The assault on India's protected areas and endangered wildlife

ALERT member Priya Davidar, a leading Indian ecologist, tells us about growing threats to India's protected areas and the imperiled wildlife they harbor:

Shrinking refuges for Asian Elephants.

Shrinking refuges for Asian Elephants.

Terrestrial protected areas constitute less than 4.9 percent of the geographical area of India and harbor many endangered species.  These reserves suffer severe fragmentation and a variety of diffuse human-related disturbances.

For example, the survival of the Asian elephant and the Bengal tiger in India hangs by a thread because they are increasingly confined to small isolated protected areas. 

Given the precarious conditions of such emblematic and endangered species, environmental clearances in protected areas -- such as permissions to disrupt parks for new mining or infrastructure projects -- are a serious affair. 

Such environmental clearances have to be approved by a statutory body, the Standing Committee of the National Board for Wildlife.

Unfortunately, in the name of 'development', pressures on the last remaining wild refuges are growing. 

India's One-horned Rhinoceros is just clinging to survival.

India's One-horned Rhinoceros is just clinging to survival.

India's conservative national government has reconstituted the National Board for Wildlife -- by conveniently choosing experts who are rapidly approving projects in crucial wildlife habitats, including five tiger reserves.

Among the controversial clearances is the proposed expansion of National Highway 7 through one of the vital corridors between Kanha and Pench Tiger Reserves.

By degrading the corridor, this highway will reduce dispersal of the tiger and consequently its long-term viability in one of the finest tiger habitats in the world.

Bengal Tiger in the wild

Bengal Tiger in the wild

Another contentious decision was the approval of the 52 kilometer-long Sevoke-Rongpo railway line in North Bengal.  This railway has killed over 40 elephants between 2004 and 2012. 

The new National Board for Wildlife also cleared a proposal to construct a road through Kutch Desert Wildlife Sanctuary in Gujarat, which will doom India's only nesting ground for flamingoes. 

Notably, the previous Board had unanimously rejected the proposal, after a site inspection conducted by an expert committee.

Another astonishing clearance was given for a major dam in Zemithang Valley, in the biologically crucial region of Arunachal Pradesh.  This is one of two essential wintering grounds for the black-necked crane, a highly vulnerable species.

Black-necked cranes

Black-necked cranes

Everywhere one looks, protected areas seem to be under assault. 

India's current government seems determined to advance 'development' at all costs.  But will diminishing the nation's critical wildlife areas -- which have already suffered greatly -- bring the kind of development that India really needs?

 

Globally, governments are cracking down on environmental groups

In Cambodia, the government is threatening to "handcuff" environmental or civil-rights groups that cause public dissent.  In China, protesters are being harassed while draconian new anti-protest laws are being drafted.  In Laos, lands-rights activists are being harried.  And India is becoming a poster-child for anti-environmental fervor

Conservatives are trying to stop green groups from engaging in public advocacy and debates

Conservatives are trying to stop green groups from engaging in public advocacy and debates

Even in Australia, conservative politicians seem to be declaring war on environmental groups.  The conservative Tony Abbott government is currently considering new restrictions that would remove the tax-free status for any environmental group that engages in public debate or criticizes the government.

This comes on top of recent efforts by conservatives in Australia to ban environmental boycotts.  There has also been a mass defunding of voluntary environmental and heritage organizations, and moves to insert gag clauses into community legal centers. 

And a green group that exposed massive illegal logging in southern Australia is now facing possible prosecution by the Victorian state government.

Writing in the online journal The Conversation, ALERT members Susan and Bill Laurance decry the growing attempts by conservative governments and politicians to hamstring environmental groups.  You can read their article here.  

And while all this is happening, wealthy corporations continue to fund many 'community groups' that really are little more than industry mouthpieces.  These environmental wolves in sheep's clothing argue that global warming is a myth while pushing pro-growth, anti-environmental agendas. 

The only way to achieve any kind of balance in societies is to hear both sides of an issue.  The growing efforts by conservatives to damage and silence environmental groups is a danger that we all need to heed.

 

India's growing environmental crisis

A longstanding ALERT fan, Dr Shaju Thomas from the Tropical Institute of Ecological Sciences in India, weighs in here with worries about the future of India's environment:

Indian environments in peril  (photo by William Laurance)

Indian environments in peril (photo by William Laurance)

Environmental governance in India has evolved over the last 60 years, via a bevy of Acts, Rules, Bills, Ordinances, and other such legal measures.  Despite growing pressures from various vested interests, these legal acts have clearly helped to save India's environment from even worse deterioration than it has so far suffered.

