Explainer: The controversy over proposed ESZ around Wayanad wildlife sanctuary

Political parties in Wayanad are campaigning extensively against the draft notification, even as environmentalists say not all concerns are based on facts.
Barbed wires in front of trees
Barbed wires in front of trees
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On January 28, the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change published a draft notification to declare an Eco-Sensitive Zone (ESZ) — a buffer or transition zone around highly-protected areas — around the Wayanad wildlife sanctuary in Kerala. Issuing the draft notification, the Ministry invited objections or suggestions from the public on the proposal, which should be submitted within a period of 60 days. Since then, resistance against the proposed ESZ has been mounting from the district, especially from political parties and local bodies in the region.

Recently, the Wayanad District Panchayat passed a resolution against the draft notification. Several block panchayats have also initiated similar steps. Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan and Opposition leader Ramesh Chennithala sought the intervention of Prime Minister Narendra Modi to repeal the draft notification, stating that it would affect the farmers living in densely populated areas coming under the proposed notified areas.

However, while a mass campaign is also underway to make people send emails en masse against the proposal, a majority of the residents in the region, including tribal communities, are either confused about the proposal or remain unaware about the development. In the absence of clarity on what the proposal in English says, they are clueless about how exactly the ESZ will affect them.

Incidentally, environmental activists, who closely work in the region, have welcomed the proposed draft notification and said that it does not, in any way, affect the livelihood of people as is being projected. While some cite that the proposal has not included anything that will deeply affect the livelihood of people, another section of activists has called out the move by political parties as ‘mere propaganda’.

What the draft notification says

As per the draft notification, the Ministry has proposed an Eco-Sensitive Zone, measuring from zero to 3.4 kilometres, around the boundary of Wayanad wildlife sanctuary, covering parts of Thirunelli and Thrishileri villages of Mananthavady taluk as well as Pulpally, Irulam, Kidanganad and Noolpuzha villages in Sulthan Bathery taluk in the district. The proposed zone will cover an area of 118.59 square kilometres, of which 99.5 square kilometres is outside the sanctuary, which could include human-inhabited areas.

Activities prohibited, allowed, regulated

The Ministry has proposed prohibiting nine activities in the Eco-Sensitive Zone, including setting up new industrial, waste management and stone quarrying units. Residents can undertake construction on their land to meet residential needs.

Although tourism-related activities are allowed with some regulations per laws, the construction of new commercial hotels and resorts will not be permitted in the ESZ. Agricultural activities by residents, too, will be permitted, albeit with regulations as applicable under certain laws.

Additionally, prior permission is required if trees in private, revenue or government land within the ESZ need to be chopped.

Meanwhile, activities and establishment like cottage industries, including village artisans, agroforestry, plantation of horticulture and herbals, organic farming, restoration of degraded land or forests or habitat are some of the promoted activities.

Significance of Eco-Sensitive Zone

According to experts, the existence of a transition zone between the core protected area and the mainland is integral to the sustenance of the protected areas.

"The Eco-Sensitive Zone is like an ecotone —  the transition between two biological communities or ecosystems — and it is crucial for the protection of protected areas like wildlife sanctuaries and forests. Its aim is to reduce the impact of human intervention in the core protected area," Kasaragod-based environmentalist Sudheer Kumar PV told TNM.

This proposal is based on the concept that a wildlife sanctuary cannot be protected in isolation as an island, but activities in the zone around it should also be limited for its protection, said Dr TV Sajeev, Senior Principal Scientist at Kerala Forest Research Institute. “A forest area or a protected zone cannot be differentiated from the mainland by drawing a line between the two,” he said while explaining the importance of ESZ.

Dr Sajeev also noted that the terminology ‘Eco-sensitive’ zone is the wrong usage. It should be referred to as a buffer zone because the proposed demarcation zone is not a sensitive zone, but rather an area that protects the sensitive zone, he adds.

