Diverse economy of nature

Last Updated 18 January 2010, 12:11 IST

The mention of biodiversity brings to mind a multitude of peculiar plants and strange animals that inhabit our planet’s forests, lakes, deserts and oceans. While being undeniably fascinating, one cannot help wondering why there are so many species, and what purpose their existence serves. This question, which otherwise merely stirs an idle curiosity, becomes a fairly serious matter when we confront the fact that an expanding human footprint has come at the cost of thousands of organisms, and continues to imperil the future of millions more.

So, when we speak of conserving biodiversity, should we be concerned at all if we lost forever, say, a drab brown bandicoot or even something as spectacular as a hornbill? Conversely, how much must we deny ourselves of land or water and the resources they hold, merely to secure the future of some strange creature that dwells therein?
Biodiversity conservation places what some see as disproportionate emphasis on wild species, their populations and habitats. In other words, the animal, bird or tree itself becomes the object of conservation interventions and here is where the effort runs into problems. People ask: are a few hundred monkeys more important than the jobs of thousands of miners? Is a bird more important than a community’s livelihood? Is a tree more important than people’s access to basic amenities? Thus, when pitted against human well-being, arguments to conserve biodiversity by saving species begin to seem indefensible.

But there is another way to look at biodiversity in conservation debates. That is, by focusing on what an organism does, rather than on what it is! Scientists call this the functional role of that organism. Processes like pollination, predation, the cycling of nutrients, and the supply and regulation of water are all ecosystem functions performed by a diversity of living organisms. Many of these functions hold enormous economic value for humans. Much of our food is created through the services of pollinators like bees and bats. There would be no coffee, cocoa, mustard, sesame, dozens of fruit and spices without these creatures. No man-made methods yet exist to aerate soil on the scale and with the efficiency that termites and ants do. Bigger and better-known creatures like hornbills and lion-tailed macaques disperse seeds that help in forest regeneration. Seen in this way, wild organisms no longer vie with humans; rather, they become the providers of human welfare.

Nagarhole, Brahmagiri, Talacauvery...
In purely economic terms, the subsidy humans get from the ecological services organisms render is enormous. Imagine for a moment that the forests of Nagarahole, Brahmagiri and Talacauvery did not exist and instead, in their place, we had sprawling settlements, roads, mines and dams. If this were so, Kodagu, without its forest-dwelling pollinators, would no longer be India’s coffee capital; without birds or bats, farms all around would lose more and more crop to pest outbreaks; the Lakshmanatheertha, Kabini and Cauvery would be reduced to mere trickles; dozens of indigenous families collecting and selling forest produce (think honey, cinnamon, nutmeg, mace, frankincense and kokum) would be poorer as would we, without these small luxuries.

While, year on year, the ecological services provided by biodiversity may seemingly fail to provide concentrated economic returns that mining ore might, they come to us practically free, requiring little investment on our part beyond non-interference. What’s more, unlike a mine with a finite lifetime that will run out of ore over a few decades, this suite of services, if conserved, will renew itself and serve us into perpetuity. Surely, if we did our economic sums over longer time-frames, such returns must far outweigh the short-lived burst of profits from a single source like a mine?

The Kudremukha example
Not only are the gains short-term, the costs of replacing myriad ecosystem services with a single economic activity are well-documented: monsoon rains washed down thousands of tons of silt each year from the open cast mines of Kudremukha into the irrigation dams downstream. Silted reservoirs held far less water for irrigation during the dry season. Ore-laden waters also ruined crops over thousands of acres far downstream, causing massive losses to farmers. Tens of thousands of people living by the rivers could no longer drink its silt-laden water, with the government and families alike having to spend on water purification.

At the time the Supreme Court heard the Kudremukha case, it may have seemed absurd to argue that the future of an endangered monkey, or the beauty of a shola-grassland landscape should prevail over the well-being of a profit-making company that employed many. But the regeneration of forest that the monkeys enabled by dispersing seeds, or the supply and regulation of water that the shola-grasslands ensure into perpetuity, are not absurd causes to defend.

Investing in a diverse portfolio
To conserve biodiversity is to invest in human welfare. And to do so wisely, we must to invest in a diverse portfolio of nature, rather than pursue high-risk, high-gain investments that seek to make mines, highways, farms or factories of every forest that remains. The pursuit of unidimensional economic gain despite a multitude of losses has been possible because the profits are generated close to where decisions are made while costs are incurred farther away. Such a model will not serve us for the future.
Biodiversity, the spectacular and baffling assemblage of species of every kind--contributes to the capacity of a system to renew itself, making it alive. When we take away what makes it alive, every resource we harvest after that is finite.

More than half a century ago, Aldo Leopold put it succinctly: The last word in ignorance is the man who says of an animal or plant, “What good is it?” If the land mechanism as a whole is good, then every part is good, whether we understand it or not. If the biota, in the course of aeons, has built something we like but do not understand, then who but a fool would discard seemingly useless parts? To keep every cog and wheel is the first precaution of intelligent tinkering.

(The authors are with the Nature Conservation Foundation, Mysore)

(Published 18 January 2010, 12:11 IST)

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