But the opening up of India to global market forces in the 1990s, and the policies that accompanied it, have created severe challenges for the environment.

A striking example is the appointment of a High Level Committee (HLC) in 2014 by the Ministry of Environment, Forest & Climate Change.  The HLC was charged with reviewing major environmental laws in the country, including:

- The Environment Protection Act, 1986

- The Forest Conservation Act, 1980

- The Wildlife Protection Act, 1972

- The Water (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act, 1974

- The Air (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act, 1981

- The Indian Forests Act, 1927

The HLC submitted its report in November 2014 -- without giving enough time for public discourse. 

The biggest problem with the report that it oversteps its mandate.  The HLC wants to get rid of time-consuming procedures for approval of development projects.  It wants to introduce "speed" in project approvals, which it says are the "engines of the nation's growth". 

Further, the HLC is proposing an "Environment Law (Management) Act", as well as more centralized federal and state environmental authorities, which can be more easily controlled.  And the HLC's report has no provision at all to deal with climate change and related issues.

These are all dangerous developments.  The HLC report is a deliberate attempt to derail the legal and policy framework that has evolved over time to protect India's environment. 

Indians need to stand up and be heard.  If its recommendations are adopted, the HLC report will pose great perils for India's environmental future.

GM crops: Good or bad for nature?

One of the more heated controversies in conservation science concerns genetically modified crops.  Are GM crops a boon for conservation or a serious danger?

On the one hard are those who believe GM crops are vital to increase agricultural production (and in some cases to reduce pesticide use), thereby allowing us produce more food on less land and spare more land for nature conservation.  The followers of this view often see the anti-GM crowd as hopelessly misguided or naive.

On the other hand are those who see potential dangers in GM crops -- ones that might outweigh their benefits in some if not many cases.  The term "Frankenfoods" has sometimes been applied to GM crops, reflecting the fear that these genetically modified foods might have a darker side.

ALERT member Jean-Philippe Puyravaud from India counts himself among those who worry about GM crops.  Here he tells us about his fears about one crop in particular.

A genetically modified crop is produced by introducing genes from another species, and the Bt. brinjal (a type of modified eggplant) was developing by introducing genes from a bacterium (Bacillus thuringensis) that is resistant to borers and caterpillars. 

However, GM organisms pose potential risks such as creating more vigorous pests, and could harm non-target species and disrupt biotic communities.

A recent study concludes that hybridization is possible between wild and cultivated brinjal in southern India, and another study showed there is a clear potential for transgenes to spread to wild brinjal populations.

Hence, the risk of transgene escape to wild or domesticated plants cannot be ignored.  Before introducing a GM crop, it is vital to check whether its genes can be transferred to wild relatives via pollinators.

Yes, we need to feed a hungry world.  But GM crops are not a panacea.  We have to study each one, on a case-by-case basis, before deciding whether or not its benefits will outweigh its risks. 

 

Big risks for the world's biggest coal mine

Nandini Velho, an outstanding young Indian researcher who is currently studying for her doctorate in Australia, is worried that Australians might be making a big mistake by launching what could eventually become the world's biggest coal mine.  Here's her take on things:

Anything for coal...

Anything for coal...

In 2012, the Queensland Premier, Campbell Newman, visited Mundra, a port and special economic zone located in the state of Gujarat in western India.  His trip to India promised “huge benefits.”

But here in India, Mundra usually reminds us of the poor track-record of the Adani Group, an Indian conglomerate that focuses on big energy and agribusiness projects. 

That's a serious worry because the Australian government has now given clearances for a truly massive coal mine in Queensland, known as the Carmichael Coal Mine -- to none other than Adani.

The projected carbon emissions from this mine -- most of its coal would likely be burned in China and India -- would exceed that of 52 different nations.  For instance, its resulting emissions would be four times that produced each year by the entire nation of New Zealand.

The poor track record of Adani is facilitated by well-oiled crony alliances with the Gujarat state government.  This is where Narendra Modi, India’s newly elected and scandal-tainted prime minister, formerly governed.

Political scandals in Gujarat state have become legend in India.  India’s Comptroller and Auditor General recently revealed the state exchequer (finance minister) has lost more than $20 million in just the first phase of the Adani-owned Mundra port.

