India took the lead in highlighting endangered sea sites as one of the five top-level themes at the Hyderabad CBD. It is odd therefore, that the country does not have any comprehensive law that deals with this important subject

What does 50 million U.S. dollars get you? The eleventh Conference of Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) has just concluded in Hyderabad this October. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has made the “Hyderabad Pledge” of $50 million for biodiversity conservation, and enhancing “human and technical capacity” for conservation. For the next two years, India is president of the CBD and is expected, both normatively and administratively, to take a lead in seeing through decisions taken at the CBD. Most significantly, India now has a serious chance at reimagining its conservation policies.

Many firsts for COP 11

There are several firsts at this CBD. This was the first conference of parties for the implementation of the time-bound Aichi targets, set to root out biodiversity loss. These targets, decided at the last CBD conference of parties in Nagoya, relate to planning, ecosystem services, invasive species, food security and climate change among others. They are a serious departure from the sort of myopic, single department-centred approach that conservation has had in our country. The 20 Aichi targets set out to establish that biodiversity conservation has to do with nearly every aspect of our life, and subsequent well-being. Crucially, the Aichi targets are wholly dependent on national action plans made by parties as per their national circumstances.

Several decisions have been made at the CBD which set the tone for domestic action plans. I would like to emphasise some of the decisions most relevant for the Indian context: on marine and coastal biodiversity, invasive alien species and protected areas. Crucially, these decisions have to be looked at through the time frame provided for the Aichi Targets — from this year to 2020, which is also two years into the United Nations Decade of Biodiversity. Equally, while this is the closest biodiversity targets have ever got to a deadline-oriented framework, this entire framework also runs the risk of never getting implemented, being wholly contingent on domestic action.

Existing policies

“I really don’t know what’s down there,” a forest department official remarked once, referring to the rich coral reefs of Gujarat’s Marine National Park. I have encountered other officials who believe that coral reefs are inanimate rock, rather than the sensitive, connected, and alive polyps they really are. But the concern of the official who doesn’t really know what’s “down there” is a valid one and should not be discarded. India has almost 8,000 kilometres of coastline, including its islands. India is also the country that took the lead in declaring marine conservation as one of the five themes for the high-level segment for this CBD meeting. It was decided in Hyderabad that marine areas which are ecologically and biologically sensitive will begin to get identified.

Is this a turning point? For India, it certainly can be. We have accepted voluntary guidelines for keeping biodiversity in perspective while conducting Environment Impact Assessments related to coastal and marine projects; it was India that mooted an “open and evolving” process at the CBD to begin identifying marine areas of significance through robust, scientific processes.

But the real question to ask is the one posed by the forest official: do our policy implementers know what is “down there,” and what will they do, since they do know? Is our forest department, historically set up to manage forests, curtail grazing, make plantations and fell timber, equipped to deal with marine conservation? The answer, clearly, is a no. While we have available science at our disposal for marine conservation, it is not an applied science for our forest department, who have been made the custodians of protecting all manner of wildlife. And that leads us to an even more significant question: are our present conservation policies capable of dealing with marine conservation? What we have in our kitty today is the Wildlife Protection Act, Tree Preservation Acts (at State level) and Environment Protection Act, none of which deal in any comprehensive way with marine conservation. Coral reefs are often referred to as the rainforests of the sea, and sea grass beds are no less life-giving than terrestrial grasslands, which form a primary food base for many species. But it is clear that a “tree” of the sea, or a grassland of a sea, cannot be protected by terrestrial policies, which have so far shaped our conservation policy landscape.

Just one example is that of dugongs, large marine mammals which feed on sea grass meadows. Nicknamed “sea-cows,” they are rapidly disappearing from their ranges in Gujarat and the Andamans. The sea “cow” nickname is testimony to how we familiarise ourselves with new concepts through terms we know already: here, that of a cow. But the sea-cow, for all the familiarity its name evokes, is fast disappearing, prey to poaching on land and threats in the sea.

What we need today are separate laws for marine conservation. At the cusp of finding new marine Ecologically and Biologically Significant Areas (EBSAs) for India and implementing targets for marine conservation, what will truly benefit marine conservation is taking marine conservation out of the box it presently is in: protection accorded to just familiar groups of marine species, and protection through marine protected areas, legally imagined as analogous to terrestrial protected areas.

Alien species and protected areas

On the question of protected areas (PA), the new text makes an important point: it calls for “other effective area-based conservation measures.” This marks a departure from the heavily guarded and enforced PAs which dot the country and coastline, and, in a majority of cases, have alienated traditional dwellers in and around PAs. “Other effective systems” can mean biodiversity heritage areas, community reserves and important bird areas, which should call for a management regime approach (seasonal or otherwise), rather than strict protection. Invasive alien species, like the omnipresent Lantana, have caused considerable economic and ecological damage, sweeping over natural habitats, as well as city-forests. But India has never felt the need to have a policy for alien species, despite the risk they pose to the mainland and the biodiversity hot spot of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. The new text on invasive alien species calls on countries to address threats from these species, check pathways and spread. This is especially important for a country as massive and megadiverse as ours: where even native species can be “alien” — the House Crow, for example, is a serious threat to the biodiversity of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands.

Post-CBD, the money is where the mouth is; now comes the all-important question of creating responsible domestic policy and action plans for it. As a host country and as CBD president, this is a chance for India to ensure CBD decisions and recommendations don’t remain paper tigers. Or just paper.

(Neha Sinha is with the Bombay Natural History Society. The views expressed are personal. E-mail: n.sinha@bnhs.org)

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