Bringing the market in: Putting wildlife on sale

Since then, market-driven forces have been tapping our natural heritage and making the survival of our wild species knotty. The road, mining, port and even ‘green’ energy projects have all eaten into the heart of our wildlife habitats. There is a mad scramble to grab our natural landscapes.

The market has turned incredibly savy and has the political clout to change anything that comes in its way, including law. Weakening of certain forest conservation laws and monitoring institutions are examples of the market clout. Though economic prosperity is an important pillar of social-well being, it can be addictive, and however well-intentioned, it will have a catastrophic effect on the race we all belong to.

The Western Ghats in Karnataka are to get over 100 mini-hydel power generation units that would leave the area dotted with a series of power generation units, fragmenting habitat of tigers, lion-tailed macaques, elephants, hornbills, forest cane turtles and other ecologically sensitive wildlife species. Highways are planned through Nagarahole, Pench, Srivilliputtur and other wildlife reserves that would leave devastating effects on the species these protected areas hold. A large port is set to seal the fate of the world’s largest olive-ridley turtle nesting site in Orissa. Wind farms have eaten into the last remaining swathes of green cover in the dry plains of Karnataka.

Going beyond profit maximisation, practising ‘moral economics’, understanding that marriage of industry and wildlife that need inviolate landscapes is an oxymoron can set things in right perspective.  Conservationists are not against development but the cause for concern is the siting of the projects. Ninety six per cent of the country’s landscape is already available for human use and only four per cent remains as wildlife sanctuaries and national parks. We will not achieve heaven on earth by sacrificing this last four per cent (only one per cent remains truly inviolate and well-protected).

Economists and the business world necessarily needs to understand the term ‘ecosystem services’, a term introduced by biologist Paul Ehrlich in 1974 to acknowledge that ecosystem was more than a place where biologists could study biodiversity, and that ecosystems were valuable as local regulators of climate, water and chemical resources. It is time that we understood that the forested land surface on the Earth as something that evolved to serve the metabolism of the Earth; it is irreplaceable.

Incentives to humanity
Nature provides powerful incentives to humanity. The indirect use values of nature far outweighs the short-term profit-maximisation market is currently aiming at. After all markets are one of the major benefactors of wildlife and nature conservation. Ecological economist Robert Costanza estimates that the annual value of ecosystem services provided by nature to humanity is worth about $33 trillion. Our forests are biotechnology repositories of several future wonder drugs. At least 7,000 medicinal compounds in the Western pharmacopoeia, from aspirin to important anti-cancer drugs, are derived from wild plants. Forests in Karnataka are important catchment for 62 per cent of Karnataka’s electricity generation, which is from hydro power. Coffee cultivation (Indian coffee exports was over Rs 2,000 crore in 2007) is largely dependent on nature for pollination. Today, nature tourism is an essential form of India’s leisure industry. Some countries have even begun carbon trading bringing in revenue in millions.

IndWildlife on saleustry need to go beyond releasing watches and other products with wildlife motifs.  They need to keep their hands off from the natural homes of turtles, tigers, elephants, rhinos, hornbills and other wildlife holding on precariously on these tiny islands.
Finally conservationists should not be discarded as nostalgic ilks. They do not have unrealistic expectations from business houses. It is certainly pragmatic to think in the longer-term. After all we are merely trustees of our natural wealth belonging to our future generations and not spend it all by ourselves.

The country has done well in preserving its wildlife and forests in the Socialist era. However, once the neo-classical economy took over, the scenario has changed rapidly. If the market understands that the Earth is not a real estate property in an urban sprawl where one has to maximise on the space available, we could sustain our living landscapes.

The enterprise of saving wildlife in a developing country like India is a complex socio-economic issue as much as it is biological. Human population densities are high (>300 per sq km) of which over 60 per cent are rural-based relying on agriculture and animal husbandry for livelihoods, and use wood and biomass for shelter and energy needs.
On the other end of the spectrum is this economy attempting to reach the skies. Both these aspects put severe pressure on the wildlife and its habitat. Recognition of this factor and working towards making our investments wildlife friendly could take a long way in saving our precious wildlife that has taken millions of years for the ‘Gaia’ (a metaphor for the living Earth coined by the environmental thinker James Lovelock) to evolve.

(The writer is a member of the Karnataka State Wildlife Advisory Board)

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