Sustainably using Biodiversity

By: Staff Reporter, Prasad and Bhupal
In the backdrop of varying socio cultural milieu, changing climatic regimes and often conflicting demands of various stakeholders, there is an urgent need for augmenting and accelerating the efforts for conservation of biological diversity in India, and for fair and equitable sharing of benefits arising from the utilisation of genetic resources.

Habitat fragmentation and reduced genetic diversity Over a billion people, their need for food, fibre, shelter, fuel and fodder and an urge for economic development exerts an inexplicable burden on India’s natural resources. With half of the total land under agriculture and approximately 23 per cent under forests, the protection of diverse habitats poses a formidable challenge. The loss and fragmentation of natural habitats needs to be arrested and restoration enabled for a substantial fraction of the wilderness that has been depleted in the past. Developmental activities involve diversion of forest land and since the enactment of Forest (Conservation) Act in 1980, 11.4 lakh hectares of forest area for about 14,997 development projects, have been approved for diversion. Habitat fragmentation and loss is also one of the primary reasons leading to cases of man- animal conflict. Common property resources like pastures and village forests, which served as buffer between wildlife habitat and agriculture, have been gradually encroached upon and converted into agricultural fields and habitation. Villagers are thus brought into a direct conflict with wild animals.

Sacred grove initiative based on religious beliefs of certain communities for conserving biodiversity are being gradually degraded or converted to plantations. As there are several medicinal plants and wild relatives of crop plants occurring naturally in these areas, India’s over 19,000 sacred grove initiative needs strengthening. Age old norms of neighbourhood forest and common land conservation are also diminishing, although certain rural and tribal communities such as the Bishnois continue to safeguard their biological resources even at the cost of their livelihood and sustenance.

Loss of habitats and over exploitation have led to depletion of genetic diversity of several wild animals and cultivated plants. Shrinking genetic diversity leads to vulnerability to diseases and pests and lesser adaptability to climatic changes. This lesson has emerged from the world wide experience of drastically curtailed genetic diversity in agricultural biodiversity following the Green and White Revolutions in India.

About 150 crops feed most of the human population at present, but just 12 of them provide 80 per cent of food energy – with wheat, rice, maize and potato alone providing 60 per cent. Also, about 30 mammalian and bird species are used extensively, but just 15 of them account for over 90 per cent of global livestock production. The Indian scenario is not very different. Choice of crops and farm livestock in agricultural production systems is now largely influenced by market trends and changing lifestyles, affecting variety, taste and nutrition value of our food basket. Indigenous cultivars, adapted to local climatic regimes are mostly low yielding, subject to lack of breeding effort and are thus getting fast replaced by just a few high yielding and pest resistant superior varieties of crops. With such a narrow genetic base the dangers of vulnerability to widespread epidemics looms large. Over 3,00,000 samples of cultivars kept under long term storage in the National Gene Bank, is out of the cropping cycles. Many among nearly 140 native breeds of farm livestock and poultry are also facing a similar threat to their survival despite being genetically better adapted to their environment and remaining productive on even lower quality feedstuff. The local breeds are more resilient to climatic stress, more resistant to local parasites and diseases, and serve as a unique reservoir of genes for improving health and performance of ‘industrial’ breeds. Conservation and greater use of local breeds will be effective in achieving food and nutrition security objectives at the local level. Developing fruitful national partnership, while working towards sustainable agriculture, presents a challenge to all concerned government agencies, scientific institutions and rural communities.

Declining natural resource base The forests of India may be classified into five major groups, 16 forest types and 202 sub groups based on temperature, location specific climatic factors and plant species. Forests face threats on account of diversion of forest land for agriculture, industry, human settlements, and other developmental projects. Construction of roads and canals, quarrying, shifting cultivation and encroachments are other threats. Degradation of forests results from illicit felling, excess removal of forest products, fodder, fuel wood, forest floor litter, overgrazing and forest fires. As a result, many endemic forest species are now left with narrow eroding populations.

