Before the Last Fish is Eaten

Famine in Sub-Saharan Africa does not make for pleasant reading, but fortunately it does not affect us directly.  Neither does the news of  rising deaths of the penguins in the Antartica. Closer home, some of the recent headlines also fail to evoke the desired reaction for the same reason:

Yet these stories have a vital link to our existence. They are, in fact, pointers to a devastatingly challenging era where, increasingly, on all debates on development versus conservation we stand to lose more than we gain, if we think only about our needs.

And so, just as Odisha’s resource-rich Sukinda valley cough up lungful of polluted air, Chattisgarh will be left to lick its own wounds, perhaps never to be healed. And after nilgais and monkeys, there could be a far more severe vermin epidemic; from rodents to other venomous creatures are likely to endanger our peace. Their natural habitats destroyed, they shall invade the urban landscape; and in the absence of their natural predators, they shall proliferate, much to our agony.

These are issues we cannot wish away. We are worried how climate change will impact our lives, but we have very little information on how safeguarding ecosystems may prevent this.  We are aware of how an average Indian is exposed to more particulate matter than the average Chinese citizen, today. We are, however, not aware that India's carbon sink (anything absorbing more CO2 than it releases), crucial in the current need to reduce carbon dioxide from the air, has actually increased by 103 million tonnes to 7044 million tonnes in 2015. This has been possible with the marginal increase in forest cover in the last few years. Good news, but we are still far from containing the imbalance that has set in.

It is indeed a blessing that India is one of the world's 17 ‘megadiverse’ countries with 200 eco regions. Though a rising percentage of the flora and fauna in these eco regions are on the verge of extinction, mainstreaming biodiversity for conservation can still reverse the slow poisoning that is polluting our air, water and food. Preservation of ecosystems can influence climate change and  also generate a sustainable livelihood for those who depend on the soil.

The outcome of such conservation so far has been phenomenal. According to the interim report of The Economics of Ecosystem and Biodiversity: India Initiative (TEEB-India, the value of sustainable harvesting of the ecosystem from one single district in Karnataka per hectare per year has been a whopping Rs 252,696. This means over 700 million Indians, otherwise directly at risk due to climate change and the consequences of frequent and severe droughts, floods and storms, can turn around this equation in their favour if they create a blueprint of conserving biodiversity.

‘Equitable sharing of benefits, emerging from the sustainable use of these ecosystems, is being seen an important goal to pursue today,’ claims Dr Amita Prasad Additional Secretary, Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change (MoEFCC).  Consequently, State Biodiversity Boards (SBBs) have been established under National Biodiversity Authority (NBA), with more than 38,000 biodiversity management committees (BMCs) with panchayat bodies.

The main function of the BMC has been to prepare People Biodiversity Registers (PBRs) in consultation with the local people. The register is to contain comprehensive information of the local resources, their medicinal and other usage associated with them, to help the locals come up with sustainable livelihood programmes around them. ‘So far 3000 PBRs in 17 states have been established,’ said Dr B Meenakumari, Chairperson NBA. Maximum of these are in MP and Kerala.

National, state and local level biodiversity funds have also been established for the conservation and promotion of these resources. All grants, loans and royalties received by the NBA shall accrue to theNational biodiversity fund (NBF). Similarly, all sums received by SBB will be part of State biodiversity fund. While the SBF shall be used for the management and conservation of heritage sites, compensating or rehabilitating any section of the people economically affected by notification, apart from conservation activities, the local biodiversity fund will be used to document and manage the local resources.

It shall be incumbent upon the State Governments to notify biodiversity heritage sites, with the help of local people, and apart from management and conservation, launch schemes for compensation and rehabilitation of affected people. Heritage sites are well defined areas that are unique, ecologically fragile terrestrial coastal and inland water and marine, having rich biodiversity.

Meanwhile, Biodiversity Finance Initiative (BIOFIN), a global partnership piloted in 31 countries, will build on the work done by the MoEFCC. It will determine the funds available and develop a resource mobilisation strategy. Of the 200 eco regions in India, the pilot initiative in India has begun in the Himalayans and the Western Ghats, two biodiversity hotspots.

The Access Benefit Sharing (ABS) strategy where the community stands to benefit from all its activities  will need to be monitored and in the coming months hopefully more stories from the local communities will help us access the situation on ground. ‘India is ready to be audited’, announced Dr Amita Prasad.

We are perhaps dangerously poised towards a path of self-destruction and not far from realising that prophecy of the Cree Indians: ‘When the last tree is cut down, the last fish eaten and the last stream poisoned, you will realise that you cannot eat money.’ But we have hope still. If Delhi experienced less dust haze this year, it is thanks to the increasing forest cover in Rajasthan. The munificence of nature that gives back hundredfold the moment we take care of it is there for us to behold and count on. Time we started respecting it and cherishing it.

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