Are We Mainstreaming or Simply Trivialising Biodiversity?
Last summer, a hard hitting global assessment of the
status of biodiversity and ecosystem services made headlines for its sobering
statistics. According to the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on
Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES), more than one million animal and
plant species were being threatened with extinction at levels completely
unprecedented in human history.
Not surprisingly humans were the culprit- with changes in land and sea use and
direct exploitation of organisms at the forefront, followed by climate change,
pollution and invasive species. But for those of us battling to underline the
importance of biodiversity to every facet of human life-food security,
nutrition, resilient ecosystems, climate proofing of livelihoods and human
wellbeing, we knew the global outrage would soon mute to a whimper.
After all, few people seem to understand what biodiversity is, why species
potentially matter or its salience in the face of more important development
and economic exigencies or even the climate crisis. This despite a global
attempt to mainstream biodiversity. The Strategic Plan for Biodiversity
2011-2020 of the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) as its first
strategic goal aims at 'mainstreaming biodiversity across government and
But over the last decade has biodiversity been mainstreamed or just
sidelined and trivialised, both in common perception, in our policies and on
The first issue is conceptual and perceptual. Despite attempts in the last few
decades to relate biodiversity to the provision of ecosystem services upon
which all life depends, and to value nature in monetary terms, the ambiguity
and palpable lack of urgency relating to biodiversity continues.
Perhaps this is best described by Peter Raven, a well-known scientist,
according to whom, "Biodiversity always seems to be a sort of mysterious
background thing that isn't quite there." Even today, for many people,
biodiversity translates simply as wildlife and conjures up pretty pictures of
charismatic tigers and leopards. At the most the role of the tiger is recognised
as an apex predator that helps protect swathes of forest given its large home
range and need to disperse in search of territories.
With this reductionist view of biodiversity, the loss of a species is
considered regrettable, but not necessarily irreplaceable, especially if it is
a tiny insect. To put it in perspective, a senior member of a respected
environmental institution recently said to me, "if oil reserves found under a
protected area were to be weighed against tigers, then quite naturally the
scales would tip in favour of the oil."
Biodiversity, somehow is a soft issue, dispensable when it comes to more
weighty matters of monetising our natural capital. It's loss is nothing that
technical solutions, renewable energy, energy efficiency and a circular economy
But biodiversity is not merely wildlife, it is the ecosystem and genetic
diversity that sustains them, and us. The CBD defines biological diversity as, "the
variability among living organisms from all sources including, inter alia,
terrestrial, marine and other aquatic ecosystems and the ecological complexes
of which they are part; this includes diversity within species, between species
and of ecosystems."
Ecosystems such as forests (and all others), are not loose aggregations of
independent species but intricate, living, interconnected evolutionary webs
where the loss of habitat or decline of any species can potentially trigger
cascades of extinction and change.
This can impact the demography and survival of the very trees that comprise a
forest, ultimately impacting water flows, carbon sequestration and myriad other
services. Enhancing this susceptibility to decline, are interacting forces such
as habitat loss, fragmentation, hunting and climate change. Hence, forests and wildlife
(and the same applies to all ecosystems) need to viewed as interacting parts of
a whole, necessary for each other's continued existence and of course for ours.
Does the current global focus on climate change also largely take biodiversity
out of the equation? The emphasis is on reducing greenhouse gases and on
enhancing carbon sequestration rather than on biodiversity. This shrinks the
global finance pie available for biodiversity.
Moreover, rather than natural forests, plantations which play an important role
in sequestering carbon become the preeminent strategy as plantation-driven
Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) projects in the forestry sector amply
illustrate. But plantations support less biodiversity, provide fewer ecosystem
services, often focus on fast growing, exotic species, and of course cannot
replace a biodiverse natural forest.
The recent emphasis on REDD plus, reducing emissions from deforestation and
forest degradation, was a welcome break as it focused on reducing both
deforestation and degradation and also brought back biodiversity conservation
and livelihood benefits to the climate equation. However, REDD plus is a
largely untested mechanism for forest conservation, adoption rates have been
low for various reasons, and the initial results accruing from across the globe
are not very positive.
India's Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC) targets an additional carbon
sink of 2.5 to 3 billion tonnes of CO2 equivalent through additional forest and
tree cover by 2030. Much of this additional tree cover will include planting
along highways, railway lines and wastelands. The emphasis on meeting targets
through plantations has shifted the focus away from our natural forests, and
the biodiversity they harbour. Moreover, if past experience is anything to go
by, many designated wastelands diverted to plantation might be important
ecosystems in their own right, such as grassland.