Even though forestry is the second largest land use in India after agriculture, covering approximately 23.41 per cent, of the total geographical area, the contribution to the GDP from forestry is minimal – barely 1.1 per cent in 2005. An estimated 41 per cent of the country’s forest cover has been degraded to some degree. As much as 78 per cent of forest area is subject to heavy grazing and about 50 per cent of the forest area is prone to forest fires. The rich diversity of medicinal plants, over 6,500 species, in the country needs conservation and sustainable utilisation, as their habitats are either degraded or the species are being over exploited. Medicinal plants constitute a critical resource for health care of rural communities and for the growth of Indian herbal industry. In fact, nearly 90 per cent of the medicinal plants in trade are harvested from the wild. Currently, India’s share in the complementary medicine related global market is only 0.3 per cent and there exists immense scope for expansion.

The Ministry of Environment and Forests has mooted a Multi-Stakeholder Partnership (MSP) framework involving three partners – the land owning agency/forest department, the local village community and the sponsor, for afforestation of degraded forest lands and other lands, as one of the measures to achieve the National Forest Policy goal of one third forest and tree cover in the country. Unsustainable exploitation of biodiversity resources, particularly by developed countries has serious adverse impacts, both local and global. The global impacts are largely manifest in developing countries, and may further accentuate poverty in these countries. Failure on the part of developed countries to provide incentives for conservation in the form of financial resources, technology transfer and scientific cooperation, further dampen the conservation efforts in developing countries. Grasslands, wetlands and coastal and marine ecosystems such as mangroves and coral reefs are also facing threats from increased resource use, pollution, reclamation and illegal poaching. Although population growth and resource consumption are proximate threats to biodiversity today, in the long run their impact on biodiversity will be determined by more than one variable. The steps that are taken to improve literacy, empower women, invest in health and child welfare, and stimulate sustainable economic development, will also determine the level where human population, and the demands it places on natural resources, stabilise.

Article 2 Image 1
Image 1: Landraces, developed and grown traditionally by farmers through generations, locally adapted obsolete cultivars and their wild relatives comprise crop genetic resources. These provide the building blocks used by farmers and scientists as the raw material for breeding new plant varieties and also act as a reservoir of genes sought after for manipulation using new tools of biotechnology.

Invasive alien species Habitats of native plant and animal species face threats by invasive alien species – considered second only to habitat loss. The major plant invasive species include Lantana camara, Eupatorium glandulosum, Parthenium species, Mimosa species, Mikaniamicrantha, Ulexenropaeus, Prosopisjuliflora, Cytisusscoparius, Euphorbia royleana, etc. Alien aquatic weeds like water hyacinth and water lettuce are increasingly choking waterways and degrading freshwater ecosystems. Lantana and carrot grass cause major economic losses in many parts of India. Highly invasive climbers like Chromolaena and Mikania species have overrun the native vegetation in North-East Himalayan region and Western Ghats. Numerous pests and pathogens such as coffee berry borer, turnip stripe virus, banana bunchy top virus, potato wart and golden nematode have invaded agro ecosystems become and have a serious menace. In addition, illegally introduced catfishes – the African magur and also the big head carp are known to have adversely affected native fish diversity. Accidental entry of silver carp in Govindsagar lake and its subsequent dominance over the native catla and mahseer fish is a shocking experience. Tilapia has similarly been reported to have adverse effects on indigenous species in Vaigai reservoir in Tamil Nadu. A recent intruder, the Thai magur, poses an even greater threat to native fish fauna. In view of the severe damage that has been done to major ecosystems and taking note of the alarming environmental degradation caused by the invasive alien species, some states have adopted legislative and administrative measures for eradicating/preventing their further spread. The threat posed by exotic invasive species is however not yet contained and awaits more effective steps to be taken at ground level.

Climate change and desertification There are indications that the projected changes in temperature and carbon dioxide concentration may alter growth, reproduction and host
pathogen relationships in plants and animals. It is believed that ecosystems with undiminished species diversity, and species with their genetic diversity intact, are likely to be in a much better position to face the impact of climate change. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in its summary report released in February, 2007, has estimated huge loss of biodiversity for biodiversity rich megadiverse countries such as India, due to higher greenhouse gas emissions. Targeted research on impacts of climate change on forest types, eco sensitive zones, crop yields and biodiversity is required under the changing climatic regime. Similarly, scientific studies have brought out that strong interlinkages exist between desertification and biodiversity loss. This calls for undertaking focused research on the impact of desertification, as also synergising efforts to combat desertification and promote biodiversity conservation.

