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Putting a Price on Tiger Reserves

Creating Conservation Value or Green Grabbing?

Ajit Menon ( is with the Madras Institute of Development Studies, Chennai. Nitin D Rai ( is with the Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment, Bengaluru.

The attempts by economists in India to estimate the economic value of tiger reserves must be seen in a context in which inviolate tiger reserves have imposed enormous social costs on local people. There is relative silence around the question of why one should value tiger reserves when they are already protected and who might benefit from such valuations. We call on scholars and activists working in conservation and development to question valuation approaches, given their problematic outcomes.

India has marshalled the spectacular appeal of the tiger to further centralise control over a significant area of forests, notifying them as tiger reserves (Bijoy 2011). Project Tiger, as the conservation programme was initially called and supported internationally by a consortium of non-governmental organisations (NGOs) led by the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), began in 1973 and has shown some degree of success recently with tiger numbers steadily increasing over the last few years. There are currently 50 tiger reserves spread across the country with a total of 2,226 tigers, according to the National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA), double the number when Project Tiger began (Jhala et al 2015). There is now increasing publicinterest, state support, and financial backing for tiger conservation (Ganesan 2016).

The latest contributors to tiger conservation in India are economists who have attempted to put an economic value on tiger reserves. In 2015, Verma et al (2015), in a report entitled Economic Valuation of Tiger Reserves in India: A Value+Approach, argued that the annual flow benefits and stock benefits from six tiger reserves in India that they surveyed were of the order of ₹8.3 billion to ₹17.6 billion and ₹22 billion to ₹656 billionrespectively. According to the authors, this amounted to a value of between ₹50,000 and ₹1,90,000 per hectare per year. The report and a couple of subsequent academic articles (Ninan and Kontoleon 2016; Verma et al 2017) have claimed that estimating the economic value of tiger reserves will not only provide an instrumental justification fortiger reserves but also enhance investments for conservation that will have economic multiplier effects. The business of tiger conservation in India is, therefore, well and truly on its way.

In this article, we argue that theeconomic justification for tiger reserves must be seen in a context where inviolate tiger reserves have imposed enormous social costs on local people such as physical displacement, lack of access to forest products, and alienation from their cultural areas and livelihood options (Lasgorceix and Kothari 2009; Sen 2016). By unpacking the logic and outcomes of valuation efforts, we suggest that for the most part local inhabitants of these tiger reserves are missing from this apparent win–win story. It is estimated that around 750 villages are located within tigerreserves while many times that number surround these areas (Lok Sabha 2013). Any approach that does not include the people living in these villages is bound to be unjust and unviable. Moreover, given the emphasis worldwide on protected areas as a means to generate new investments, it is likely that the real human beneficiaries of tiger reserves will be those who can invest significant capital in wildlife conservation. Forest-dependent communities, the evidence indicates, are at best going to gain from “alternative” livelihoods or wage labour of a low economic order.

Our intent in writing this article isto raise questions that trouble us about such an approach and its assumptions in the light of actual developments on the ground with regard to tiger conservation in India. In doing so, we suggest that economic valuation is never a benign, apolitical tool, but is very much situated in wider institutional contexts that favour certain actors over others. In the Indian context, protected areas are being valued even as people living within them are being evicted.

‘Making the Hidden Visible’

Economic valuation of tiger reserves, we are led to believe, will not only provide the economic rationale for such reserves but also support biodiversity conservation and improve human well-being. All that is required is a technical exercise of getting the values right. Verma et al (2015) undertake such an exercise in their much-talked-about report. The authors consulted with key stakeholders to identify the multiple ecosystem services tigerreserves provide in terms of direct and indirect use values, option values and non-use values so as to calculate the total economic value of the studied reserves. By “making the hidden visible” (Verma et al 2017), they claim that the true value of tiger reserves (minus certain services that cannot be measured properly) can be ascertained with some degree ofapproximation, in the process addressing both human and non-human well-being. They also use an Integrated Valuation of Ecosystem Services and Trade-offs (InVEST) model to estimate the value of ecosystem hotspots and calculate the cost of creating new tiger reserves (or what they call the costs of inaction). Ninan and Kontoleon (2016), in a case study of Nagarhole National Park, make an even stronger case for economic valuation by suggesting that NagarholeNational Park provides more economic benefits as a tiger reserve than from alternative land uses such as agriculture or hydroelectric dams.

