Geographical Indication (GI) tag as directed by the Trade Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) agreement.

Traditionally, the Naga tribes had an intimate relationship with nature and their SEPLs are based on a foundation of the interconnectedness of God, people and nature. This is reflected in their rich folklore on the plants and animals of their forests. Some of these stories underline the ecological role that animals play in the ecosystem and their contribution to ‘ecosystem services’ for human beings. For example, the role of the earthworm in enhancing soil fertility is transmitted through a folktale (TERI 2017). The value of their SEPLs was culturally realized and codified through wise use—for example, the killing of pregnant animals and birds was a taboo that would bring misfortune to the hunter and his family. Fishing and the use of certain poisonous roots and leaves that kill fishes in the rivers or springs during the spawning season were also restricted (Lkr & Martemjen 2014). 

The Naga people in general consider all land to be sacred. Jhuming , or shifting cultivation, involves clearing the land and burning the jungle, so people propitiate the spirit with rice, crabs and rice beer to beg for forgiveness for the many animals, plants, birds and reptiles that might be inadvertently harmed. The entire lives of the Sema people revolve around their forest-farm landscape. All the cultural festivals of the local people are linked to their agricultural calendar, and the Sema people’s agricultural calendar in turn is attuned to nature, guided by the movement of the stars or of birds—their migration patterns, breeding seasons and songs. For example, the sowing of paddy is initiated only when the constellation of Orion ( Phogwosiilesipfemi ) is at its zenith or after the kashopapu , a species of cuckoo, is heard calling (Hutton 1921).

For the local Sema communities, a vibrant well-functioning SEPL implies that abundant wild fauna is present in their forests, and easily sighted when they jhum their fields, and that fish catches are abundant, large-sized and diverse, consisting of many species. Forests are protected at the top of hills so that their watershed services are enhanced. For example, in the pilot village of Kivikhu, the main source of water for drinking and household activities is located 2.5 km from the village boundary on a mountain top in an area that is locally called Shoshemi-ghoki ( ghoki meaning stream). Traditionally, lengthening of the jhum cycle provides improved scope for natural biodiversity to regenerate. This is an extremely positive sign as jhuming is an excellent way to protect forests and associated biodiversity and yet produce crops, provided that long fallow periods allow for the forest to regrow (see Fig. 3).

case study on conservation of natural resources in india

Of the issues currently faced in managing the SEPLs, the main challenge is the decreasing jhum cycles. Earlier when a forest patch was cleared, each patch was cultivated for only one to two years and then left to regenerate for upwards of 15 years. However, the decreasing jhum cycles at present (less than seven years and often only for three to five years) prevent effective regeneration and lead to much soil erosion. Given the dependence of the local community on forest cover for a variety of provisioning and regulating ecosystem services, loss of forest cover has affected agriculture and the availability of water for domestic and agricultural use.

Though wildlife hunting is an age-old practice and a culturally embedded practice in the Naga way of life, the use of guns has become increasingly common, and is popular due to the easier and higher probability of killing prey than traditional ways of hunting. This has led to rapid depletion of wildlife with many species on the brink of local extinction. Aggressive fishing using poisons (such as bleach and lime powder), dynamite and electrocution using battery packs has also led to reduction in fish populations of the Tizu River flowing through the villages. Fear of losing all the fish and the natural ecosystem is one of the reasons that led to local communities to declare a reserve in their mountainscape. As a wise-use practice, they believe that fish and other animal species breed in the reserved areas and their populations are revitalized and replenished over time (see Fig. 4).

case study on conservation of natural resources in india

2.3 Description of activities

Though a reserve area has been in existence since 2002, it did not contribute to conservation in the absence of a well-delineated program to safeguard ecosystems and conserve SEPLs. To ensure conservation of large contiguous forest areas, it was decided to mobilize support to link the community-conserved areas, revive traditional conservation practices, carry out ecological assessments of these CCAs, develop community-based ecotourism initiatives and formalize and mainstream a network of CCAs along with the Nagaland Government and the State Forest Department.