Impact of development projects Large infrastructural and industrial projects, including highways, rural road network, and the special economic zones are rapidly changing the Indian landscape. With cities and townships expanding, often at the cost of agriculture, and agriculture expanding at the cost of tree cover, fresh threats to biodiversity are emerging. In addition, changing lifestyles of the people, with rising incomes, in both rural and urban areas, are placing increasing demands. In an effort to harmonise developmental efforts with protection of environment, environmental impact assessment (EIA) was made mandatory through a notification issued in 1994 for notified categories of developmental projects in different sectors of the industry, thermal and nuclear power, mining, river valley and infrastructure projects. To make the EIA process more efficient, decentralised and transparent, a revised notification was issued on September 14, 2006.

The threats of pollution from improper disposal of municipal solid waste, inadequate sewerage, excessive use of chemical pesticides and continuous use of hazardous chemicals even where non hazardous alternatives are available, is raising the levels of biodiversity stress. New industrial processes are generating a variety of toxic wastes, which cannot be dealt with by currently available technology. Besides, economic constraints and problems related to the indigenisation, make the substitution of these technologies difficult. Although India’s per hectare use of pesticide is low as per global standards, pesticide residues in land, water and food have been detected over the last three decades. There is a need for a body of research and development seeking new, biologically based methods for abatement of pollution.

Biodiversity information base So far, almost 70 per cent of the country’s land area has been surveyed and around 45,500 species of plants and 91,000 species of animals have been described. It is estimated that about 4,00,000 more species may exist in India which need to be recorded and described. Also biodiversity information is scattered and not yet integrated into a standardised national database. In fact information on several taxa is so insufficient that it is difficult to categorise them as extinct, endangered, vulnerable or rare.

Emerging biotechnologies Development and introduction of transgenic or genetically modified organisms, are already in the process of revolutionising agriculture, industry and health care. Significant investments in biotechnology research have been made in India and many research projects are at advanced stages of development. About 20 recombinant therapeutics and a transgenic crop, Bt cotton, have already been approved for commercial use in the country. The area under Bt cotton cultivation has increased substantially in the last seven years. Further, 11 transgenic crops are under various stages of field trials. Among various biosafety issues, there are concerns about the impact on biodiversity. A multi-tiered mechanism is already in place in India to evaluate and regulate such organisms. However long term impact of introduction of transgenics on biodiversity, particularly on genetic diversity of domesticated animals and crops, is far from clear. The application of Genetic Use Restriction Technologies (GURTs) or terminator technologies is prohibited and import of GURTs based products is also banned in India.

Economic valuation and natural resource accounting Sensitivity to conservation issues and decision making has been insufficient as a result of non accounting of intrinsic value of biodiversity in the wake of serious damage caused to ecosystems and in the immediate and long run. Despoilers of environment will not find it economically viable if an economic value is put on the goods and services provided by the ecosystem. In India, natural resource accounting systems are likely to play an important role in decision making and resource allocation in the future.

Policy, legal and administrative measures Although a number of policy, legal and administrative measures are in place to address various aspects of biodiversity conservation there is a need to enforce and synergise these measures. Further, role of macro economic policies and measures on biodiversity is least understood. Policies, which directly or indirectly work as incentives for indiscriminate use of biodiversity, are insensitive to biodiversity concerns. On the other hand, biodiversity and wildlife conservation policies that rely on denying people access to their natural resource base can inflict hardships on the poor, as there is no accounting of the costs of conservation thrust on them for the benefit of distant interest groups. There is a need to promote people’s participation and, solicit their cooperation, particularly of those living inside the protected and fringe areas.


There is a pressing need to improve intersectoral coordination inter alia through continuous and networking of these institutions to ensure adequate coverage of biodiversity concerns and issues and also to avoid duplication of efforts. There is a need for human resource development and capacity building for scientific management of biodiversity. Capacity building in taxonomy requires particular attention, since taxonomists are rapidly declining in number when the need for taxonomic stocktaking of earth’s biodiversity is becoming increasingly important and urgent. Many groups of biota are yet to be catalogued, while biodiversity losses are rampant. The implementation of Biological Diversity Act and National Environmental
Policy 2006 would be difficult without having adequate number of trained taxonomists.

Extract : National Biodiversity Action Plan, (MoEF 2008-09/5)

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