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.