The 1970s was the decade when Nepal formally initiated conservation of biodiversity by establishing protected areas. National parks such as Chitwan, Rara, Bardia, Sagarmatha, Langtang etc were established during this period through a strict protection approach, which did not consider the concerns of local communities living within and in the periphery of the parks. The park management was operated with a top-down approach and guarded by army personnel. Despite some level of success in protection of mega species, ‘park-people’ conflict emerged as a major management challenge for the park administration. Among many reasons, the fact that Nepal merely replicated the Yellow Stone National Park model without any consideration for our social, economic, and cultural values and norms was responsible for this clash .
The park-people conflict was an ever growing challenge in protected area mangement in Nepal and elsewhere in the world. Globally, conservationists were debating and exploring better options for the effective management of protected areas. However, conservation decision makers in Nepal were concentrating on establishment of new national parks including Annapurna National Park as proposed by FAO in 1974. There is no doubt that the area provides enough justification for being declared a national park because it contains some of the most spectacular natural areas of the world in a remarkable physical setting and has exceptionally high biodiversity in terms of species richness and degree of endemism due to a wide range of climatic conditions and altitude. But we cannot forget that it is also home to more than 1,00,000 people of different ethnic communities.
In the mid 1980s, National Trust for Nature Conservation (NTNC) - the then King Mahendra Trust for Nature Conservation (KMTNC), proposed a rethink of designating the Annapurna National Park, urging to consider conservation with a ‘human face’. As a result, a team of experts from NTNC came up with an innovative conservation idea to involve local communities in conservation. The team recommeded initiating conservation by integrating sustainable development activities. This concept stressed on the bottom-up approach. This ultimately gave birth to Annapurna Conservation Area (ACA) Project in 1986. ACA was formally gazetted as a protected area only in early 1990s. The birth of ACA and its formal confirmation was a major paradigm shift in the protected area management in Nepal. Establishment of ACA added a new category of protected area in Nepal and proved that conservation with a ‘human face’ is possible and necessary in Nepal.
Presently, ACA is one of the leading examples of community-based conservation in the world. It is also one of the few protected areas in the world which is financially sustainable through tourism revenues. Besides, ACA under successful management of NTNC, achieved many important integrated conservation and development goals. ACA is considered a great school for learning about mountain biodiversity, community based conservation, sustainable development, ecotourism, women’s participation in conservation, alternative energy technologies and cultural heritage conservation. Local communities in and around the Annapurna Conservation Area have received substantial income and employment benefits from tourism.
A majority of new protected areas declared after ACA such as Manaslu Conservation Area, Kanchunjunga Conservation Area, Appi Nampa Conservation Area and Gaurishankar Conservation Area followed the conservation area approach rather than going the national park way. The outstanding achievements made by NTNC in the management of ACA have been globally recognised through DRV Environmental Award 1989, Tourism for Tomorrow 1991, J. Paul Getty Wildlife Conservation Award 1992 and Global 500 Award 1994, among others.
NTNC was able to put ACA on the global map with respect to sustainable development, tourism and community involvement in an outstanding manner. This, however, did not happen overnight. NTNC made 25 years of major investments in ACA in terms of its human resources, financial resources and intellectual capabilities. A recent report by a high level ACAP evaluation committee formed by the government also highligthed that forests in ACA are well conserved as are endangered species such as musk deer, snow leopard and other prey species. The report also emphasizes on the significant level of conservation awareness among local people, well supported and functional community infrastructure and active and functional local institutions in all VDCs. Tourism in ACA has increased manifold over time. All this indicates that the conservation approach implemented by NTNC in ACA has been successful in terms of achieving conservation and development goals. However, crucially, the report also flags political appointment of staff in NTNC as a key threat.
ACA is one of a few protected areas in the world made financially sustainable through tourism.
Despite all these conservation and development achievements, the cabinet meeting held on July 27, 2012 made an unanticipated decision to allow NTNC to manage ACA for only another six months. The decision did not recognise the achievements of NTNC in conservation of biodiversity and it also did not accept the technical evaluation report presented by a high level ACAP evaluation team. It seems that the cabinet decision was based on the present scenario of NTNC which is linked to growing political influence within it.
However, it is time the government stepped back and thought about NTNC’s future role in conservation in Nepal. The question is not about whether the government will allow the NTNC to manage ACA but how we see a national conservation organization with outstanding national and global contribution in the coming days. The government’s decision on this will have an implication on not just the NTNC and its staff but also on scientific research and training, biodiversity conservation, and protected area management in Nepal. Conservationists want to see the government evolve a clear vision about NTNC’s future role.
The author is executive officer at the National Trust for Nature Conservation