The theme of the World Environment Day 2020 is 'Biodiversity – Time for Nature'. Halfway through what has been an eventful year, to say the least, it is time for us to pause and think about our relationship with nature. Have we taken nature's forbearance for granted for far too long? Given the growing stress from the way we lead our lives and have shaped our economies and societies, it is unlikely that nature would silently endure the onslaught. There is growing evidence to suggest that it wouldn't.
There are two main reasons which forced me to think about the Sunderbans on the eve of the World Environment Day 2020, I believe.
Firstly, the resilience of the Sunderbans to have endured over time the pressure from a burgeoning population (located in one of the most populous regions in the country), while continuing to nurture the most diverse reserves of flora and fauna in a fragile ecosystem. The Sunderbans comprise 102 islands of which 48 are under forest area and the remaining 54 deforested and converted to arable land studded with human settlements.
Secondly, how this resilient character of the Sunderbans is constantly under the threat from an increasing frequency of tropical cyclones (like the recent Amphan supercyclone) and the devastations they cause. The Bay of Bengal is considered the hotbed of tropical cyclones, yet this region hasn't witnessed a supercyclone of the magnitude of Amphan earlier. The effects are yet to be fully computed but is estimated to run into a few thousands of crores of rupees. This doesn't take into consideration the extent of biodiversity loss.
India shares this unique and indeed vulnerable ecosystem with Bangladesh (60% of its 10,000 plus square kilometres is in Bangladesh). In spite of continuous habitat loss due to ever-expanding population and frequent cyclones, this region has continued to nurture a rich variety of biological resources – which in turn have supported the lives/livelihoods of people and various supply chains. One such example is fisheries. The Sundarbans is home to nearly 15 per cent of India's fish species and is the nursery ground for roughly 90 per cent of the aquatic species of the east coast. Thus, all the fisheries on the east coast of India are dependent on the continued health of the Sundarbans' ecosystem, and millions of people are dependent on revenue from fishing. However, eight of the Sundarbans' fish species are currently under threat due to continued loss of mangrove acreage, water pollution, and unsustainable fishing practices.
It is evident that actions towards biodiversity conservation of the Sunderbans (or any of the other biodiversity hotspots and regions in our country) cannot be initiated without due consideration about welfare and livelihoods of people and communities around and supported by it. The Amphan super cyclone has upended the lives of people and communities here and beyond. A current priority for the government (national and state) is to offer relief, which has been further complicated by the COVID19 situation. As rehabilitation and rebuilding start in this region, will that (can that) be done with minimal impact on local biological resources?Environmental hazards (loss of embankment, saline water incursion, habitat loss, etc.) and frequent tropical cyclones are a constant threat to people and communities here. Hence, there is a need for coordinated actions to maintain this delicate balance between people and nature in this region. However, such actions that meet the needs of people/communities and have minimal effect on these fragile ecosystems should be given priority. Further loss of the sunderbans' habitats and impoverishment of communities will have significant irreversible implications not only for people and the economy the state of West Bengal – but for the entire eastern region/coast of India.
A number of studies have highlighted the criticality of balancing biodiversity conservation with sustainable livelihoods in the Sunderbans. Findings from one such exercise undertaken by the World Bank in partnership with the Government of West Bengal (2014) entitled, 'Building resilience for sustainable development of the Sunderbans - a strategy report' seem very relevant. This study considered the importance of biodiversity conservation in the perspective of the broader sustainable development agenda by exploring its inter-linkages with three other elements – vulnerability reduction, poverty reduction and institutional change. Looking at biodiversity conservation in the context of local/regional sustainable socio-economic development should be an imperative for governments, businesses and individual consumers.
India's National Biodiversity Action Plan (NBAP, 2008) recognises the importance of biodiversity conservation as fundamental to protecting the livelihoods of people/communities who are dependent on these resources (and vice versa). The NBAP considers the participation of local communities in its governance and implementation as critical, especially through its three-tiered system consisting National Biodiversity Authority, State Biodiversity Board and local Biodiversity Management Committees. Recently, in its post-2020 global biodiversity framework, the UN Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) has envisaged a number of actions to stabilise biodiversity loss by 2030. One of the 2030 action areas is, 'meeting people's needs through sustainable use and benefit-sharing'.
It is perhaps the right time to review to what extent community needs and participation have been amalgamated into the implementation of our national, state and local biodiversity action plans, and identify challenges and gaps. Can we draw elements from international frameworks (CBD), available scientific data and existing knowledge to further strengthen these 'action plans' accordingly? Can a 'pilot' be planned for the Sunderbans, as it recovers from the double dose of COVID19 and the Amphan supercyclone?
This Environment Day it is indeed time for nature – and we need to invest this time wisely in its favour.