Explained: What are Eco-Sensitive Zones and why are there protests in Kerala against them?

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Farmers in Kerala continue to protest across several high ranges of the state against the Supreme Court’s recent order to establish 1-km Eco-Sensitive Zones around all protected areas, wildlife sanctuaries and national parks.

The widespread unrest, which has hit districts like Idukki, Kottayam, Pathanamthitta and Wayanad, is borne out of the fear of farmers losing their livelihood, and has found support from the state government, opposition parties and the Catholic Church.

On June 18, almost two weeks after the court order, the Union government said that it will hold discussions with the Kerala government and file an affidavit in the Supreme Court on the matter.

What are Eco-Sensitive Zones?

As per the National Wildlife Action Plan (2002-2016), issued by the Union Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change, land within 10 km of the boundaries of national parks and wildlife sanctuaries is to be notified as eco-fragile zones or Eco-Sensitive Zones (ESZ).

While the 10-km rule is implemented as a general principle, the extent of its application can vary. Areas beyond 10-km can also be notified by the Union government as ESZs, if they hold larger ecologically important “sensitive corridors.”

Why are Eco-Sensitive Zones created?

According to the guidelines issued by the Environment Ministry on February 9, 2011, ESZs are created as “shock absorbers” for the protected areas, to minimize the negative impact on the “fragile ecosystems” by certain human activities taking place nearby. Furthermore, these areas are meant to act as a transition zone from areas requiring higher protection to those requiring lesser protection.

The guidelines also state that the ESZs are not meant to hamper the daily activities of people living in the vicinity, but are meant to guard the protected areas and “refine the environment around them”.

To do so, the guidelines list the activities prohibited in an ESZ, such as commercial mining, saw mills, commercial use of wood, etc., apart from regulated activities like felling of trees. Lastly, there are permitted activities like ongoing agricultural or horticultural practices, rainwater harvesting, organic farming, among others.

What is the recent SC judgment that has caused an uproar in Kerala?

On June 3, a three-judge bench of the Supreme Court heard a PIL which sought to protect forest lands in the Nilgiris in Tamil Nadu, but was later expanded to cover the entire country.

In its judgment, the court while referring to the 2011 guidelines as “reasonable”, as reported by Live Law, directed all states to have a mandatory 1-km ESZ from the demarcated boundaries of every protected forest land, national park and wildlife sanctuary.

It also stated that no new permanent structure or mining will be permitted within the ESZ.

If the existing ESZ goes beyond 1-km buffer zone or if any statutory instrument prescribes a higher limit, then such extended boundary shall prevail, the court, as per the Live Law report, said.

Why are people protesting against it?

Protests erupted across the high ranges of Kerala in response to the apex court’s directions. Due to the high density of human population near the notified protected areas, farmer’s groups and political parties have been demanding that all human settlements be exempt from the ESZ ruling.

Alex Ozhukayil, the chairman of Kerala Independent Farmers’ Association (KIFA) claimed that the court’s decision would severely impact the livelihoods of farmers.

He said, “The total extent of the wildlife sanctuaries in Kerala is eight lakh acres. If one-km of ESZ is demarcated from their boundaries, around 4 lakh acres of human settlements, including farmlands, would come within that purview. This is a matter of sheer survival of lakhs of people.”

The ruling Left Democratic Front and the Congress-led United Democratic Fund have both called for strikes in Idukki and Wayanad districts over the past weeks to oppose the 1-km order.

Before the SC judgment, the Kerala state government had stated during an expert committee meeting of the Union Environment Ministry in March that all human settlements should be excluded from the buffer zones.

The Kerala state government had proposed that for some national parks, such as the Thattekad Bird Sanctuary, the extent of the ESZ area should be reduced from the proposed uniform 1-km, to an ESZ ranging from zero to 1 km in the eastern and south-eastern side of the national park.

This was because the villagers occupying the densely populated settlements in these areas believed that the ESZ would restrict their agricultural and related activities.

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Have similar protests taken place before in Kerala?

This is not the first time that Kerala has faced such protests. In 2013, hartals first erupted in Idukki and Wayanad after the Kasturirangan committee report recommended that 60,000 km of the Western Ghats, covering 12 of Kerala’s 14 districts, be notified as ecologically sensitive areas.

Similar protests had taken place in Karnataka as well.

In December 2021, the Karnataka Chief Minister Basavaraj Bommai said he opposed the decision to declare the Western Ghats as an ecologically sensitive zone, because it would “adversely affect the livelihood of the people in the region”.





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