At one level, such an argument appears to make sense in a context in whicheconomic growth has led to the conversion of forests to non-forest uses for “developmental” purposes. Presumably, if tiger reserves are indeed economically valuable, there is no counter-logic todenotify them and/or convert them to other land uses. Tiger reserves provide a range of economic benefits to humans, both to those within and adjacent to tiger reserves (for instance, non-timber forest produce), and to those further downstream (for example, water availability) and even far away (tourism, carbonsequestration). Biodiversity conservation and human well-being, advocates of valuation seem to imply, go hand in hand. But the truth is that the valuation ofnature might well lead to an increased degradation of nature. While valuation makes visible the value of tiger reserves and increases their protection and investments, the ecosystems outside are often being diverted, degraded and denotified in the name of development. The claim that valuation will prevent the conversion of tiger reserves to other land uses is also a naive one, given that theseareas are protected by law and anyattempts to denotify and convert them will be difficult, if not impossible.

This then raises the question why valuation is being done at all. We believe that valuation is essential to attract corporate investment for tiger conservation and enable the state to divert marginal landscapes for infrastructural development by claiming that tiger reserves and protected areas are providing the needed ecological and economic services. Valuation is a first step in a long spiral that includes investment multipliers, payment for ecosystem services, and biodiversity offsets. Seemingly straightforward, the economic justification for tiger reserves is at best disingenuous.

First, it is important to recognise that not all ecosystem services are complementary in nature. As Lele et al (2013: 351) argue, there are trade-offs between different services. The cumulative value derived by Verma et al (2015) is, therefore, misleading because tiger reserves will not result in such large benefits in practice given these trade-offs. Take, forexample, non-timber forest produce and carbon sequestration. It is more than likely that to maximise the benefits of the latter, restrictions are placed on the former. Agriculture too, within protected areas, has been calculated as part of total economic value. But agriculture has been stopped in many tiger reserves and is likely to be stopped in others. Second, Verma and colleagues’ estimates of the 25 services they value are also more than likely to be overestimates due to particular services being of diminishing marginal value. For example, while people might be willing to pay ₹10,000 for seeing a tiger, it is unlikely that they will value the 10th tiger as much. Finally, we must also keep in mind that economic valuation is a methodologically fraught exercise. Both Verma et al (2017) and Ninan and Kontoleon (2016) are often hard-pressed to provide clear-cut estimates, settling for a range of estimates for particular ecosystem services, using estimates derived from very different geographical contexts in the absence of adequate data in India, or deriving estimates from global calculations. Given these “technical” concerns, it is curious that both sets of authors make claims about the policy and investment relevance of these estimates.

Our concerns, however, go far beyond the nitty-gritty of economic valuation and estimates. The trade-offs we spoke about earlier have huge environmental justice implications. The question of who benefits must be central to discussions around tiger reserves. The Verma et al (2015) report and subsequent academic articles in the Indian context are silent on relative benefits to different actors, and gloss over the heterogeneity of actors and benefits of conservation. Making the hidden visible should include an analysis of who benefits when these hiddenvalues of ecosystem services are valued. Questions also need to be asked as to whether there should be a hierarchy of beneficiaries. Should, for example, forest-dependent communities in and around tiger reserves not be the primary beneficiaries of tiger and biodiversity conservation? Making a case for tiger conservation based on economic value would prioritise benefits that give high value and therefore most likely benefit non-local users more. For example, carbon sequestration might be valued much higher than non-timber forest produce. What then of the forest-dependent communities who depend on non-timber forest produce?

