Eco-development in Periyar — an Objective Analysis

Community farming in Periyar
Periyar Foundation
Future investments in ICDPs need to carefully justify any of the developments they implement, and to use appropriate indicators and study design to measure project legacy.

The India Eco-Development Project (IEDP) in Periyar Tiger Reserve, Kerala, has often been cited as a ‘successful’ project overall. Two years after the completion of the project, Sanjay Gubbi, Matthew Linkie and Nigel Leader-Williams independently evaluated the IEDP around Periyar Tiger Reserve (PTR) in south India and its USD 6 million component. Conservation India (CI) summarises the paper that originally appeared in Environmental Conservation.


The Government of India has requested funding from the Global Environment Facility for a new Integrated Conservation and Development Project (ICDP) to the tune of USD 47.1 million, based on perceived successes with the IEDP model assessed in Periyar Tiger Reserve in Kerala. Unfortunately however, there has not been a full and independent quantitative evaluation of the performance of previous investments in ICDPs in India, from either conservation or rural development perspectives. Therefore, it is vital that any new project learns from past IEDP experiences. Future investments by donors in ICDPs, or in any similar development project that seeks to incentivise conservation, need to have a sound social and economic justification, since such projects place a major burden on the taxpayers who will have to repay loans of tens of millions of US dollars over the next several decades.

Previous IEDP:

In the mid 1990s, on a request by the Indian government, the Global Environment Facility (GEF) and the World Bank provided assistance to implement a series of Integrated Conservation and Development Projects. A project titled the India Eco-Development Project was formulated and Periyar Tiger Reserve (PTR) (which was one of seven chosen locations) received a budget of close to USD 6 million allocated for spending in eight years, between 1996 and 2004. Apart from PTR’s protected forest, peripheral villages within a two kilometre radius of the park boundary were to benefit, and 58,144 villagers were directly included in the project.

Study area

Periyar Tiger Reserve forms part of the Western Ghats, which supports an exceptionally rich but highly threatened biodiversity. Human settlements lie on the fringes of PTR and these comprise forest-dwelling communities who were shifted to the periphery of PTR during the 1890s and 1940s; an estimated 225,000 people live within 2 km of the PTR boundary. These communities depend, to varying degrees, and both directly and indirectly, on the natural resources of PTR, including through illegal harvesting of non-timber forest products (NTFPs), wildlife poaching, timber smuggling, livestock grazing, thatching-grass collection and narcotic cultivation, and through legally sanctioned tourism and pilgrimage management. Much of the land surrounding PTR is intensively farmed, mostly as cash crop plantations for tea, rubber, cardamom and coffee.


The study assessed two factors:

  • Community attitudes towards the reserve itself and towards the objectives of wildlife conservation.
  • The sustainability of the community, income generation and household benefits – two years after the project completion.

The authors predicted that people who had participated in, and benefited from, the IEDP would hold more positive attitudes towards PTR, and to biodiversity conservation in general, than those who had not participated in or benefited from the IEDP. Therefore, questionnaire surveys were created that included open and fixed response questions to both:

  • A treatment group of people who had participated in and benefited from the IEDP, and
  • A control group who had not participated in the IEDP.

The study also assessed the benefits received under the IEDP which were categorized as:

  • Household benefit: Micro-credit, LPG stove, cylinder, etc.
  • Community benefit: Community hall, solar street lights, drinking water well, crop protection measures (solar fence, elephant proof trench, barbed wire fence)
  • Access rights: Right to collect fuelwood, non-timber forest products, grazing
  • Income generation and alternative livelihoods: Ecotourism guide, souvenir shop, livestock, small business, bottle-washing unit, bee-keeping, mushroom cultivation

Measures taken during data collection: Prior to the administration of the questionnaires, respondents were informed that the study was part of an academic, rather than a forest department, research project from which respondents would accrue no financial benefits. A pilot study of 10 respondents was conducted to check the clarity of the questionnaire. Questions were subsequently modified where necessary, and answers from the pilot study were discarded. All interviews were conducted with the full willingness of respondents, who were assured of their anonymity in order to increase the chances of genuine answers.

Primary results of the study

Awareness of IEDP’s objectives

  • On analysing the data, the study found that among the treatment group, 71.1% were aware of the core objective of the IEDP, which was to reduce negative impacts of local people on the reserve. However, only 42.2% held a positive view of the IEDP.
  • In the control group, 80% were aware of the project’s existence and of these, 25.5% believed the IEDP was a positive development while 23.3% held a negative view.
  • Ecotourism guides generally showed the best understanding, and involvement in ecotourism appears to be one initiative that was successfully promoted among those included in the IEDP. However, at PTR, ecotourism provided a source of primary occupation for only 43 households or 0.8% of the 5540 households targeted.
  • Just over half of the control group, 51.1% to be precise, were unaware of the IEDP’s objectives.

Use of benefits provided

  • A total of 55 stated benefits were assessed, of which only 37.4% were found to be actually used or maintained. Significantly, crop protection measures such as solar fences or elephant proof trench were neither effectively used, nor maintained. Community investment in the infrastructure may have not have been sufficient enough to generate a real sense of ownership.
  • Of the community utility benefits, 52.9% were still in use and were looked after, as were 57.9% of the income generation benefits.
  • Of these benefits 63.6% were directly connected and dependent on tourism and pilgrimage-related activities.
  • At least half of the PTR-IEDP’s listed community benefits had fallen into disuse two years after the project ended.
  • Importantly, human–wildlife conflict, education, and ecotourism-related benefits dominated peoples’ attitudes towards wildlife conservation and not IEDP participation, or the receipt of direct community benefits.

Problems experienced near PTR

  • Many respondents, whether part of the IEDP or not, cited crop damage by wildlife as a key problem. The project sensibly had provided crop protection schemes, into which the communities also invested their own resources. Nevertheless, results showed that none of the crop protection measures had been maintained by the EDCs responsible for their repair and that recipient communities still perceived human–wildlife conflict to be a major problem.
  • The final statistical analysis of the data showed that there was little difference in conservation attitudes of IEDP beneficiaries and non-beneficiaries. Consequently the authors’ initial hypothesis that beneficiaries would have more positive attitudes was unfounded.
  • Among the control group, 80% said they would be willing to participate in a similar future project. Key reasons cited for future participation included: to gain access to alternative livelihood benefits, to benefit from legal access rights to PTR resources, and to gain household benefits. However, no respondents in the control group cited community benefits as a reason for future participation. When the respondents willing to participate in a similar future project were asked why they should be given benefits, the reasons provided were alternative livelihoods, and a wish to reduce their dependency on PTR.
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About the author

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Sanjay Gubbi is an award-winning conservation scientist whose work has resulted in several important successes.


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