All about eco-sensitive zones
In many places, continuing degradation of traditional values is resulting in decreasing respect for buffer zones. The real size of a buffer zone is often the result of negotiations between the various stakeholders and very much depends on the availability of land. In a stratified society, there is the danger that these negotiations are dominated by the most powerful inhabitants. It is, therefore, crucial that all stakeholders are fully involved in defining the buffer zone area.
In recent years, the concept of buffer zone management has emerged as a relatively new, integrated development approach to nature conservation.
Buffer zones are seen as an important tool in conserving areas of ecological importance, while at the same time addressing the development issues of the people in the areas surrounding it. There are no international treaties and conventions specifically dealing with buffer zones, but in practice, buffer zones are often applied as tools to implement those conventions, according to Dr Monalisa Sen, a scientist working on environmental issues.
The Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) of 1992 does not explicitly mention buffer zones, but some chapters are relevant to buffer zone management. The preferred size of a buffer zone is variable, depending on the objectives, availability of land, traditional land use systems, threats and opportunities.
From an ecological point of view, the larger the buffer zone and the more it can be seen as an extension of the protected area, the better for the conservation area and its biodiversity, including natural processes.
From a social and economic point of view, however, this is not often possible. Economists will argue that there is an optimal size for any buffer zone whereby at the margin, the incremental cost of enlarging the zone will no longer be compensated by the additional benefits generated by such enlargement.
At best, there is still room for improved protection, but at a cost that exceeds the expected beneficial impact. Consequently, there will always be a degree of environmental damage to protected areas that is - economically speaking - acceptable.
The social argument against enlargement of buffer zones is similar: in most cases it can only be done by curtailing the right of access to and use of natural resources in the affected areas.
Moreover, not all individual members in a community, or for that matter within the households, will be equally affected by restrictions on resource use. Women quite often perform a greater variety of household tasks and might, therefore, be more severely affected by restrictions in resource use than men.
In areas traditionally used by the local population for NTFP (non-timber forest products) collection, buffer zones that include areas of shifting cultivation and timber extraction areas will have to be large enough to sustainably support these traditional use systems. A buffer zone that gradually degrades does not serve its purpose. Assessment and monitoring, therefore, will be very important in determining the effectiveness of a buffer zone.
Traditional-use zones functioning as buffer zones can be located inside as well as outside the conservation area.
Economic buffer zones, such as tea, rubber, fruit and timber plantations, may be of any size. In many cases these were created long ago, and they are usually situated outside the conservation areas.
Cultural buffer zones can be of any size. Culturally significant areas such as sacred places/groves and cemeteries are well protected and make excellent buffer zones.