If we are bestowed with wealth, how many of us will willingly kiss it goodbye? You may not know anyone who would. But, take a look at the wealth of biodiversity in India. Why are we not doing all we can to preserve it?
Biodiversity ï¿½ the diversity of earth's ecosystems, species and their genes ï¿½ is highly valued because its natural biological wealth sustains human life. It is the colorful diversity of earthï¿½s ecosystems, species and their genes.
No wonder, ecologists around the world look at India with envy, as India is one of the dozen-mega diversity ï¿½hotspotï¿½ regions of the world. India may have only 2.4 per cent of the worldï¿½s area, but it has over eight per cent of the worldï¿½s biodiversity making it one of the richest countries in the world in terms of biodiversity. But, it is being rapidly eroded or degraded.
How many areas are there in the world that can boast of the diversity India has: mountain ranges, lakes, deserts, temperate forests, tropical rainforests, alpine vegetation, backwaters, snow peaks, grasslands, rivers, coral reefs and other marine wealth in the sea that stretches for thousands of kilometers along the long shoreline and so on.
The range is amazing: On one hand you have the dry stark deserts of Rajasthan and on the other you have the cold desert in Leh. Imagine the beauty of the rain forest in the Silent Valley of Kerala and the dense untouched forests in Arunachal Pradesh where the sunlight struggles to reach the floor, as the vegetation is so thick. Or the vast Chilka lake that pans out for nearly 1,14,000 hectares that supports numerous forms of marine life apart from catering to thousands of livelihoods. The extent of micro-organisms has not even been assessed. Imagine the corals founds in the Andamans. And see how different the desert in the Rann of Kutch looks.
India has over 47,000 species of plants and over 89,000 species of animals. Take a look at the astounding wealth of agricultural biodiversity in India: 167 crop species and over 350 wild relatives. India is considered to be the origin of 30,000 to 50,000 varieties of rice, over 5,000 varieties of sorghum, 1000 of mango and as many as 500 varieties of pepper. How many countries can rival this?
India ranks seventh in terms of contribution to world agriculture. Interesting statistics. But are we realizing the value of the wealth we have. If we did, we would not have allowed it to degrade or become extinct.
India has one of the largest networks of protected areas in the world. Its wildlife sanctuaries and national parks take up around 1,12,274 square kilometers. But if the Sariska Wildlife Sanctuary in Rajasthan is a pointer, we have reason to worry as tigers there have vanished.
Down the years, much has been destroyed. And, continues to be destroyed. Mining, commercial activities, construction, hunting, deforestation and other harmful activities have rung the death-knell of biodiversity. One of the major villains in the tragedy has been widespread habitat destruction. The acceptable mode today is that if you destroy trees in one hectare, plant another hectare.
Everyone seems happy as they blissfully feel that the damage done has been repaired. But the real damage in the process is losing thousands of years of evolution of the ecosystem.
It is important to protect biodiversity not just for ecological reasons but because it sustains livelihoods of nearly 70 per cent of Indians. It is this agricultural diversity that helps millions eke out a living. It is this rich biodiversity that helps them get food, jobs, nutrition, bio-pesticides, traditional medicine, housing material, fodder and fuel.
That is not all. It helps stabilize the climate, improve rainfall and enrich the soil and water table. Life cannot go on without biodiversity.
India has already lost more than forty per cent of its forests, mangroves and a large part of its wetlands. Adding to the problem are destructive trade practices, poor remuneration for indigenous food grain and cereals, demographic changes due to development and poor planning that sidestepped the importance of biodiversity. There were also unsustainable methods being adopted that ignored traditional management practices.
Animals are under severe threat. There has to be greater awareness of wildlife ecology, impacts of human life, the growing conflict between animals and humans in and around reserves and involving people to protect these areas. One way out is to spread the concept of how locals could be involved in forest management.
In the Periyar Tiger Reserve, for instance, such a move has converted hardline poachers into protectors of wildlife. There are many positive stories that can be replicated in other parts of the country like what Rajendra Singh has done in Alwar bringing dead eco-systems back to life with simple water management techniques that were always a part of traditional wisdom.
Agriculture, which showcased biodiversity in India for generations, is now caught in the pincer of a genetic collapse. Hybrids have taken over. Exotic seeds are tempting for farmers hoping to increase their meager earnings. Aggressive marketing has brought in pesticides and chemical fertilizers that in the long run ruin soil quality and costs. Monoculture has replaced inter-cropping, which had scientific logic behind it. We need to go back to diverse crop cycles. Food policies have to be so designed to promote practices that help conserve diversity.
Celebrated agricultural scientist M S Swaminathan has warned that that medicinal plants were getting lost. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has pointed out that in the past, the community food system ensured a wide range of food crops rich in protein, iron, micronutrients and vitamins but commercial agriculture brought in changes and there was now a need to revisit the earlier traditions.
It is well-known that in rural India, women possess rich traditional knowledge. Therefore, women are crucial to conservation and sustainable management of agricultural biodiversity.
Organizations like Modern Architects of Rural India (MARI) are now working with villagers in Andhra Pradesh teaching them sustainable practices that have been pulled out of traditional knowledge. Says R. Murali, secretary of MARI in Warangal: 'We are getting farmers to use traditional seeds as it is more pest resistant. We encourage diverse crops so that pests of one crop do not survive when the next cycle comes up. We get them to use bio-pesticides that they make by grinding different seeds, using cow urine and neem. We want to create models of farming that are pesticide free.'
One way to cut the damage to biodiversity is to follow the example of the Deccan Development Society in Andhra Pradesh, where women have been trained into storing and distributing diverse crop seeds from seed banks. In the villages of Andhra, many farmers are back to organic farming.
Another worthwhile idea is to train small and marginal farmers to market their produce or to add value to it. We need to build capacities of local communities to tackle serious biodiversity issues and embrace appropriate and sustainable technologies. We also need to quickly develop energy sources that will save natural resources like wood.
There is a need to link biodiversity with livelihoods. A wheat farmer could be trained to pound wheat into flour and then bake biscuits. Or an organic farmer could be shown an exclusive market where his produce can be sold at a premium. For being a part of a complex system that protects biodiversity, they have to be rewarded.
The government can easily introduce nutritionally superior foods into the public distribution system like coarse millets and also get it into programmes like Food for Work. This will keep diverse strains of the grain alive, as there is a demand for it.
It would be a rewarding idea to document traditional knowledge before it is lost and use it to save resources that are being eroded. One evocative example is of how our forefathers protected biodiversity by declaring some areas as sacred groves. As they were sacred, it was worshipped and left alone. Hundreds of years ago, they had the vision of how important species of plants and animals would be destroyed if they did not devise some ingenious way. So, they declared habitat rich areas as sacred groves. As it had a spiritual value, it got cared for and protected.
Naturally, the grove strengthened the ecological needs of the area. It also secured the livelihoods of communities safeguarding it, as there was protection. Today, in numerous sacred groves of Uttaranchal, Meghalaya, Kerala and Tamilnadu, many important tree species have been preserved as they are seen as, 'temple trees'. People need to be trained in natural resource management.
Indian budgets fly with the rhetoric of development and economic growth, but have yet to see the wealth the country stands to gain with its biodiversity intact. Budgets of the future need to recognize the value of biodiversity and generously fund conservation and promotion of sustainability. Then, we can sit back and see how it pays rich dividends. When a nation loses its biodiversity, it stands to lose not only its wealth, but also its future. There is little time for India to lose.