Tiger Reserves as Investments?

Verma et al (2015, 2017) do mention environmental justice concerns in the report and a follow-up article. In thearticle (Verma et al 2017: 242), theyargue that calculating total economic value “can help in establishing effective policies and mechanisms on payment for ecosystem services to equitably share benefits and costs of conservation.” What they do not clarify and perhaps even ignore, as do Ninan and Konteleon (2016), is how these benefits and costs will be shared. Implicit in their arguments is that communities can be paid for preserving given ecosystem services. In the 2015 report, they state, without much substantiation,

Contrary to the common perception that protected areas are a burden to local populations, the study findings indicate thattiger reserves can be beneficial if theecosystem services provided by them atthe local level are considered. (Verma et al 2015: 193)

It is important to point out that the benefits local communities can legally attain from tiger reserves are shaped by the law. Recall that the core areas of tiger reserves are meant to be inviolate, that is, free of human beings. If indeed people are moved out of tiger reserves, how can these same people benefitfrom ecosystem services within thereserves? A closer look at the Verma et al (2015) report indicates that the authors indeed assume that people will be moved out as they factor the costs ofrelocation into their calculations when talking about the costs of recreating tiger reserves. What this suggests is that forest-dependent communities are unlikely to benefit from any payment for ecosystem services within tiger reserves. By estimating that it would cost ₹7.5 lakh to relocate a family, their estimates, perhaps ironically, are lower than the actual amount promised by the NTCA to those who are relocated.

A closer look at the report also tells us what benefits local people might attain. It states that environmental services “include provisioning services from buffer areas, ecosystem services accruing at the local level such as pollination, and creation of employment for supporting park management and tourism.” The writing, in other words, is on the wall for inhabitants of tiger reserves: the only benefits they could access are those that come from buffer zones, from pollination services if they were farmers (again outside the reserve), and as wage labour in forest department activities and tourism enterprises. The real benefits from the core areas of tiger reserves appear to be reserved for non-forest-dependent, state and private actors.

One cannot help but also notice that conservation is increasingly being seen as an investment opportunity. In September 2016, the Coalition for Private Investment in Conservation (CPIC) was officially launched at the World Conservation Congress of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) (Jungcurt 2016). The main aim of this initiative is to promote private investments of a profitable nature in conservation. As Jungcurt (2016) highlights, more specifically, CPIC’s mandate was “to develop new investment models and funding streams to address the gap in funding ecosystem conservation, a gap estimated at US$200–300 billion annually.” He goes on to say that “CPIC intends to serve as a hub for investors, financial institutions and country-level partners with the ability to develop and implement projects that produce financial as well as environmental returns.” Verma et al (2017) in their article on tiger conservation in India also speak of the need to invest in “green endowment.” In their attempt to make investment in tigerreserves more attractive, they generate an index called an “investment multiplier,” which is the ratio of flow benefits to management costs for each tiger reserve. They show that in terms of attractiveness for enhanced investment in these tiger reserves, the investment multiplier ranges from 200 to 530. This is based on the erroneous assumption of a linear relationship between investment in management and flow benefits. It is as if more money invested in management would produce more benefits: more water, more carbon storage, in other words more bang for your buck!

The investment priority raises important questions about the nature of biodiversity conservation. The economic valuation of tiger reserves appears to be one more step in the commodification of conservation areas. In The Great Transformation, Polanyi (2001: 76) warned that to “allow the market mechanism to be sole director of the fate of human beings and their natural environment, indeed, even of the amount and use of purchasing power, would result in the demolition of society.” Valuation of environmental services opens up areas that were earlier outside the realm of markets. Apostolopoulou and Adams (2015: 16) say, “the framing of ‘wild nature’ in terms of monetary value is rapidly becoming a hegemonic discourse (Roth and Dressler 2012) and the neoliberal mode of conservation is advancing across the globe.” The economic valuation of nature is premised on the idea that bringing markets to conservation is necessary to save nature. After showing what tiger reserves are worth, Verma et al (2017) emphasise that money is needed to “improve” habitats and “create” new tiger reserves. Fairhead et al (2012: 237) have defined “green grabbing” as the “appropriation of land and resources for environmental ends,” which involves in some cases “wholesale alienation of land, and in others therestructuring of rules and authority in the access, use and management ofresources.” Tiger conservation in India might end up being a particularly telling example of “green grabbing,” both in the way these areas were initiallyappropriated by state legislation, and then by the ongoing assessment of their “value” to gain profit from an array of market-linked investments.

