Integrating ecology and economy: five lessons

“One of the hardest things in politics,” US President Barack Obama said in a recent interview, “is getting a democracy to deal with something now where the payoff is long term or the price of inaction is decades away.” Obama’s words are pertinent not only to the rules proposed on June 2 by his administration to cut future carbon emissions by US fossil-fuel power plants as a step to address climate change. They are also relevant to the other great democracy and its spanking new government on the other side of the planet: India.

The science whose central concern is the long term and leaving a healthy environment for future generations is ecology. And within ecology, on a planetary scale, it is the science of climate change. So when India’s new government, under Prime Minister Narendra Modi, renamed the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) appending ‘and Climate Change’, it was a timely move. It signalled that even as the government pursues its stated policy of industrial and infrastructural expansion for economic growth, it would place tackling climate change firmly on its agenda, along with the protection of environment, forests, and wildlife.

But a slew of media reports belie this interpretation. According to these reports, the MoEF, in its new avatar, plans to redefine what an inviolate forest is so that more forests can be opened for mining. It proposes to dilute environmental norms and procedures to bypass existing legal requirements for large infrastructure and defence projects. The government announced plans to increase the height of the Sardar Sarovar dam, raising concerns over the rehabilitation of 250,000 people, even as a ‘leaked’ Intelligence Bureau report attacked civil society NGOs for working on ‘people-centric’ issues. Meanwhile, the MoEF has been silent on other pressing needs: releasing the long overdue India State of Forest Report 2013, acting to save critically endangered species such as the Great Indian Bustard (now down to less than 300 individual birds in the wild), or implementing pro-active measures to combat climate change. Within hours of taking charge as Minister of State for Environment, Forests and Climate Change, Prakash Javadekar said with unsettling brevity in a TV interview: “… India needs a window for growth and emissions and other things.” To his credit, Mr Javadekar has promised to ensure that environmental protection and developmental activities will go together. While it is too early to assess promise against practice, this is as good a time as any to recount five lessons from ecology on why environmental protection should concern India’s new government and 1.2 billion plus people.

Thinking long term

Obama’s words point to lesson one: ecology takes the long view. Development projects promoted for short-term gains may have unaccounted long-term costs for people and nation. The previous United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government in its 10-year tenure allowed the conversion or loss of over 700,000 hectares of forest—an area the size of Sikkim—for development projects and non-forest uses. Natural forests of diverse native tree species function as watersheds, wildlife habitats, and sources of livelihood for tribal, farming, and fishing communities, contributing to long term human well-being in ways not captured by indices such as annual GDP growth.

The science of restoration ecology attests that such diverse natural forests and the living soils they spring from, once destroyed are difficult and costly, or infeasible to bring back, and appreciable recovery may still take decades to centuries. This is not adequately factored into the estimation of net present value (NPV) of forests that tries to approximate economic losses over a 20-year period, by which time the losses are ‘recovered’ in compensatory afforestation sites. A project developer pays out the NPV—at current rates, a maximum of Rs 10.43 lakhs per hectare for very dense forests in the most biologically rich regions such as the Western Ghats—and flattens football fields of forests for the price of a mid-range SUV. Furthermore, compensatory afforestation, if carried out at all, frequently involves raising plantations of one or few alien tree species such as eucalypts and wattles. Such artificial forests are no substitute for the more diverse natural forests of mixed native species, including centuries-old trees. This is why, as the Modi government worries over its 100-day report card, ecologists will be concerned about its 100-year fallout.

Minding the connections

Lesson two is that ecology is a science of connections, of food chains from plankton and fish to sharks and men, of energy flowing from sun through grass to deer and tiger. Pluck the hornbills out of their forest home and forest trees whose seeds the birds disperse begin to decline. Destroy forest remnants amidst coffee plantations and farmers suffer as coffee yields dip due to the loss of pollinating bees. Strip the oceans of sharks and predatory fish with industrial fishing and entire ecosystems and livelihoods of artisanal fishers unravel in what ecologists call a trophic cascade. So, the wholesale construction of 300 large dams in the Himalaya as proposed by the government would not just generate power, but have other negative consequences radiating down the chains and webs of life, including to people downstream. When these are taken into account, implementing fewer and smaller projects or alternatives appears more attractive.

The third lesson, the mandala of ecology, is that ecology closes the loop. Nature recycles, without externalities, wasting little. If the government applied this to everything from recycling municipal waste to curtailing pollution by industries, it could generate jobs and induce growth without leaving behind irredeemable wastes. Ecology is replete with such cycles. One sees it in the organic farmer practicing rotational shifting agriculture on the hillslopes of north-east India, in the cycle of water from earth to cloud to rain and river, and in the dung beetles and fungi and vultures that help return dung and vegetation and carrion to the elements.

Fourth, ecological processes transcend political boundaries. We pump CO2 and other greenhouse gases into the common pool of our atmosphere anywhere and affect people and the earth’s fabric of life everywhere. The migratory warbler that picks the insects off the plants in our gardens may depend for its survival on protection of its breeding grounds in China or Central Asia. To conserve tigers and elephants in protected reserves, we need to retain connecting corridors and forests, some spanning state or international boundaries. Development and infrastructure projects can be designed and implemented such that they do not further disrupt fragmented landcapes, but instead help retain remnant forests or reconnect vital linkages.

On the road to development?  Destructive project promoted for short-term gains may have unaccounted long-term costs to people and nation.

On the road to development? Destructive projects promoted for short-term gains may have unaccounted long-term costs to people and nation (Photo of logs lying along the Andaman Trunk Road).

The science of home

Finally, ecology teaches us that humans are not external to nature. Land and nature are not commodities to buy or sell recklessly or reduce to a packaged spectacle for tourists to gawk at. They form the community we belong to: we are part of nature, it is home. In the debate over ecology versus economy, we must remind ourselves that both words originate from the Greek word oikos, meaning home. The science of our home environment (ecology) must inform the management of our home resources (economy).

What is often forgotten, in the debate falsely caricatured as environment versus development, is that for almost every destructive project, there are often alternatives and means of implementation that cause less harm to environment and local communities, and can provide overall long-term benefits. For instance, roads can be routed to avoid wildlife sanctuaries and provide better connection to peripheral villages, thus helping both people and wildlife. Decentralised village power generation systems that use biomass, solar power, and other renewable sources can help reduce reliance on mega power projects plagued by corruption and requiring long powerlines that suffer transmission losses and cause forest fragmentation. Mining can be carried out avoiding areas valuable for conservation or local people, after due environment and forest clearances, and keeping aside topsoil to ecologically restore even these areas later.

There are already many promising examples of ecologically sensitive development. If ecologists, engineers, and economists synergise their efforts, and the government chooses to exercise its electoral mandate to take the long view, there can be many more. The integration of ecological considerations into economic development is vital and valuable if, in the pursuit of profit, we are to ensure the long-term well-being of people and planet.

An edited version of this article appeared in the op-ed pages of The Hindu today. The longer version with links and images is posted above.

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