In a few days, I will be off for a week of exploring/fact-finding in the Indian state of Chhattisgarh. While I normally don’t consider my personal travels to be newsworthy, I share this with Gristmill readers because Chhattisgarh is a classic example of why environmental governance in countries like India is so difficult — and why government statistics about the environment in developing countries can rarely be relied on.

Chhattisgarh is one of the forgotten parts of India. Despite representing almost 1/10th of India’s landmass and containing 22 million people, it might as well be in another universe — not just from the perspective of the outside world (crack open your 1,000-page Lonely Planet or Rough Guide to India and you will be lucky to find even a page or two on Chhattisgarh) but to India’s own government. Even the hyperactive newspapers in major metros rarely mention news from or post reporters in Chhattisgarh, which is India’s most forested state (officially), with 44% forest cover, and has perhaps India’s richest overall bounty of natural resources. The state is also home to a 32% tribal population, a community suffering some of the most extreme poverty and with among the lowest literacy rates in India, barely 20% in many areas.

The story of Chhattisgarh is intimately entwined with a recent scandal involving massive falsification by Indian government officials of tiger populations within “protected” reserves. The scandal finally came to a head a few months ago when the entire tiger population of one Sariska Reserve was apparently poached while the government dithered and denied.

But while Sariska, located close to India’s capital, has gotten a lot of publicity in India and abroad, scarcely anyone has noticed a similar situation in the Indravati tiger reserve in the heart of Chhattisgarh’s tribal belt. Despite Indian government officials’ regular and faithful (ahem) annual reporting of the ups and downs of the tiger population in Indravati over the last several years, the truth recently emerged in a media report (which only happened in the wake of the Sariska publicity): no government official had even visited the reserve in several years.

Indravati and neighboring parks are effectively a no-go zone for forest service and other government personnel due to massive resistance from local tribal communities, which has culminated in essentially an all-out civil war taking place currently in Southern Chhattisgarh — again, almost completely out of sight of both the domestic and foreign press. India’s rising wealthy are too wrapped up in their plush cocoon to be aware of what is going on in states like Chhattisgarh, and the foreign press is too lazy, frightened, or uninformed to do any serious reporting.

A recent Indian government intelligence report estimated that 60% of Chhattisgarh could be controlled by the nominally Maoist rebels within five years. Similar situations are occurring throughout other “backward” parts of India, affecting tens of millions of people but mostly out of sight of the media. As in other biodiversity war zones like the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the war not only devastates the involved communities, but also parks and wildlife, as parks invariably become rebel hideouts.

Yet governments continue to churn out statistics about biodiversity and natural resources (and these war zones are usually hotspots of both). Simply put, neither these statistics, nor the governments that put them out, can be trusted.

So, given the massive information and governance deficit in these critical areas, what is to be done?

Though many enviroliberals reflexively call for “better governance” or more resources, relying on the Indian government is clearly not the answer. However, various parties have stepped forward with innovative solutions. WildAid (disclaimer: I previously served on their board and think in general that they are doing some of the world’s best work in wildlife conservation) is in favor of strengthening the endangered species trade ban through the active economic participation of local communities in conservation. They buttress this approach with massive targeted publicity campaigns (usually focused on China, the epicenter of the global endangered species trade) to reduce consumption.

More radically, the Delhi School of Economics eminent environmental economist Shreekant Gupta suggests tiger farming as a way to stem poaching, an argument that, while falling afoul of the sensibilities of many environmentalists, has considerable logic on its side.

What both of these contrasting approaches understand, however, is that expecting governments, particularly developing-country governments, to take the lead in stopping poaching is ludicrous. In fact, these governments and their corrupt politicians and bureaucrats are usually the primary enablers of poaching.

Rather, it is through market systems, the lowering of demand for poached animals and/or the increasing of their supply, while giving local communities an economic stake in their continued survival, that provides the surest sustainable way to save the tiger and many of our other most critically endangered species.