Several deliberations were held with the communities of the three pilot villages of Sukhai, Ghukhuyi, and Kivikhu, to form a joint CCA Management Committee in order to enforce rules that ban hunting, fishing, and logging as well as collection of medicinal plants in the designated CCAs, and to prepare biodiversity registers to document traditional ecological knowledge (TEK). Other activities proposed and carried out by the Tizu Valley Biodiversity Conservation and Livelihood Network (TVBCLN), a formal local CCA body, along with TERI and Titli Trust (an Indian NGO primarily focused on conservation and livelihoods in the Himalayas), were comprised of training the youths in biodiversity assessments and sustainable use of natural resources; preparing resource maps; generating awareness through sensitization campaigns; and promoting ecotourism as an alternative livelihood activity (see Fig. 5 and 6).

case study on conservation of natural resources in india

3.1 Conservation education and sensitization

Community engagement through consultation, conservation education, and public sensitization approaches was used to increase awareness of threats and integrated approaches at the community and stakeholder level. This was achieved through participatory planning, knowledge sharing, and capacity building. Around 30 sensitization campaigns were organized within the three pilot villages and on other community platforms like the local Ahuna festival, thus reaching out to a total of around 1,200 individuals directly, along with a positive impact on more than 10,000 individuals indirectly living in the vicinity of the project site. This resulted in many more villages urging a replication of these methods to manage their SEPLs, the latest being Chipoketa village, adjoining Kivikhu village, which is dominated by the Chakesang community. Also, scientific publications, popular articles, as well as websites (http://nagalandcca.org/ and http://gef-satoyama.net/) have helped to gain the attention of various stakeholders and boosted the engagement. In addition, exposure visits were undertaken for the community members to the neighboring states to showcase similar case studies, success stories and best practices with respect to community conservation.

3.2 Formation & formalization of joint Community-Conserved Areas

Due to the continuous and intense engagement with the communities, the three villages of Sukhai, Kivikhu and Ghukhuyi in Zunheboto district of Nagaland formally declared around a total of 939 hectares of biodiversity rich forest as community-conserved areas in respective villages, which are now being jointly managed by them (see Figure 1 and Table 1). However, apart from these CCAs, they have also banned hunting and destructive fishing across the entire landscape of their villages, covering 3,751 hectares of forests and rivers. In general, each CCA on average is about 25% of the total landscape area owned by the village, which is quite large. The CCAs were delineated and mapped and the boundaries were well-defined through demarcation, digitization and participatory mapping. This resulted in improved management of common resources. Also, a blanket ban on hunting wild animals and birds, a ban on fishing by use of explosives, chemicals and generators, strict prohibition of cutting of fire-wood/felling of trees, as well as a ban on collection of canes and other non-timber forest products for domestic and/or commercial purposes in the CCAs, have ensured conservation of large contiguous forest areas along with the unique endemic biodiversity they support.

case study on conservation of natural resources in india

3.3 Biodiversity assessments and preparation of People’s Biodiversity Registers (PBRs)

Regular biodiversity surveys in the designated CCAs found an increase in the diversity of birds, reptiles, butterflies and moths with the current checklist listing 222 species of birds, 31 reptiles, 11 amphibians, 200 species of butterflies and more than 200 species of moths. This diversity is very high in comparison to the nearby patches of forest, which do not receive protection and have been documented in the People’s Biodiversity Registers (PBRs) with local and scientific names. These PBRs prepared for the three villages of Sukhai, Kivikhu and Ghukhuyi document the folklore, traditional knowledge, ecology, biodiversity and cultural practices of the locals and help codify the oral knowledge of the communities.

Biodiversity surveys by local communities have strengthened interest in conservation. The youth share pictures of wildlife snapped by them on a “ WhatsApp group”. Sightings are recorded in field registers and this has created a conservation community amongst the youth. These sightings are also important for research and are uploaded on websites such as “eBird” and “Birds and Butterflies of India”. Regular assessments can provide information on seasonal variations, range extensions and changes in population abundance. The local people can use this knowledge to develop their own resource monitoring methods. Moreover, camera traps can indicate whether RET species such as the tragopan are still sighted in the area. These surveys, by documenting unique, rare or special fauna, have also acted as a catalyst to attract more outsiders to the area as ecotourists. Well-known local bird guides are now including Zunheboto in their travel itineraries. Given that unidentified species of bats and squirrels have been sighted through these surveys suggests that this documentation will be an invaluable resource base in the future and a contribution to scientific research in the area. A paper on the mandarin trinket snake has been jointly published with an active youth member.

