Protecting biodiversity

Protecting biodiversity

It is a well-known fact that many of India’s forests are not doing too well in terms of biodiversity. However, in the recent past, many initiatives have been launched to restore the ecosystems. It was in this light that the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change, Government of India in collaboration with Kalpavriksh, a non-profit organisation based in Pune, prepared an action plan to conserve the forest biodiversity of Uttara Kannada district.

This action plan, known as Karnataka State of Environment Report and Action Plan — Biodiversity Sector, was made involving all the major stakeholders and was finalised in 2004. So, what has changed in the past 14 years since the plan was put into action? Let’s review its impacts on the occasion of World Biodiversity Day.

In order to deal with biodiversity issues, the action plan suggested the formation of district biodiversity board or centre, a separate institution headed by a scientist. The idea behind this was to enhance the capacity of people and the government departments in understanding and documenting biodiversity in the region. It was supposed to synergise the efforts of traditional knowledge keepers with that of the scientific community and showcase the need to link conservation of biodiversity with the sustainable development of natural resources.

Due to the unique ecological zones in the district, the action plan called for an inventory of all crops and plants in each village through People’s Biodiversity Registers (PBR). Over the years, it was only in a few villages that the PBRs were prepared in collaboration with civil society organisations.

Using the Biological Diversity Act, 2002, and notified Biological Diversity Rules in 2004, it recommended the formation of Biodiversity Management Committees (BMC) to oversee the conservation of traditional seed varieties and livestock. The focus was on the involvement of farmers as partners in conservation efforts. In some areas, BMCs were formed but they are now almost defunct as they do not have a clear understanding of its functions and responsibilities.

Sustainable approach

The decimation of diversity that goes on without any effort to arrest it is worrying. For example, over-extraction of medicinal plants like Garcinia gummi-gutta (uppage) from the forests has not been effectively curbed. Similarly, the Nothapodytes Nimmoniana tree (durvasane mara or arali) is disappearing from the forests of Uttara Kannada. The wood of this plant is in demand in foreign countries for the extraction of an alkaloid that is used in the preparation of a cancer drug.

On the issue of forest conservation, the action plan called for “forestry to be more people- and biodiversity-centred, than timber-centred.” However, in practice, the Forest Department which owns almost 70% of the land in this district is intent on developing acacia and teak plantations. This, as a result, has led to the destruction of forest diversity. The spree of developing monoculture plantations has taken a toll on the biodiversity of Uttara Kannada and is also affecting the water security of the region.

The action plan intended to protect fragile forest areas by giving them the tag of ‘heritage site’. Some areas such as Bedhti Valley have been declared as heritage sites under the Biological Diversity Act. Predicting large influx of tourists into the forest areas like Yana, the action plan suggested setting up tourist bureaus to assist in the management of plastic, fire and waste menace in tourist places.

With the vast coastline in the district, the plan called for conservation of mangroves and marine diversity to enhance the livelihood of fishermen and build the aquatic resources in the estuaries. In reality, these fragile coastal ecosystems are converted into commercial prawn farms that have led to the aquatic life being infected by diseases.

While these may show that there is a lack of commitment from the district authorities, the silver lining is the efforts by individuals and non-profit organisations, which are involved in conserving the biodiversity of both cultivated and uncultivated crops.

For instance, Sreedhar Desai, a traditional medicine practitioner, has been conserving 300 medicinal plants. Vanastree, a women-led initiative based in Sirsi, has been saving open pollinated vegetable seeds. Such initiatives with their commitment to saving biodiversity on the farms and forests can go a long way in conserving forest ecosystems.