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.

Export markets are driving much of tropical deforestation

Why are tropical nations cutting down their forests?  Is it to feed and house their people?  To provide goods for their domestic markets?

Who's benefiting from forest destruction?

Who's benefiting from forest destruction?

Not so much.

In fact, a lot of deforestation is happening so that tropical nations can export stuff -- especially agricultural goods, timber, minerals, and oil -- to consumer nations. 

And who are the big consumers?  At least for major commodities such as palm oil, beef, soy, and timber, the European Union and China rank as the biggest importers.

That's the conclusion of a recent analysis by the Center for Global Development, an independent think-tank based in London and Washington, D.C.

The analysis focused on six of the most important tropical nations -- Bolivia, Brazil, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Indonesia, Malaysia, and Papua New Guinea -- as well as Argentina and Paraguay.  These countries produce a big chunk of the four internationally traded commodities (beef, soy, palm oil, timber) that were the focus of the study.

The study found that about a third of all deforestation could be directly attributed to those four export commodities.  And if one includes beef production in the Amazon, which is mostly 'exported' to the major population centers in southern Brazil, then exports of the four commodities account for a whopping 57% of all deforestation.

In all of the studied countries except for Bolivia and Brazil, export markets were the dominant drivers of deforestation.  Moreover, for most of the eight countries, the importance of export markets as a driver of deforestation and greenhouse-gas emissions increased over time.

What this says is that much of tropical deforestation is being driven not by the needs of local people, but by growing global demand.  The E.U. and China are big sinners, but there's plenty of blame to spread around among other nations.

A lot of the food and timber we consume comes from tropical nations.  We all want to live well, but there is no free lunch.  Somewhere, a chainsaw is roaring and a bulldozer growling so that we can have cheap food and timber.

 

Will corporations save the Earth?

Guilty as charged.  That would be my plea if I were accused of "distrusting big corporations".  But in a provocative new essay, writer Alice Korngold argues that mega-corporations are the only thing that can save us.

Really, you can trust us...

Really, you can trust us...

It's a novel argument.  For as long as I can remember, the hand on the chainsaw and the driver of the roaring bulldozer has had a corporate face -- a face focused, above all, on maximizing profits.

Yet, Korngold asserts that multinational corporations have vast financial resources and a capacity to work internationally that governments just can't touch.  That's crucial, she argues, in an era in which many of our environmental and social crises are global in scope.

Clearly, a well-meaning corporation can have a big influence on its entire business sector.  For instance, we've seen a wave of forest-destroying firms declaring "no-deforestation" policies, following the pioneering declaration by the oil palm giant Golden Agri Resources. 

It's a herd-mentality thing, one surmises.  When everybody is suddenly turning green, who wants to be left behind?

Still, Korngold doesn't suggest all corporations are well-meaning or that they can save the planet on their own. 

The best outcomes arise, she argues, when mega-firms pair up with NGOs or nonprofits.  It's also important for corporations to embrace sustainability at the board level, engage with their stakeholders, and commit to accountability and transparency, she says.

I guess the take-home messages are two-fold.  First, we need to keep up the pressure on corporate bad guys -- so their reputations and market shares suffer, giving them a real incentive to improve their performance.

Second, we need to engage and work with enlightened firms, and those willing to turn over a new leaf.  Greenpeace's recent detente with Asia Pulp & Paper -- formerly the dark beast of the environment -- is one such example.

It's a brave new corporate world.  We hope. 

-Bill Laurance