An Innovative Approach towards Sustainable Eco-Tourism and Community Partnerships
By Sunil Mehta
As the first rays of the morning sun made their feeble appearance from behind the tall Arjun (Terminalia Arujna) trees, Gheenaji gestured to us towards a trail of fresh pug marks of a young tigress that had traversed through his former farmland in the early hours of that morning, just probably an hour prior to our arrival.
Gheenaji is a “community ranger” who voluntarily works to protect his once upon-a-time greatest nemesis – the tigers. Gheenaji’s decrepit village Alijhanjha is located in the heart of a region that lies in the rain shadow region in Tadoba, Maharashtra.
This village came into some kind of prominence when sometime in the late 1800s a British army captain Alexander often camped in this village from where he could carry on his game hunting on horseback. Tribals in the area started calling the village – Alijhanjha after him, as they pronounced his name.
It is in this area that we thought of implementing a new concept that would, while allowing the farmers to retain the ownership of the land, allow them to re-wild the marginal or waste farmland into forests through assisted natural regeneration.
As part of the formula, a small homestay tourism unit was built to generate income to compensate for the farmers’ loss of agricultural income. The high–end homestay units were built by us but in the absolute ownership of the local farmers. These homestays are being run under joint management till the next generation of farmers is able to manage them independently. The farmers were more than happy with the new arrangement.
The once unwelcome ungulates and the carnivores, that were once despised, were now welcomed by the farmers. In their wake, they brought tourists who traveled from across the globe to experience this unique cocktail of eco-wilderness- rural hospitality. Tourists see tigers, from the comforts of their rooms perched high up on the stilts. For us, as hospitality lodge owners – it gave us the unique advantage of exclusively offering our clients an experience that was never ever offered in India.
For the forest department, it was a win-win situation too. The forest department despite all its earnestness was often handicapped by the movement of the tigers and other animals outside the protected areas. Much to their relief, the protection of tigers and wild animals became a priority for the farmers as these animals became the new breadwinners.
Community Owned Model
Out of this small experiment has emerged a new concept that would allow sustainable eco-tourism without alienating the local communities of their lands- Bamboo Forest Safari Lodge’s (BFSL) concept of Community Owned Nature Conservancies and Habitats.
The concept emerges from the belief that long-term and sustainable eco-tourism cannot be possible without involving the local communities as partners. The community-owned agricultural lands adjoining National Parks and tiger reserves can be best converted into forests at the initiative of the local communities themselves.
The model was simple and easy, wherein the community continues to own its land as well as the Homestay tourism unit. It is a model that can be easily replicated by hundreds of such communities that live on the periphery of national parks and tiger reserves.
Moreover, this model is not restricted to the prevailing thinking that such homestays should be basic in nature, and the idea here is to attempt to provide world-class facilities at the door steps of national parks, forest reserves, and in the rural milieu.
Path Breaking Policies
The Maharashtra Government has taken some path-breaking initiatives which have helped in promoting these initiatives. The Tourism Policy of Maharashtra -2016 provides for the development of rural tourism wherein home stays up to eight rooms shall not be considered a commercial activity.
The Community Nature Conservancy Government notifications of the Maharashtra Revenue and Forest Department Government also provide for such rural and community-based nature conservancies.
These are more practical and definitely sustainable as it provides for a win-win situation for all the stakeholders. For the farmers, it assures them of a regular and guaranteed income without losing the ownership of the land. It is also a well-known fact that no poaching can take place if the villages around the national parks are against it.
Our experience tells us that guests have found this experience akin to the African experience albeit a hundred times cheaper. Foreign tourists yearn for holidays that combine rural tourism with eco-wilderness tourism which gives them a direct peep into the life of rural India and yet makes them stay in heart of the wilderness, and cocoon conservancies are the answer.
(The writer is the pioneer and innovator of the concept of Community Owned Nature Conservancies. He runs the Tree House Resort – the world’s largest luxury resort atop natural trees, and The Bamboo Forest Safari Lodge in Tadoba Maharashtra, etc. He is also the Managing Director (Hon.) India for the 11th World Wilderness Congress.)