According to Wayanad-based environmentalist Badusha, as per the Environment Protection Act, 2002, there should be an eco-sensitive zone of 10 kilometres around wildlife sanctuaries. “The Supreme Court has already given an ultimatum, asking state governments to declare Eco-Sensitive Zones around sanctuaries, if not, these zones will be automatically considered as 10 km. It is amidst this now that the Union government is gradually declaring ESZs around wildlife sanctuaries across the country,” said N Badusha, President of Wayanad Prakruthi Samrakshana Samiti (Wayanad Environment Protection Committee).

In his letter to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, CM Pinarayi Vijayan said that in December 2019, the Kerala government had made recommendations for notifying ESZ around 21 protected areas. After factoring in the concerns of the residents near the sanctuaries, the state government then submitted an amended proposal in January 2020.

According to Dr Sajeev, it is based on state government's submission that the Ministry issued the draft notification.

Political parties oppose draft ESZ

According to the Wayanad District Panchayat officials, many human settlements, including tribal colonies and agricultural lands, come within the proposed Eco-Sensitive Zone. “Even parts of Sulthan Bathery town are included in the proposed zone. This will adversely impact the lives of people who live there. We are in support of provisions like the prohibition of mining that is proposed in the draft notification, but we are against the inclusion of human habitations,” District Panchayat President Samshad Marakkar told TNM.

He also adds that in the coming days, various block panchayats and gram panchayats in Wayanad district will pass similar resolutions against the draft notification and this will be sent to the Union government. The local bodies have also mooted steps for a campaign to send mass email petitions to the Ministry against the notification. “Front desks of local bodies, local politicians, churches and Akshaya Centres will aid people in sending the email petitions,” said the Panchayat President.

Both CPI(M)-led Left Democratic Front (LDF) and Congress-led United Democratic Front (UDF) units in Wayanad have also come out against the notification holding various protests. UDF even held a hartal in the district on Monday.

Meanwhile, Badusha also alleged that an organised movement has built up in Wayanad over the past 20 years, against wildlife and its protection.

“Politicians and mining and timber mafia are involved in this. They are spreading disinformation, stating that there is a conspiracy behind this. Residents are being told that once the area becomes ESZ, they will not be able to live there, they cannot reconstruct houses,” he alleged.

“Anyone who reads the notification can understand that the present opposition against the proposed ESZ is mere propaganda,” he added.

Environmentalist Sudheer Kumar also noted that the draft proposal does not include anything that will deeply impact the livelihood of common people in the region. The regulations mentioned in the draft notification is only a minimal intervention aimed at protecting the environment. Protection of the wildlife sanctuary is, in fact, protecting the sustenance of people," he noted.

Meanwhile, Dr Sajeev cautioned that one cannot outright state whether there is a need for concern or not.

“Most concerns heard from the region are not factual. But one must remember that it is the poor who often have to bear the adverse effects of any regulations. What we see in many states is that the poor will have to pay bribes to get things done, while it will be easy for the rich. So what matters is how the rule will be implemented on the ground,” said Dr Sajeev.

What is required at present is a dialogue between the officials and the people, he said.

Need to read it in Malayalam to reach a conclusion: Residents

Notably, despite the widespread opposition of political parties and mass campaigns started by local bodies, the residents, including the farmers in the region, have not entirely understood what the draft notification states or how it will impact them.

Manuel PJ, a farmer based in Mananthavady, said he needs to read the notification in person and then reach a conclusion. “Steps should be initiated at once to translate the notification into Malayalam and then they should start a discussion with informed people. We are sceptical of what is being propagated by both ruling and opposition parties and even the Church," said Manuel.

He also alleged that political parties might have vested interests. "Even the Church has got vested interests. The Church mostly does not want the constructions of churches and grottos to be hindered. The Kerala Catholic Youth Movement  (KCYM), the youth wing of the Catholic church, has been helping people to send emails against the notification," he alleged, stating that the need of the hour is to translate and distribute the copies of the draft to people, allowing them to decide for themselves.

Meanwhile, according to Shanto Lal, a human rights activist based in Wayanad and is part of rights group Porattam, the proposed draft notification is not being discussed among the tribal population in the region. "Most of the tribal families do not own land here; they have already lost what they should possess," he said.

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