3.4 Alternative livelihood opportunities through ecotourism

The training of youth in biodiversity assessments and sustainable use of natural resources, as well as the training and capacity building of local community members as nature guides for ecotourism, has resulted in enhanced livelihood opportunities with the steady flow of tourists that are visiting this area to spot ‘bird and butterfly specials’. These include birds like the Naga wren-babbler ( Spelaeornis chocolatinus ), Hodgson’s frogmouth ( Batrachostomus hodgsoni ), spot-breasted parrotbill ( Paradoxornis guttaticollis ) and the grey-headed parrotbill ( Paradoxornis gularis ), and butterflies like the endemic Naga Emperor ( Chitoria naga ) and Rufous Silverline ( Spindasis evansii ). Ecotourists also engage with the local communities to understand their traditions, culture, food and conservation activities. This has further motivated the communities, including those from neighboring villages, to take up conservation and protect their natural resources (see Fig. 7 and 10).

case study on conservation of natural resources in india

4. Discussion

An assessment by TERI to document the resilience status of pilot villages at the start of the project concluded that the communities were sensitive to the diversity of landscapes within their village. Due to traditional farming and allied conservation practices, they believed that the landscape has good resilience and can regenerate; however, the loss of biodiversity due to illicit tree felling and rampant hunting is irreversible. There was also a good understanding of ecosystem services provided by community areas mainly in the form of water and wild meat. However, the elders of the village also reported that the traditional taboos and beliefs that encouraged wise-use practices in the past may be becoming increasingly irrelevant, in part because of changes in religion, culture and globalisation. While in the short term these CCAs face problems of rule breaking particularly with regard to hunting, in the long-run threatening the very sanctity of these areas are the lost revenues from timber production. As populations grow, land prices rise and people move away from their villages, more private and clan owners of CCA land may want to manage their forests for timber, rather than for conservation.

One important lesson learned through this project is that if communities are well informed and empowered, they can take steps to protect their natural resources and use them judiciously. The project directly helped the communities to strengthen the age-old practice of conserving community forests through mobilization and building synergies. The project also responded to the critical needs of the pilot area by documenting the traditional knowledge and raising awareness on the impacts of anthropogenic activities on the biodiversity and ecosystem services of the CCAs, as well as the ripple effect on the socio-economic and cultural lifestyle of the Sema people. Again, the project through its effort to generate alternative livelihoods built the capacity of communities on ecotourism and is contributing to biodiversity conservation. The positive impacts of the project activities were evident in the second resilience assessment conducted by TERI at the end of the project. The communities reported increases in the protection of natural resources after the formation of jointly managed CCAs, and improvement in management of common resources. The elders were satisfied with the documentation of their traditional and cultural indigenous knowledge in the People’s Biodiversity Registers (PBRs), while the youth, women’s groups and the marginalized members of the community reported increases in their household income due to ecotourism. The protection of a stretch of Tizu River passing along the boundary of a CCA also resulted in an increase of fish-catch downstream.

Local communities are intimately dependent upon the resources provided by their SEPLs and are well aware of the many benefits they receive from their landscapes. However, over time traditional knowledge has eroded and the folklore and practices that supported the wise use of their landscapes are being lost. Nevertheless, the way people perceive certain elements of their landscapes has shifted after this project. In particular, the importance of stopping hunting to increase wildlife abundance is now well supported. The role of wildlife in promoting forest regeneration, and the interconnections of healthy rivers and fish abundance are clearly understood. Increasingly, though slowly, the people realise that forests and biodiversity can also provide economic benefits through livelihood alternatives like ecotourism. Their fast eroding awareness of the importance of healthy SEPLs to their lives and cultures that were once traditionally embedded in their beliefs and practices is now slowly reviving. These changing perceptions have been captured through the second assessment of the indicators of resilience which further underscores that local people now understand the value of banning hunting and fishing for the benefit of future generations.

