- It is estimated that more than half of household incomes in India are linked to natural resources and natural-resource dependent sectors. This underscores the importance of how we utilise our land for maintaining livelihoods of the poor communities and biological diversity and forests while also mining in ways that are sensitive to both these needs.
- The time has come when civil society should broaden its approach and start engaging directly with the industry leaders interested in finding “win-win” solutions for the environment and development, argues Seema Paul in this commentary.
- India can learn from Mongolia where the national government worked with civil society organisations to scientifically identify areas where mining can take place and areas that are needed to be protected keeping in mind their ecological importance.
The COVID-19 pandemic has underscored the link between health, economy and nature in no uncertain terms. One of the allegations over the past few months has been that the coronavirus transferred from wildlife to humans in the meat markets of Wuhan province in China. This is not an isolated instance as health scientists have documented that in recent times nearly 70 percent of new infectious diseases have arisen from the transfer of pathogens from wildlife to humans. Mankind’s exploitation of nature, along with climate change, are structural causes aiding this trend.
To respond to the economic crisis arising from the pandemic, the Indian government has announced a package of investments totalling at least 10 percent of the national Gross Domestic Product (GDP). It contains a slew of measures designed to boost the infrastructure sector, while liberalising the mines and minerals sector, including coal mining. However, unless such infrastructure boosting measures are balanced through environmental safeguards, they could further erode India’s biological diversity, undermine the country’s climate commitments, and abet with trends that trigger infectious diseases like COVID-19.
More than half of household incomes in India are linked to natural resources and natural-resource dependent sectors. Furthermore, mapping exercises have shown significant overlap between India’s remaining forests, mineral rich-sites and tribal populations. This underscores the importance of how we utilise our land for achieving seemingly conflicting goals – that is, maintaining livelihoods of the poor communities, maintaining biological diversity and forests while also mining in ways that are sensitive to both these needs, and the climate imperative.
The draft Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) notification 2020, which will replace the EIA notification 2006, attempts to rationalise the process and make it more transparent. However, some stakeholders have complained that the proposed notification, if adopted, will dilute the process and standards for environmental clearances for industries such as mining, infrastructure development and large townships.
While efforts to persuade the government to strengthen its regulations to manage the environmental impacts will continue, the time has come when civil society should broaden its approach and start engaging directly with the industry leaders interested in finding “win-win” solutions for the environment and development. The government is also likely to be more supportive of approaches that enable the industry to “self-regulate” in favour of the environment.
Read more: Deforestation and disease: How natural habitat destruction can fuel zoonotic diseases
Lessons from Mongolia
A noteworthy example in this regard comes from Mongolia’s mining industry, a sector which has received significant concessions as part of India’s recent economic package. Mongolia has globally significant biodiversity, mainly grasslands in its Eastern Steppes and the Gobi Desert. With 40 percent of the Mongolian population living as nomadic herders, the grasslands support livelihoods and traditional lifestyles as well.
In 2008-09 when the government of Mongolia wanted to open up its mining sector for investments, it looked for ways in which it could find balanced solutions. It worked with civil society (The Nature Conservancy) on a land-planning approach called “Development by Design (DbD)”. The results of this effort speak for themselves today: as a result of this work, Mongolia created 39 new protected areas in its eastern grasslands. And yet, the country’s mining sector has continued to grow, accounting for 23 per cent of the country’s GDP today!
Mongolia has since replicated this land planning process in the Gobi Desert, as well as its northern and western regions, creating a seamless land-use plan that is leading to the creation of 177,000 square kilometres of new areas that are demarcated as protected areas, while keeping nearly as much land available for mining, on par with the investments in protected areas.
Mongolia’s ‘Development by Design’ approach entailed working collaboratively with businesses such as the Rio Tinto mining corporation, local communities and civil society to scientifically identify areas where mining could take place; areas that should be off-limits for mining because of their ecological or local community values; and areas that if used for mining, would require the impact to be offset. Companies mining in this third category were required to make financial contributions towards “offsets,” which could be utilised to restore degraded sites or develop and implement management plans for the newly established protected areas.
All of this was laid out in an EIA law that the Mongolian government passed. A key component of this law was a national mitigation design tool that equipped companies to both identify areas in which mining was permitted, and not, as well as areas where it was permitted with payment towards “offsets.” The tool also helped the companies calculate the offset price which was based on the impact of their mining activities measured in terms of area, magnitude and duration of impact on the biodiversity values.
While India already has many well-established protected areas, they are insufficient for conserving our wildlife and ensuring the environmental balance for the country. It is indeed important for India to conserve the corridors between the protected areas if the local communities and wild creatures are to thrive into the future. However, the pertinent lesson from Mongolia is not that India needs more protected areas, but that it is possible to find win-win approaches that balance development with the environment and promote ease of doing business without compromising on the environment.
Rather than shying away from doing business in Mongolia because of its EIA law, mining corporations have been happy because the law provides them with businesses certainty around their investments. The chief advisor for biodiversity and ecosystem services for Rio Tinto, for example, has stated that a tool like Development by Design allows companies to assess the pros and cons of individual investments and avoid unnecessary risks.
Read more: COVID-19 may be the watershed to spur action on wildlife trafficking
Can India adopt a similar approach?
Taking a leaf out of Mongolia’s book, a few civil society organizations in India, notably the Center for Study of Science, Technology and Policy (CSTEP) and Vasudha Foundation, collaborated with The Nature Conservancy in India to create a tool called ‘SiteRight’ which enables wind and solar energy developers to site their projects in areas that are low conflict from environmental and social standpoints. The tool provides an assessment of potential sources of conflicts across ecological and social variables for a user-defined area and helps identify low conflict land parcels to meet wind and solar energy goals.
The aim of SiteRight tool is to “de-risk” business investments by reducing local conflicts that hold up projects and increase the investment costs for businesses. If adopted, it could encourage proactive planning that helps identify ways to meet our environmental and development goals in tandem. The initial response of businesses to this tool has been encouraging. At the moment, the tool is only designed for Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra but could be easily expanded across the country, as well as being adapted for use by infrastructure sectors including mining.
Significantly, a peer-reviewed analysis that accompanies the SiteRight tool, published in the journal Sustainability, found that India has more than 10 times the needed land for achieving its 2022 wind and solar targets in areas that have low biodiversity value! Such “win-win” for the environment and development is possible for many other sectors. What’s needed is a mindset shift among all stakeholders from “development versus environment” to a “development and environment” approach! For this to happen, stakeholders need to join hands to find collaborative solutions, sector by sector and issue area by issue area. This takes time and a commitment to providing practical, pragmatic tools and approaches, such as the “Development by Design” approach.
The author is the Managing Director of The Nature Conservancy – India.
Banner image: A coal mine in Jharia. Photo by TripodStories- AB/Wikimedia Commons.