Explained: How Kerala has struggled to identify buffer zones around its protected forests

News: For over a month now, Kerala farmers living along the Western Ghats have been protesting a June 3 directive of the Supreme Court for setting up buffer or eco-sensitive zones (ESZ) for all protected forests in the country.

What is the Supreme Court order?

The SC in its order has said national parks, wildlife sanctuaries and such protected forests must have an ESZ of minimum 1-km from their boundaries.

The court said the guidelines issued by the Ministry of Environment on 9 February 2011, which have either banned or regulated a bunch of activities within the ESZ, should be strictly adhered to.

The banned activities are mining, running of saw mills, polluting industries, commercial use of fire woods, mega hydel-power projects and manufacturing of hazardous objects.

Mining would be allowed only for local use, the guidelines said.

The regulated or restricted activities in the ESZ are felling of trees (only with permission from authorities), establishment of hotels and resorts as per approved master plan, drastic change in agricultural systems, etc.

The permissible activities are ongoing agricultural and horticulture practices, rain water harvesting, organic farming and adoption of green technology for all activities.

What are the implications for Kerala?

The Kerala government does not have a clear picture about how the life and livelihood of people would be impacted by the declaring of the ESZ.

The opposition has said the verdict would affect one lakh families, 2.50 lakh acres of agricultural land and two dozen townships. Farmers are concerned as inclusion of human settlements with ESZ would hit their life and economic activities.

ESZ idea and its evolution

It was in 2002 that the national board of wildlife adopted a national wildlife conservation strategy that looked at a buffer zone for activities outside the sanctuaries and national parks. The board backed a 10-km buffer zone.

A month later, in February, the wildlife board adopted the conservation strategy, and the Centre directed all states to list out such areas. Some states raised concern over applicability of 10 km range.

In 2005, the wildlife board re-examined the issue and decided that the delineation of the ESZ would have to be site specific and relate to regulation, rather than prohibition, of specific activities.

Several reminders were sent to states to submit the ESZ proposals. But many, including Kerala, did not respond.

Acting on a PIL, the SC intervened in December 2006 and directed all states to submit their proposals for declaration of ESZs.

In 2010, the Supreme Court, while considering a separate case related to construction of a park near Okhla bird sanctuary, directed the Centre to formulate guidelines for declaring ESZ.

An expert committee set up by the Union government to frame the guidelines to facilitate the states and UTs for declaration of ESZs identified parameters for the same.

Subsequently in February 2011, the ministry directed all states to list out ESZ, within 10 km from the boundaries of the protected forests and furnish proposals for their notation as ESZ, under the Environment Protection Act 1986.

Source: This post is based on the article “Explained: How Kerala has struggled to identify buffer zones around its protected forests” published in The Indian Express on 4th Jul 22.

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