World Environment Day on Sunday is an occasion to assess where we stand in making this planet a more liveable place for us and future generations. Wildlife scientists and conservation experts on the choices we can make today before it becomes too late...

Conserving a connected world

A consumer picking a product off a shelf has an immediate impact on distant species and natural ecosystems. And that link brings with it both an environmental peril and opportunity.

We live in a beautiful, strangely connected world. A world where an Argus pheasant dancing in the under-storey of a Malaysian rainforest is linked by logging and timber trade to furniture in households in Coimbatore or Delhi. A world where an orang-utan sleeping in its canopy nest in the rainforests of Indonesian Kalimantan is linked precariously to bars of chocolate and soap in Europe and cheap palm oil in Indian markets. It's a world where a person buying a packet of Indian coffee or tea anywhere is inextricably linked to hornbills and rivers, to threatened macaques and elephants of the forests and grasslands of the Western Ghats, Assam, or Darjeeling. In today's world, although perhaps unintended by the ultimate consumer, a purchase of a cell phone or laptop carrying coltan ore could signify slamming the door on equatorial forests and endangered gorillas of the Congo.

Growing movement

Nearly four decades ago, Indira Gandhi, in a famous speech at the first conference of the United Nations on international environmental issues at Stockholm in June 1972 posited that “The inherent conflict is not between conservation and development, but between environment and reckless exploitation of man and earth in the name of efficiency.” Rejecting views that environmental problems were due to either population or affluence alone, she asked, “Will the growing awareness of ‘one earth' and ‘one environment' guide us to the concept of ‘one humanity'?” The Stockholm conference was a global watershed, a harbinger of far-reaching changes in approaches to environmental issues, and in governance, international and national.

Twenty years later, at another international milestone in June 1992, the UN Earth Summit at Rio de Janeiro, many issues raised in Gandhi's speech and in the developing concept of sustainable development began to crystallise. The Rio Declaration and Agenda 21 emerging from the Summit articulated the ideals of sustainable development, a form of development that gave environmental protection an integral part and placed human beings at the centre. Growing awareness began to influence various entities — nation states and private companies to civil society groups and individual consumers — to incorporate concerns of sustainability in principle and practice. Sustainable development, or sustainability, became shorthand for a triple bottom-line approach that aimed to meld people, planet, and profit.

Sustainable choices

A more connected, globalised world also bloomed in the 1990s, with accompanying revolutions in access to information and communication through mobile phones and the Internet. Bringing their own slew of environmental concerns, over climate change and ecological footprints, they also brought unprecedented opportunity for sustainable development. When people's desire to know more about a product is linked to awareness on environmental effects and sources of production, consumer choices may change toward better alternatives.

The call for sustainability builds on accumulating scientific evidence of human impacts on the environment, and the communication and information revolution that allows consumers to play a conscious and proactive role in environmental conservation. This approach is gaining currency, so to speak, in sectors such as forestry, agriculture, tourism, and marine fisheries. It focuses on transforming land use and business practices and influencing consumer choices, through better standards and alternatives devised by civil society and environmental organisations in partnership with governments and businesses. Based on this, certification schemes such as Forest Stewardship Council in forestry, Rainforest Alliance, bird-friendly and organic schemes in agriculture, and the marine and sustainable tourism stewardship councils, now link businesses to environmentally-conscious consumers through the shelf of markets worldwide, with the ultimate aim of fostering change on the ground.

Better forests

For instance, in forestry, it remains critical to protect all primary forests and remnant natural ecosystems in timber concessions and in the surrounding landscape, and to curtail the severe soil erosion and negative impact resulting from roads and movements of heavy vehicles. India, along with China, now the largest importer of logs and palm oil from Malaysia and other parts of South-east Asia, are driving extensive deforestation and destruction of the highly biologically diverse rainforests of this region. Oil palm, cultivated as enormous monoculture plantations after cutting and burning rainforest, is one of the most environmentally destructive land-use practices of the present day. Better practices, alternatives, and informed consumer choices are urgently required to save these remarkable tropical rainforests and myriad threatened species such as orang-utans and Argus pheasants they shelter.

In agriculture, take the case of tea and coffee from India. Carrying the tag of industry because of the scale, tea and coffee cultivation involve agricultural practices with a large footprint in environmentally significant landscapes. Occupying around 120,000 ha in South India and 460,000 ha in the North-east in the biodiversity-rich hills of the Western Ghats, the Assam valley and Darjeeling hills, the picturesque tea plantations are grown as intensive monocultures with vast swathes of tea under limited or no tree cover. Coffee, particularly arabica coffee, traditionally grown under the shade of many native forest tree species, in over 340,000 ha in southern India, has the potential to be a form of land use more gentle in its environmental effects in comparison to other crops such as oil palm, rubber, or tea. Still, inadequate treatment of waste water from coffee pulping and contamination of fresh water sources poses a continuing challenge.

Tea and coffee estates can do much for the environment by protecting natural ecosystems and wildlife habitats such as rainforest fragments and grasslands or setting aside areas to revive them where they have been already lost, particularly along streams and rivers. By treating wastewater adequately, using shade tree species native to each region, and avoiding toxic and banned agrochemicals such as paraquat (gramaxone), endosulfan, and carbofuran, they can reduce environmental impact. Produce from some certified Indian estates is currently making its way into export markets, with domestic consumers yet to connect with or benefit from ecologically friendlier tea and coffee. The billions of cups drunk every day may then leave a gentler mark on the earth.

The future

Yet, consumer choice via certification and corporate initiatives in social responsibility are not entirely fail-safe. There remains an indispensable need for watchdog groups, for constant improvements in transparency and standards, and most important, for producers and consumers alike to understand and adopt the spirit of caring for nature and the special needs of ecology and wildlife conservation underlying these efforts, even if it entails reduction in production and consumption.

Next year this week, as nations and citizens gather again in Brazil for the Rio+20 summit to set the stage for the future world environment, it is worth examining what individuals can do in today's linked, consumerised society. Going back to the ‘one humanity' of Indira Gandhi: “It will not be easy for large societies to change their style of living. They cannot be coerced to do so, nor can governmental action suffice. People can be motivated and urged to participate in better alternatives.”

The writer is a wildlife scientist with the Nature Conservation Foundation, Mysore (e-mail: trsr@ncf-india.org).