In 2015, just before the last inter-governmental climate jamboree began in Paris, I was in Ramanathapuram, a sleepy coastal town in Tamil Nadu. I was following a story of declining fish catch in the area thanks to over-fishing and destruction of coral reefs (the breeding ground of fish) by trawlers.
“Declining fish catch will have a disastrous impact on our lives,” a fisherman told me, as he rowed his boat towards the stunning Pamban Bridge, which straddles the Indian Ocean like a colossus. “How will I continue to send my girl to college?”
“Over-fishing will also strain India’s relations with its neighbours,” an activist, the fisherman’s neighbour, added. I remembered that conversation recently when I read that the Sri Lankan Navy has killed a fisherman and injured three because they moved into Lankan territorial waters in search of better catch.
Though ecosystems and biodiversity are critical to our daily existence, most seem oblivious to it and so destroy it without any fear of reprisal. Why does this happen?
At a recent conference organised by the Dialogue Highway, a Chandigarh-based Trust, and the department of environment studies, Panjab University on Himalayan ecology the brain trust of the meeting --- academics, ecologists, foresters and activists --- answered my query: The destruction in the name of “development” happens because nature’s economic worth is invisible.
But consider this. A 50-year-old tree provides services like oxygen, water recycling, soil conservation and pollution control worth Rs 23 lakh (this estimate has been done by green economists). Cutting and selling it fetches only Rs 50,000 (one time). Yet due to the absence of data about its ecological services, felling a tree seems more profitable. Moreover, a tree also adds to the Gross Domestic Product (GDP), the primary indicator of an economy’s health. But the positive impact of planting a tree, however, never gets reflected in the economic growth.
But today many economists are trying to point out that a nation’s progress should include its natural capital base. “Economists and planners prefer using the GDP gauge but it does not measure wealth – it just measures production… Climate change is going to force the nations of the world to reinvent economics and why we should anticipate and plan ahead, rather than be caught napping,” Pavan Sukhdev, a banker by day and an environmentalist by night, told Sanctuary Asia in an interview recently.
In 2011, Sukhdev anchored the United Nation Environment Programme’s Green Economy Initiative, which demonstrated that the greening of economies is not a burden on growth but rather a new engine for growing wealth, increasing decent employment, and reducing persistent poverty.
The good news, as I found out in Chandigarh, is that two Himalayan states – Uttarakhand and Himachal Pradesh --- are looking at this issue of finding the economic value of ecosystems with keen interest. “The state has commissioned a study to evaluate its ecosystem services and its Gross Environment Product,” Jai Raj, PCCF, Uttarakhand, told the participants. The Gross Environment Product (green GDP) is an index of economic growth with the environmental consequences of that growth factored into a country’s conventional GDP. According to a previous study, the value of ecosystem services we get from the Indian Himalayan region is Rs 943 billion per year while Uttarakhand forests provides services worth Rs 104 billion year. But this does not show up in the national accounting process.
In Himachal Pradesh, which is also looking actively into GEP, an interesting experiment is happening: The town of Palampur is giving incentives to an upstream village for conserving a forest area from where one of its water sources originates. This ensures that villagers use the forest in a sustainable manner.
The valuation of ecosystem services is not easy. The services are divided into several subcategories. Moreover ecosystems are dynamic, they evolve with time. There are provisioning services (products obtained from ecosystems such as food, fresh water etc), regulating services (climate regulation, natural hazard regulation, etc), habitat services (to maintain the viability of gene-pools) and cultural services (spiritual enrichment, intellectual development, recreation and aesthetic values).
But the science is evolving.
Now governments and people must realise that there’s no such thing as a free lunch, and put their weight behind the economists and scientists working to fine-tune standards for evaluation of ecosystem services.