In India, forest cover has stabilised although forest degradation continues
apace. However, due to the lack of disaggregated information, the status of
natural forests remains largely unknown, and it is possible that this
stabilisation results from plantations. Several recent measures to enhance
forest cover in the country either ignore the role of biodiversity or are
operationalized in ways that maintain the conventional 'afforestation' approach, rather than an active restoration one.
The Green India Mission, for example, is biodiversity-friendly and aims to
improve the quality of cover of 5 M ha of forest in ways that go beyond
plantations. Furthermore it incorporates other ecosystems such as grasslands
and wetlands within its ambit. Yet to date, this by now almost moribund mission
has followed only conventional afforestation practices.
The Compensatory Afforestation Fund Act, 2016 mandates the use of money
received from diversion of forest land towards net present value (NPV) and
penal NPV for forest and wildlife protection and management, apart from
plantations. Nevertheless, we have lost an opportunity to ensure that some of
the funds are dedicated to enhancing the ecological viability of protected
areas, many of which function as isolated ecological units in a matrix of other
This Act could have spelled out that some of these funds be utilised for the
regeneration of corridors and other areas with local community support as well
as adjoining vulnerable habitats. In August, 2019, more than 47,000 crores of
this money was released to the States primarily to achieve the forestry NDC
objectives. Consequently, much of these CAMPA funds will again be spent on
plantations whose survival in India is abysmal. And biodiversity will continue
But what of our protected areas (PAs), the last vestiges of wilderness actively
dedicated to protecting biodiversity? Ironically, even as the COVID pandemic
underlines the interdependence of human lives and biodiversity, and widespread
lockdowns have brought the country to a standstill, the Ministry of
Environment, Forest and Climate Change has provided a slew of clearances for
infrastructure, mining and industrial projects.
These are in some of our last remaining natural forest strongholds, including
India's forested north-east allowing activities ranging from dam construction
in the Dibang Wildlife Sanctuary, to oil exploration in Dibru-Saikhowa National
Park (where a recent oil well blow out adversely impacted the famed Maguri
Motapung beel), to coal mining in Dehing Patakai Elephant reserve. Rather than
safeguarding the environment, the mission of the environment ministry now
appears to be the promotion of, 'seamless economic growth.'
And while the existing PAs are being whittled down, we are simultaneously
identifying other effective area-based conservation measures or OECMs, which
are non-Protected Areas that are, 'governed and managed in ways that achieve
positive and sustained long-term outcomes for the in situ conservation of
These could for example encompass community-conserved areas, Important Bird
Areas or Reserve Forests which deliver effective conservation outcomes
irrespective of the management objective. All this to ensure that in 2020 India
meets its national biodiversity target 6 of covering 20% of its geographic area
with 'ecologically representative areas that include both PAs and OECMs.'
But if biodiversity is being ignored and trivialised in our already fraught,
underfunded and highly fragmented protected areas covering a mere 5% of India's
land cover, do we seriously believe new categories of designations will protect
our biodiversity lying outside them? And this is unfortunate, because in
reality much of India's biodiversity lies outside the PA network-for example
more than 80% of elephant habitat lies outside PAs.
With negligible management focus on the forest biodiversity of protected and
reserve forests, biodiversity is eroded, and human-wildlife conflicts continue
Perhaps the COVID-19 pandemic of 2020 will help alter popular perceptions of
humanity being immune to, and cocooned from biodiversity loss and ecosystem
destruction. It is precisely the destruction of undervalued wild habitats, and
the exploitation of wildlife through trafficking and the wild meat trade, that
has brought human beings in close proximity with zoonotic viruses; so much so
that 75% of all emerging diseases are zoonotic in origin. With COVID we are
paying an exorbitant price for neglecting nature and sidelining biodiversity.
Yet this pandemic also provides us with an opportunity to review our
relationship with nature and biodiversity, and to course correct to safeguard
our planet as well as human well-being and our economies. It is time to get
creative with biodiversity, to adopt a landscape approach to conservation, and
to start adopting nature and ecosystem-based solutions to climate change. We
need to recognise that protecting biodiversity is very much part of the climate
solution, as important as technological quick fixes.
The time has come to leverage current realities to ensure that biodiversity is
brought centrestage in our understanding, but also in our policies and laws.
This is especially true for India where millions of people are ecosystem
dependent. However, if recent trends of widespread forest and wildlife
clearances or the contentious Draft EIA notification of 2020 are any yardstick,
then all indications in India suggest that biodiversity is unlikely to be
mainstreamed, at least in the near term.
Dr Pia Sethi is an ecologist and conservation biologist with degrees from
the University of Maryland and the University of Illinois at Chicago. The views
expressed in this article are personal.