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The World Heritage tag comes with pitfalls

When you think of the Western Ghats, are lush forests with sparkling waterfalls, tall trees, tender ferns and orchids, and abundant wildlife the first things that come to mind? This image, of bountiful nature and ecological harmony, is among the myths propounded by the tourism industry.

india Updated: Jul 08, 2012 01:41 IST

When you think of the Western Ghats, are lush forests with sparkling waterfalls, tall trees, tender ferns and orchids, and abundant wildlife the first things that come to mind? This image, of bountiful nature and ecological harmony, is among the myths propounded by the tourism industry.

In reality, more than 90% of the Western Ghats' natural ecology has been destroyed, first by the plantation industry, and more recently, by urbanisation - through roads, mines, thermal and hydroelectric power projects, real estate speculation, overpopulation and tourism.

Goa, for example, suffers from serious pollution of all its aquifers and rivers from iron ore mines spanning more than 90 km of its 105-km length. Further south, Kerala's Wayanad district, a high rainfall area, faces a groundwater shortage because of an increased run-off from deforestation.

Yet the Western Ghats are essential to life in south India, for 245 million people living in and around it. Evergreen tropical forests generate local rain through high rates of evapo-transpiration. The cooling height of the mountains also causes monsoon clouds to condense into rain as they blow in from the ocean.

All this rain is soaked up by the forests and released into the rivers originating in the Western Ghats. Without protecting these forests, the rivers will surely run dry.

Satellite images worldwide show that intact forests go together with the presence of indigenous communities who know that environmental protection, sustainability and human well-being are the same thing. Most urban humans are alienated from this knowledge and far too many live in denial of the lethal toxification of environments, a direct result of the industrial culture.

They ignore, to our collective peril, that resources are finite. They believe that we can consume the planet and have it too. Without the natural world, there can be no economy. Water shortages alone, from groundwater depletion or rivers running dry, would disrupt most if not all industries, and most critically, agriculture.

The UNESCO gave the Ghats a World Heritage tag on Monday. On the one hand, conservationists believe tags buy time for nature, making it much harder for new extractive industries to obtain clearances and for existing ones to expand.

If the Western Ghats are protected now, the strictest of regulations observed and traditional and indigenous communities recognised as the true guardians of nature, then possibly the mountains will remain forested for the next 20 years.

On the other hand, I would argue that every remaining natural habitat worldwide should be given a World Heritage tag, every native species put on the International Union for the Conservation of Nature's Red List of Species, which catalogues and evaluates species facing a high risk of global extinction, and every indigenous community be given full rights and support to guide the rest of us towards a life of sustainability.

With 200 species going extinct every day and 70,000 a year, we need every kind of protection. For the biosphere, including air, water and earth, is the work of millions of species.

Also, the danger of tags is that they highlight chosen areas in a supposedly rational process of prioritisation, but who is to say some mountains are more important than others or that any of these is more important than the plains? What of the Eastern Ghats, the Satpuras, the Konkan coast, and the amazing Deccan?

A further danger of tags is that they allow for the unregulated destruction of areas untagged, and they have a habit of spawning corruption. Predatory forces might find new underhand ways to mine, invade and rip out the Ghats.

There is precedence. Corbett Tiger Reserve, one of the first protected areas demarcated to save tigers, is now being opened up for commercial purposes, with 49 tourist resorts opened along the Kosi corridor, a vital thoroughfare for animals. Meanwhile, there is talk about relocating villages from the same area. What then are the implications of this nomination for people living in the 39 sites identified under the World Heritage tag?

Tag or no tag, the demands for protection and restoration must increase and the work of restoration of degraded habitats must build apace. There is so much for all of us to do. A species goes extinct once and for all. At 1,700 in number, the tiger will go extinct if we stand back. Can we imagine a world without them?

But the great thing about the natural world is that it comes back if we give it time and space. The great thing about the world being so messed up, is that there is so much for each of us to do.

Citizens can, for instance, join the Western Ghats Google Group and debate the state of this range with hundreds people, learn about the many different efforts under way and see how they can merge their unique gift with the tasks others are carrying out.

If you love plants and know they are essential to the planet's well-being, you can get in touch with the Gurukula Botanical Sanctuary in Kerala, where my friends and I have devoted ourselves to native plants, and through them the habitats, of the Western Ghats, for it is clear to us that plants, far better and far faster than technology, can save the planet.

Suprabha Seshan is an environmental educator at the Gurukula Botanical Sanctuary in Kerala, a 2006 Whitley Award winner and an Ashoka Fellow

Vaibhav Purandare's Mumbai Matters will be back next week