In addition to such financial scandals, the Mundra port project has had serious environmental costs -- including large-scale destruction of mangroves, degradation of creeks, saltwater incursions, and encroachment of pastoral lands.  

In its pro-development zeal, the Queensland government evidently learned little about environmental risks, corruption, and predatory alliances during its visit to India.  And Australia's staunchly pro-development federal government seems just as oblivious.

Both might be in for some hard lessons if they choose to deal with Adani.


Will India slash environmental protections?

ALERT member Jean-Philippe Puyravaud tells us about worrying developments in his Indian homeland:

A recent news article in Nature reports that Indian ecologists are alarmed about the newly elected government approving big development projects without adequate environmental impact assessments (EIAs). 

They have good reasons to be afraid. 

At least the developers are happy...

At least the developers are happy...

The government is fast-tracking a wide range of approvals for major road, dam, mine, and infrastructure projects. 

In India and many other democracies today, environmental laws are considered by politicians to be a hurdle to development

Environmental laws are labeled red-tape, EIAs are deemed arbitrary, and environmentalists are slagged off as biased activists who act against the greater interest of the nation.

But is this really the case? 

In a corrupt society like India's, red-tape is really a euphemism for 'bargain'.  Favors are purchased from the government -- which then turns a blind eye to a project's real environmental impacts.

Are EIAs 'arbitrary'?  Most are not.  They are merely not up to an acceptable standard -- and the legal framework in any case is largely inadequate.

Environmentalists are delaying the nation's development?  Hardly. 

In reality, many problems are delaying national progress by reducing India's GDP, such as the inordinate number of traffic deaths on Indian roads, pollution, life-style-related epidemics, and widespread nepotism

In short, protecting biodiversity never sank a nation.

Can the newly elected government of India reduce red tape and economic hurdles while safeguarding its unique biological heritage? 

The signs are not promising.  With an avalanche of new development projects likely to be approved very quickly, the challenges for Indian biodiversity are likely to come hard and fast.   

 

Will the World Bank increase eco-destructive loans?

Alarm bells are ringing.  Leaked emails suggest the World Bank -- once notorious for lending hundreds of billions of dollars for environmentally destructive projects -- could be easing loan conditions for a range of risky projects.

Not happy with the Bank...

Not happy with the Bank...

Environmentalists and human-rights campaigners are up in arms because the leaked emails suggest the Bank is considering a radical step -- making more than $50 billion in public funds available annually for large power, mining, transport, and farming projects that frequently have major environmental impacts.

The leaked emails -- which were seen by The Observer newspaper in the UK -- suggest senior officers at the Bank are worried about the repercussions of such loans, fearing they would lead to an increase in "problem projects".

In the past, some World Bank loans have come under intense fire for causing large-scale environmental damage and social disruption in the Amazon, India, Indonesia, Africa, and elsewhere.

The emails suggest the Bank may expand the use of "biodiversity offsetting" -- which allows developers to destroy nature in one place if they compensate for it elsewhere.  Many conservationists view such measures with suspicion.

The World Bank and its subsidiaries loan billions of dollars annually to over 100 countries to alleviate poverty.  It is the world's largest development institution.

The Bank was lambasted in the 1980s and 1990s by environmental and social-rights activists for its damaging lending policies and because it is dominated by industrialized countries

Since then the World Bank has improved its record to a degree, bringing in more environmental and social safeguards, but the leaked emails have many worried that the Bank's bad old days might be returning.

 

Crisis time for India's endangered forests

The Western Ghats—a long mountain chain that supports ancient rainforests and a range of other habitats—is arguably India’s most biologically important real estate.  Here, ALERT member Jean-Philippe Puyravaud weighs in on the ongoing debate about how best to conserve this critical region:

Debate ahead for imperiled forests...

Debate ahead for imperiled forests...

Two ambitious management plans, by the Western Ghats Ecology Expert Panel and the High Level Working Group, were recently proposed for the Western Ghats.  Both attempted to identify Ecologically Sensitive Areas (ESAs) that merit protection, but generally got a cold reception from stakeholders and the general public.  

A recent article in Mongabay argues that these management schemes represent a way forward, so why haven't they been better received?