Given the fact that tiger reservesare meant to be inviolate and under state control also raises questions as to how communities that are displaced and hence not “managing” tiger reserves might even be considered beneficiaries of this valuation. As the authors acknowledge, services such as tourism that can generate major economic returns, will be prioritised and local people might, if they are lucky, get jobs in the tourism industry. There is very little evidence that forest-dependent communities can take up ecotourism given the investments required. Munster and Munster (2012), in the case of Wayanad, have highlighted how it is only the large ginger farmers, who, due to poor economic returns from ginger, have now turned to tourism.


Economic valuation of tiger reserves is an essential part of a strategy by the state to justify a conservation approach that centralises power and control, even as it encourages investment from corporations to strengthen such an exclusionary approach. Seeing economic valuation of tiger reserves as a benign justification for their economic rationale is, we argue, short-sighted and produces lose-lose outcomes. The social outcomes of protected areas for local people have been widely documented and now there is alsoevidence to show that despite a global increase in protected area coverage, biological diversity is in serious decline (Mora and Sale 2011; WWF 2016). At the scale of protected areas, forest-dependent communities are alienated from theforest and agricultural land to only benefit from livelihood programmes implemented in the name of eco-development and wage labour opportunities within tourism. This is all the more the case in the Indian context in which communities are being moved out of tiger reserves and hence are unlikely to benefit from payment for ecosystem services schemes even if they fructify. Moreover, the “bigger” question of whether forest-dependent communities want to give up their cultural habitats remains unaddressed and unacknowledged.

We call on scholars and activists working in conservation and development to question valuation approaches given these problematic outcomes. Despite calls by environmental economists to make the hidden values visible, there is relative silence around the question of why we should do so and who might benefit by such valuation besides the facile explanations for how valuation strengthens conservation and benefits almost everyone. The appropriation of these values by the state and often on behalf of corporate interests has clear impacts for local people as well as for habitats outside of tiger reserves. Let us be clear that tigers are found in forests that fall outside tiger reserves as well (Walston et al 2010). One outcome of putting a value on tiger reserves and calling for investment is that it enables corporations that invest in tiger reserves to claim these investments as offsets for their environmentally degrading work elsewhere (Spash 2015). This will produce islands of conservation in an ocean of devastation. Such offsetting of their environmentally destructive practices is not a new phenomenon. In India, such a beginning has already been made with the Compensatory Afforestation Fund Management and Planning Authority (CAMPA) that allows companies to offset their extractive activities by paying a predetermined amount. Allowing companies to invest in tiger conservation might enable them to continue their environmentally rapacious activities elsewhere. Companies might even invest in “creating” new tiger reserves next to existing ones, thereby displacing more people while enabling companies to destroy wildlife and forests in areas that do not have such spectacular species as the tiger.

We end by drawing attention to a more insidious outcome that putting a price on nature facilitates. Valuation and market linkages are part of a hegemonic discourse in conservation used by global and state institutions to superficially address the adverse outcomes of economic growth. The success of commodity-centred approaches depends on the creation of docile subjects for whomappropriate pricing, compensating, and valuing becomes the norm. Such a reductive understanding of complex human–nature relationships does injustice to the cultural, social and historic complexity inherent in conservation landscapes. How do we reconcile these other ways of knowing and “valuing” landscapes? Whose values count?


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Updated On : 3rd Jan, 2018


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