This project is just the start of what we hope will be a movement for conservation in the State of Nagaland. To date, impacts of the project have been monitored based on indicators and a baseline developed at project initiation. The project has far exceeded our expectations. Since the project is for only two years, another objective was to ensure sustainability of the initiatives. In January 2019, the local communities independently organised a Chengu (Great Barbet) conservation festival which was a vibrant demonstration that the local people were well on their way to independently carrying out conservation.

Future monitoring in villages will be ensured by the Village Councils themselves. The Village Councils have set in place sets of resolutions, and those failing to comply are heavily fined. The local communities now patrol their forests and prevent both outsiders and people from their own villages from hunting and fishing. They also share pictures of those disobeying their rules on a WhatsApp group for quick action, and educate and motivate the people of other villages to eschew hunting. The Tizu Valley Network further supports education and sensitization and livelihood activities. Moreover, the government has taken notice of this initiative and has come forward to support it by developing the area into a Community Reserve under the Indian (Wildlife) Protection Act, for which limited funding is available.

The value of linking CCAs as a network so that they act as refuges for wildlife and enhance connectivity for wildlife movement has now been recognised by the Government of Nagaland. Enabling joint CCAs as formal institutional mechanisms that promote landscape conservation and facilitate nature-based livelihoods is soon to be supported through externally aided projects to strengthen forest and biodiversity management in the State. TERI has also developed a draft policy on CCAs as institutional frameworks for conservation in the State, which has been shared with the Government of Nagaland.

5. Conclusion

The case study of the Tizu Valley Biodiversity Conservation and Livelihood Network’s (TVBCLN) Community-Conserved Areas has yielded positive results in terms of sustainable use of biological resources by adopting long-term sustainability, enhanced governance and effective conservation of SEPLs. Up-scaling of activities initiated by the communities will involve the formalization and mainstreaming of a network of CCAs in the State which are at par with India’s Protected Area (PA) network in conjunction with the Nagaland Government and Forest Department. This will also require technique, finance and institutional support to encourage and sustain the practice of CCA formation and sustainable management. Given that 88.3% of forests are under the governance of the communities in Nagaland, the Community-Conserved Areas (CCAs) constitute the primary method for forest management and conservation of SEPLs in the State. The government needs to provide the policy, technology and the funding needed to allow these conservation groups to perform their role uninterrupted.


The authors thank Conservation International (CI) Japan for supporting the project via a GEF-Satoyama grant. Special thanks to the Department of Forests, Ecology, Environment and Wildlife of Nagaland for their guidance and support. Special thanks to Sanjay Sondhi of Titli Trust for his invaluable support and help throughout the project. Thanks to Tshetsholo Naro for his support in the field.

Forest Survey of India (FSI) (2017), State of Forest Report, Forest Survey of India, Dehradun.

Hutton, JH 1921, The Sumi Nagas , Macmillan and Co. Limited, London.

International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) 2009, Indigenous and community conserved areas: a bold new frontier for conservation , IUCN, Geneva, Switzerland, viewed 15 February 2019, < https://www.iucn.org/content/indigenous-and-community-conserved-areas-bold-new-frontier-conservation >.

Lkr, L & Martemjen 2014 ‘Biodiversity conservation ethos in Naga folklore and folksongs’, International Journal of Advanced Research , vol. 2, no. 5, pp. 1008-13.

Pathak, N & Hazarika, N 2012, ‘India: Community conservation at a crossroads’ in Protected Landscapes and Wild Biodiversity, eds N Dudley & S. Stolton, Volume 3 in the Values of Protected Landscapes and Seascapes Series, IUCN, Gland, Switzerland.

Pathak, N (ed.) 2009, Community-Conserved Areas in India –A Directory , Kalpavriksh, Pune.

TERI 2015, Documentation of community conserved areas of Nagaland , The Energy and Resources Institute, New Delhi.

TERI 2017, A People’s Biodiversity Register of Kivikhu Village, Zunheboto, Nagaland , The Energy and Resources Institute, New Delhi.

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