Both plans were invited to make conservation choices based on the principle of sustainability.  But the Indian Ministry of Environment and Forests, which contracted the studies, failed to define what “sustainability” meant.  Because this basic definition was muddy, there was no clarity about anything else--the development model for the region, or which industries or livelihoods would be favored in a reasonable path to prosperity.

The legal framework for the ESA scheme wasn't clear either.  Whether the ESA overrides existing laws or competes against them at the local level is yet to be seen.  For instance, plans to protect elephant corridors may be diluted by the scheme.

Without any clear economic guidelines, both the Western Ghats Ecology Expert Panel and High Level Working Group framed their own understanding of how the Western Ghats should be managed economically and legally.  This was probably an overshoot of their mandates.

What this tells me is that society’s reactions to conservation plans may not imply a lack of enthusiasm about conservation.  In the ESA case, widespread confusion on several levels created so much public angst that neither plan had much chance of widespread acceptance.

African ecosystems assailed by foreign-funded mining boom

Africa is experiencing a mining boom of truly unprecedented proportions, with hundreds of billions of dollars of investments pouring in from China, Australia, India, Canada, Russia, Brazil, and other nations.  Profound changes are ahead.  Can African ecosystems and wildlife survive?

Trouble on the horizon... even the iconic Serengeti could be threatened by mining   (photo by William Laurance)

Trouble on the horizon... even the iconic Serengeti could be threatened by mining (photo by William Laurance)

This is the theme of a new article by David Edwards and colleagues, including ALERT director Bill Laurance, which has just appeared online in Conservation Letters.  

Among the key findings:

- Chinese investment in African mining has skyrocketed, and now exceeds $100 billion annually

- more than 230 Australian mining companies are working in 42 different African countries

- mining investments could have sizable economic benefits but are a driving force behind new roads and infrastructure projects that are opening up much of Sub-Saharan Africa to development pressures

- mining money could be highly destabilizing for many African governments that have long been plagued by corruption concerns

- Many of Africa's most spectacular ecosystems and centers of biological diversity could be imperiled by mining projects and associated developments

Few doubt that this foreign-investment-fueled mining boom will profoundly change Africa.  The question is just how much environmental damage will be inflicted during the feeding frenzy.

 

Universities: destroyers of life or opportunity for biodiversity?

ALERT member Jean-Philippe Puyravaud tells us that universities are failing to protect biodiversity even on their own campuses:

Lonely blackbuck: Is it enough to teach nature conservation but not do anything about it?

Lonely blackbuck: Is it enough to teach nature conservation but not do anything about it?

Harvard students have organized a blockade of the university, calling for an open dialogue with administrators about divesting Harvard’s funds in fossil-fuel corporations as a way to help change the face of the energy industry.  The reason for this heated action was the university Board’s total dismissal of divestment as a tool to fight harmful climate change.

Finally, the intellectual elites of the world are beginning to face the absurdity of present energy-use policy.  But when will this happen for biodiversity?  

We ecologists usually think corrupt industrialists and large-scale plantation corporations are the cause of ecosystem destruction.  But if you sit at your desk in your own university, what do you see?  In most cases you observe a total lack of concern for local biodiversity.

Take Pondicherry University in south-east India—one of the few universities in India with a Department of Ecology.  It has a 300-hectare campus and is located on the dry evergreen-forest belt, one of the most endangered ecosystems in the country.

For thirty years, ecologists have suggested ecological restoration in parts of the campus.  Some have even attempted to create anti-erosion structures.  

Today, at best, only the parts of campus that are neglected by the administration can be thought of “natural”.  Otherwise, no Vice-Chancellor, administration, or department was in the least interested in maintaining biodiversity in even a tenth of their campus.

Another example is the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) campus in Chennai, India.  IIT-Chennai is India’s equivalent of MIT—a prestigious school for intellectual elites.  The campus was originally part of Guindy National Park and a reserve for the blackbuck, a near-threatened antelope.

The first action of IIT-Chennai was to erect a wall between the new campus and the rest of the national park, splitting the black buck population.  The forest officer at the time approved it and no one thought antelopes needed open space to run and feel comfortable. Today, IIT is attempting to start a program in Urban Ecology but is failing to manage the biodiversity of its own campus.

The Harvard example should resonate widely if we want to change our societies for the better.  Universities should be places where energy and local biodiversity are properly managed.  

But don’t wait for your administration to act.  Don’t wait for your teachers.  Demand that part of your campus becomes a real biodiversity repository.  And ensure that it happens.