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Biodiversity provides building blocks for sustainable food, health and livelihood security systems. It is the feedstock for the biotechnology industry and a climate-resilient farming system. Given its importance, a Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) was adopted at the 1992 U.N. Conference on Environment and Development in Rio de Janeiro. The triple goals of the Convention are conservation, sustainable use, and equitable sharing of benefits. It recognises that a country's biodiversity is the sovereign property of its people. India is a signatory to the CBD and has enacted the National Biodiversity Act, in force from 2002.
In spite of the importance given to biodiversity conservation, genetic erosion continues globally. Twelve per cent of birds, 21 per cent of mammals, 30 per cent of amphibians, 27 per cent of coral reefs and 35 per cent of conifers and cycads face extinction. According to the World Conservation Union (IUCN), over 47,677 species may soon disappear. A study published in Science (April 29, 2010) found no notable decrease in the rate of biodiversity loss between 1970 and 2010.
To generate awareness about genetic resources conservation, each year May 22 is observed as the International Day for Biological Diversity. The U.N. has designated 2010 the International Year of Biodiversity. Leaders from 170 countries will gather at a U.N. Biodiversity Summit in Nagoya, Japan, in October 2010 to adopt a roadmap to stop biodiversity loss. The challenge is for every country to develop an implementable strategy to save rare, endangered and threatened species through education, social mobilisation and regulation. The Nagoya Summit will lead to meaningful results only if biodiversity conservation is considered in the context of sustainable development and poverty alleviation. Indira Gandhi said at the U.N. Conference on the Human Environment held in Stockholm in 1972 that unless the needs of the poor and of the environment are attended to concurrently, the task of saving environmental assets will not be easy. Biodiversity loss is predominantly related to habitat destruction largely for commercial exploitation, and for alternative uses such as road-building. Invasive alien species and unsustainable development cause genetic erosion. How can we reverse the paradigm and enlist development as an effective instrument to conserve biodiversity? Some examples will illustrate how biodiversity conservation and development can become mutually reinforcing.
In 1990, I visited MGR Nagar near Pichavaram in Tamil Nadu to study mangrove forests. The people of the village were extremely poor and did not get the benefits of government schemes as they had not been classified either as a Scheduled Caste or a Scheduled Tribe. The Collector mentioned that the matter was under study. The children had no opportunity for education and the men caught fish using their hands. They were not sending children to school: the schools were far away and they were unable to get admissions there because of the delay in their being classified as S.C. or S.T. I told my colleagues: “Saving mangrove forests without saving the children for whose well-being these forests are being saved makes no sense.”
With the help of a few donors, we started a primary school there and got all children to join. A few years later, the State government took it over and expanded it. Following the 2004 tsunami, the huts were replaced by brick buildings and MGR Nagar changed. Recently, the village leader met me and said the villagers would like the school to be made a higher secondary school. He said they now knew the value of mangroves: the root exudate from the mangroves enriches water with nutrients and promotes sustainable fisheries. During the tsunami, mangroves served as speed-breakers and saved people from the waves. He said everyone in the village now understood the symbiotic relationship between mangroves and coastal communities. The mangroves here are now in safe hands.
In Tamil Nadu's Kolli Hills, tribal families had been cultivating and conserving a wide range of millets and medicinal plants. However, there was no market for traditional foods and they shifted to crops such as tapioca and pineapple. The millets they had cultivated and consumed for centuries were rich in proteins and micronutrients and climate-resilient: mixed cropping of millets and legumes minimised risks arising from unfavourable rainfall. Such risk distribution agronomy can ensure food security in an era of climate change.
How may we revitalise the conservation traditions of tribal families, without compromising on their economic well-being? Scientists of the M.S. Swaminathan Research Foundation (MSSRF) in Chennai started a programme to create economic stakes in conservation, by adding value to primary products and finding niche markets for traditional foodgrains. Commercialisation thus became the trigger for conservation. Today millets are again being grown and consumed. They now sing, “biodiversity is our life.” This is also the key message of the International Year for Biodiversity.
For too long tribal and rural families have conserved genetic resources for the public good at personal cost. It is time the importance of promoting a genetic conservation continuum was recognised, starting with in situ, on-farm conservation of resources by local communities, and extending up to the preservation of a sample of genetic variability under permafrost conditions at locations like Svalbard maintained by Norway, or Chang La in Ladakh where the Defence Research and Development Organisation has established a facility under permafrost conditions.
How can biodiversity be harnessed for poverty alleviation? This can be done by converting biodiversity into jobs and income on a sustainable basis. Institutional mechanisms have been developed at the MSSRF for this, such as Biovillages and Biovalleys. In Biovillages, the conservation and enhancement of natural resources become priority tasks. At the same time, the Biovillage community aims to increase the productivity and profitability of small farms and create livelihood opportunities in the non-farm sector. Habitat conservation is vital to prevent genetic erosion. In a Biovalley, local communities try to link biodiversity, biotechnology and business in a mutually reinforcing manner. A Herbal Biovalley under development in Koraput aims to conserve medicinal plants and local foods and convert them into value-added products based on assured and remunerative market linkages. Such sustainable and equitable use of biodiversity leads to an era of biohappiness. Tribal families in Koraput have formed a “Biohappiness Society.”
A Biodiversity Literacy Movement should be launched, so that from childhood on everyone is aware of the importance of diversity for the maintenance of food, water, health and livelihood security as well as a climate-resilient food production system. The Government of India has started programmes such as DNA and Genome Clubs to sensitise schoolchildren to the importance of conserving biodiversity. Wherever there is interaction between biodiversity and cultural diversity, we see rich agro-biodiversity — diversity that is economically valuable and life-sustaining. The Government of India has started recognising and rewarding the contributions of rural and tribal families in the field of genetic resources conservation through Genome Saviour Awards. We need similar awards for those who conserve breeds of animals, forests and fishes. The Biodiversity Act envisages action at three levels. The panchayat level biodiversity committee is responsible for conservation and for operationalising the concept of prior informed consent and benefit-sharing. Then there are the State-level Biodiversity Boards and the national-level Biodiversity Authority. These three units of the bioresources conservation movement should ensure that all development programmes are subjected to a biodiversity impact analysis, so that economic advance is not linked to biodiversity loss.
The Biodiversity Day and the Biodiversity Year underline the need to spread bio-literacy and bring on bio-happiness in biodiversity-rich areas. “Biodiversity hot spots” will become “biodiversity happy spots.”
(Professor M.S. Swaminathan, a Member of Parliament, Rajya Sabha, is a former president of the World Conservation Union.)
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