India's poor most vulnerable to rapid biodiversity loss

HYDERABAD -- India walks a tightrope between development and conservation.
Written by Betwa Sharma, Correspondent on

HYDERABAD -- India's poorest fishing, forest and farming communities will be worst hit by rapid losses of nature as well as efforts to conserve it. They are at risk of losing their lands to erosion and mining or being displaced by government policies to protect forests and coasts. This trend will play out across the globe.

Tribal villagers from the Singrauli district of Madhya Pradesh state in central India are fighting against the expansion of coal mines near their forests. They voiced their concerns at the U.N. Conference on Biodiversity, which concluded on October 20 in the southern city of Hyderabad.

Radha Kali, 42, said that for generations her community has survived on forest products like tendu leaves that are used for making beedis and mahuwa flowers with medicinal properties. Their cattle have open spaces to graze. "We won't give up our jungle," she said. "Everything will be destroyed."

Tribal villagers said that jobs in coal mines are temporary but forests are an eternal source of livelihood. "Will they (mining company) guarantee jobs for generations to come," asked Bechanlal, a 60-year-old forest dweller.

Negotiators from over 170 countries attended the two-week U.N. meeting on biodiversity held every two years. After missing the 2010 deadline, governments are trying to implement 20 targets to save the world's fast disappearing flora and fauna. These targets, with deadlines of 2015 and 2020, include saving marine ecosystems, protecting natural habitats and stopping the extinction of species.

For the next two years, India will lead the international community to prevent biodiversity losses. In this capacity, it has set an agenda of linking livelihood with protecting biodiversity.

"Living at the periphery of subsistence, the poor are the most at risk from biodiversity loss," Prime Minister Manmohan Singh told the delegates last week. "They should not also be the ones to bear the cost of biodiversity conservation while the benefits are enjoyed by society at large."

The Indian government says that livelihood is already a component of its plans to conserve biodiversity. M.F. Farooqui, a senior government official from the Environment Ministry, who supervised the conference, explained that a percentage of the annual $7 billion spent on the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme is directed towards generating green jobs.

Pulling down a tree for widening the highway connecting the cities of Lucknow and Allahabad in the north Indian state of Uttar Pradesh.

India, one of the 17 megadiverse countries abundant in biodiversity, is home to 1.2 billion people living on 2.4 percent of the world's land. The country is caught between development and conserving nature. An increasing number of coal and nuclear power plants as well as dams are being authorized to fuel a growing energy appetite. Presently, an estimated 400 million people don't have access to electricity.

From April 2007 to March 2012, 8,734 development projects were granted forest clearance and close to half-a-million acres of forest land was diverted for this purpose, according to the latest figures of the Delhi-based Centre of Science and Environment (CSE).

CSE also finds that this diversion is about 25% of all forest land diverted for development projects since 1981.

In his speech, Prime Minister Singh mentioned that the Forest Rights Act had been enacted to protect the rights of forest dwellers. But in several instances legal safeguards of taking forest dwellers consent before acquiring their land are not properly complied with. "And when there is confusion, the central government relies on the state government account," said Kanchi Kohli from Kalpvriksh, an environmental action group.

CSE's latest data also finds that 119 coal mining projects were given forest clearance during this period, diverting over 86,000 acres of forest land-- the highest number cleared in any five year plan since 1981.

Activists argue that short-sighted and poorly executed developmental projects have generated jobs for a few but over the long-run cost many more people their livelihood.

Probir Banerjee, head of Pondy Citizens Action Network, which works for the coastal preservation, said that the Pondicherry harbor constructed in 1989 has blocked the natural movement of sand causing massive erosion to northern beaches on India's southeastern coast. "The beach is disappearing so fishermen have no space to put their boats or to spread their nets," he said.

Over the years, the government has also built walls made of rock to keep the Bay of Bengal Sea from washing away villages in Pondicherry. But these walls have further restricted the movements of fishermen.

Last week, Dr. Singh made the first financial pledge of $50 million to save biodiversity. For environmentalists, the pledge is "double speak" since the government recently announced setting up a National Investment Board that will fast-track the approval of projects over $200 million. "It's too early to say what will transpire," said Kohli. "But it's clear that investment is being prioritized over all other social and economic aspects and that sends out troubled signals."

The industry side argues that such a board will boost investments by cutting out layers of bureaucratic red tape that slows down setting up of mega-projects that create jobs in rural hinterlands.

The biodiversity talks concluded on Saturday after developed countries agreed to increase funding for conservation schemes by 2015. These countries agreed to double the amount they had spent between 2006 and 2010. But exact numbers were not provided.

Developing nations, home to the bulk of biodiversity, will use most of this money. In exchange, 75% of developing countries will have to make biodiversity part of the national agenda as well as spend their own money on saving it.

But funding for conservation policies is hard to drum up in the lurch of the economic crisis. And government's still don't know how much money is needed. A new study published in the Science Journal estimates the cost at $76 billion dollars annually.

While scientists describe devastating consequences of losing biodiversity, the U.N. conference received little coverage from both the national and international media. The absence of the United States was conspicuous."The U.S. is a major player in climate change and biodiversity so it should sign on and participate," said Ashok Khosla, head of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), the world's oldest environmental network. "They have to realize that they will pay costs too."

As numbers and policies were contested in Hyderabad, activists from the eastern Assam state warned that hundreds of villages along the Brahmaputra River Basin are already being displaced.

Ravindranath from the Rural Volunteer Centre, explained that mining activity has made the river water so heavy that farmers can't use it for irrigation. "We estimate that at least 40 villages are being displaced every year," he said. "There is an urgent need for a cumulative impact study of 168 new dams being planned."

The activist also noted that mostly Dalits, who are at the bottom of the Hindu caste system, and poor Muslim immigrants from Bangladesh are leaving the river basin to become laborers and rickshaw pullers in cities. "These are the most marginalized but still their livelihood has been snatched away," he said.

Photos: Sourav Das, at top; Betwa Sharma, at right

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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