As I have stressed in my last blog (Part-I), the job of rewilding is too big and innovative  for governments to handle. Globally, the responsibility is being taken up by individuals, retired corporates and environmentalists wishing to return to nature in some measure what they have extracted from it. There are various models which are being followed in the USA, Europe and Latin America. It would be illustrative to share a few examples with the reader.

Perhaps the best known and most successful instance is that of Kristine Tompkins and her husband, both ex-corporate honchos. With their own money they have purchased 15 million acres of barren, degraded wildlands in Patagonia (Argentina and Chile) and manage them in PPP mode in coordination with the Wildlife wings of these countries and the cooperation of local natives in matters such as restrictions on grazing of livestock and felling of trees. Photographs show that these lands have been successfully restored to their former status, wildlife species which had disappeared have returned in ever increasing numbers; they include peccaries, swamp deer, the highly endangered green Macaws and jaguar. Out of these millions of acres 13 new National Parks have been established: the Tompkins have also promoted marine reserves. One Eoghans Daltun has purchased 73 acres of barren land in Cork, Ireland and rewilded it, hoping to make it a tourist attraction too.

[Colours of Pin valley in HP. Photo by author]
There are a couple of notable examples in India too, by socially responsible citizens. Perhaps the best known is Jabarkhet Nature Reserve, just outside Mussoorie, established by environmentalist and ex-Programme Director of WWF for Nature, India, Dr. Sejal Worah and businessman J.P.Jain who is the owner of the land. Extending over 950 acres this private forest had gone to seed, overgrown with invasive plants, filled with trash, trees felled by local villagers, damaged by regular forest fires, devoid of any wildlife. It has now been restored with sustainable forest management practices: new planting, coopting locals into banning felling/lopping, removal of more than three tonnes of garbage, measures against forest fires, laying out of fire breaks and walking trails. All this has paid off big time, the forest has regenerated itself and all kinds of wildlife have returned: leopard, bear, red fox, ghoral, sambhar, jungle cat, and 140 species of birds. To make it financially sustainable, its owners have launched a membership drive, made it an ecotourism destination on a payment basis: it broke even in its third year itself!

Tiger expert Aditya “Dicky” Singh has bought 50 acres of wildland just outside Ranthambore National Park and restored its natural habitats and green cover, to the extent that the water table in his rewilded area is at 50 feet, whereas outside it lies at 500 feet. Naturally enough, wild animals including tigers, are regular visitors to his private forest and its brimming waterholes.

A more humble example is in Majuli, Assam, at 550 hectares the world’s biggest riverine island. Subject to biotic pressures and rampant tree felling, Majuli has lost half its area to erosion by the mighty Brahmaputra since 1917. One resident, Jadav Payeng (named the “Forest Man of India” by former President APJ Abdul Kalam), has taken it upon himself to replant the island and give it back to nature. He has been doing so, quietly and anonymously, since 1979, when he was just 16 years old, and has so far planted an area larger than the size of Central Park in NYC- an astounding 340 hectares! Native animals- rhino. elephant, tiger- have all started residing in Payeng’s forest. Which makes one wonder- if one ordinary villager can do all this on his own, why can’t our vaunted 140 billionaires, 150000 HNIs and $4.33 trillion stock market companies not do so too?

India’s rapidly degrading eco-systems are in dire need of rewilding, especially in niche areas like the north-east, the Himalayan states and the Western Ghats. The root cause, of course, are the mindless “development” projects, in the teeth of opposition by local people and tribals, and the only beneficiary is Big Capital. The failure of govts, both central and state, to rewild nature is evident in the steady reduction of primary forests and increase in scrub and open forests. Corporates, rich individuals and socially minded citizens owe it to our country to step in and intervene.

[Puranikoti landscape. Photo by Geetika Khanna]
Of course, it is not easy to replicate the marvellous feat of the Tompkins in a place like India. Our forest departments and laws suffer from a colonial mind-set- that only the govts. can be trusted to manage forests and wildlife. The Forest Act, Forest Conservation Act, Wildlife Protection Act and various rules are so restrictive as to rule out the entry of any private player or organisation in this area. A prime example is ecotourism. Himachal was perhaps the first state in the country which developed an ecotourism policy in 2006 or 2007 and proposed to lease out forest areas to private entrepreneurs, under strict conditions and regulations, for the development of camping sites. This was shot down by the MOEF on the grounds that forest areas could not be used for non-forest activities! The Ministry has acknowledged its stupidity since then and this activity is now allowed, but we had lost precious years and confidence of the market by then. Another example: farmers who grow plantations on their own land (like “khair”) have to struggle against a regressive forest bureaucracy to obtain permission for harvesting them.

For the concept of rewilding to succeed this mindset has to change. Laws and rules have to be amended, the dog in the manger attitude will no longer work. Private players should be allowed-indeed, encouraged- to buy degraded wild lands, unfarmed farm lands and to rewild them; they should be allowed to mange them under strict rules and guidelines; they should be encouraged to develop their own Working Plans for these forests, reintroduce native wildlife species, and to make these ventures financially viable by setting up ecotourism projects in them. The role of the forest departments should be one of mentoring rather than intrusive and officious regulating.

CSR (Corporate Social Responsibility) funds can play a huge role in making rewilding possible, and this should be included in the CSR rules specifically as a permissible activity. More than Rs.15000 crore (almost US$ 2 billion) is spent annually under CSR: if even 5% of that went into rewilding it would be a huge step forward. And the icing on the cake would be if our 140 dollar billionaires spent just 1 million dollars every year in this sector, instead of just donating to political parties!

Incidentally, rewilding should not be confused with the central govt’s recently launched “Green Credit” scheme, which is a pure business investment, whereas rewilding is motivated by “wildlands philanthropy”. Under the GC scheme, companies pay money to the state govts for greening of barren scrub lands (belonging to the govts) and in return get green credits which are set off against any payments they may be required to make for use of forest lands for their industry/ business purposes. Not only is this hare-brained scheme old wine in a not very new bottle (it is simply Compensatory Afforestation under a new label) like most of Mr. Modi’s programmes, not only does it suffer from the same inefficiencies as the CA and CAT Plan schemes, not only have such schemes been discredited world wide, but it also does not conform to the voluntary and philanthropic nature of rewilding. Rewilding is an acceptance of the serial rape of nature by industry and the super privileged, an atonement and reparation for the wrongs inflicted by them on this planet. It cannot be a thinly disguised sop for industry. It cannot be a plea bargain.

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