“Environmental impact assessment tends to ignore wider impact on biodiversity”

In a move that will bring cheer to wildlife lovers but could dismay industry lobbyists already complaining about the difficulty in obtaining green clearances, the government plans to add biodiversity conservation as a new criterion to grant environmental and forest clearances.

“There is no biodiversity clearance till now,” admitted Union Environment Minister Jayanthi Natarajan, speaking ahead of the United Nations summit on the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) which begins in Hyderabad next week.

“I know industries will panic if I say we are adding one more layer of clearances, but I would like to assert today that conservation of biodiversity should certainly be a part of forest and environment clearances. I will make every effort to integrate it into environmental or forest or both clearances, at whichever level it operates.”

Focus on species

In fact, the Biodiversity Act already says the government must assess the impact of any industrial or developmental activity on biodiversity. However, this is largely ignored or given lip-service while appraising applications for environmental and forest clearances.

Environmental impact assessment reports usually include a list of flora and fauna in the affected area, but there is little understanding of the interaction between species or the wider impact on biodiversity in the area.

Forest working plans often allow a focus on timber or plantations in afforestation measures, rather than requiring that the species cut and the species replanted are the same.

Holistic approach

“The impact assessment needs to be much more diverse and holistic,” says Kanchi Kohli of the environmental NGO Kalpavriksh. “And it really needs to be done at the planning stage, not at the individual project level.”

She also suggests that biocultural aspects should be taken into account, as mentioned in the CBD.

India takes over the presidency of the CBD’s Conference of Parties at a time when the need to mobilise scarce financial resources to safeguard the planet’s rich natural resources is taking the centre stage. At the last such summit held in Nagoya, Japan, in 2010, nations agreed to ambitious conservation targets.

For instance, by 2020, they agreed to halve the rate of loss of all natural habitats, including forests, and ensure that at least 10 per cent of coastal and marine areas — in comparison to the present 1.6 per cent — are conserved. Other targets were set to sustainably manage areas used for agriculture, aquaculture and forestry.

However, the last summit could not agree on funding targets to meet these goals. A report to be presented in Hyderabad shows that an annual flow of $150 billion to $430 billion is needed to actually implement the conservation targets, of which somewhere between $74 billion and $191 billion are needed for developing countries alone between 2014 and 2018. Currently, the international funds for biodiversity are stuck at a measly $6 billion per year.

Major themes

“The first agenda item is the implementation of the strategic plan,” said Ms. Natarajan, adding that other major themes include biodiversity for livelihood and poverty reduction, coastal and marine biodiversity and the implementation of the Nagoya Protocol.

This historic agreement provides for equitable access and benefit sharing of genetic resources, ensuring that local communities will gain when multinational firms commercially exploit their natural resources.

For example, a pharma company which develops a new drug from ingredients found in an Indian plant will now have to give a fair share to the Indian communities which nurtured the plant in the first place.

However, the protocol will only come into effect when at least 50 nations ratify it. So far, 92 nations have signed the deal, but only six have ratified it. While India is a signatory to it, Parliament is yet to ratify the protocol.

“This is our priority. We expect ratification within a couple of months,” said M. F. Farooqui, special secretary to the Ministry.