From Musk’s ‘Nuke Mars’, The Amazon Fires, To India’s Tiger Reserves: A Familiar Script
Earlier this week, tech-billionaire and self-professed problem solver Elon Musk advocated nuclear bombing Planet Mars, in order to make it habitable for people. Meanwhile, massive forest fires continue to rage in Brazil’s Amazon forest—with President Jair Bolsonaro brushing the issue aside, saying this is the season for forest fires. Allegations abound that the fires have been condoned by people in his anti-environmental regime.
Both issues are inextricably linked to human will. They show a disregard for nature. They also show how we are ready to move forward with destructive plans as the way to sort out previous mistakes.
The scope is planetary and inter-planetary. Both scenarios seem right out of science fiction films. Mars, Earth’s most comprehensible neighbour in the Milky Way, has been a favourite for cult-classic settings like John Carter and Total Recall. The Amazon forest is the poster-child for wilderness on our planet, often called the lungs of the earth. The Amazon getting logged or burnt has been the flame for many environmentalist movements. The setting of James Cameron’s Avatar could have been the intricate, breathing forests of the Amazon. But these headlines are about real people talking about real events—while we deal with a current environmental crisis.
The crisis is clearly not just about reduced habitable climate, polluted air and water or lost ecosystems – it is also the growing disregard politicians and public intellectuals are showing for nature as an entity.
We know outer space and living forests like the Amazon are valuable as they are. But what happens when they do get destroyed? This is also a central question that India is faced with.
Prime Minister Modi recently released tiger reports. One was an estimation of tigers in the country, pegged at about 3,000 animals. The other was an economic valuation of ten tiger reserves in India. The two should be seen as linked, as tiger numbers can survive only if habitat survives; and the habitat can survive if we value it. As it is.
But what is human value? This is an existential question that economics cannot easily understand. The study findings indicate that the monetary value of flow benefits from the selected ten tiger reserves range from Rs 5,094.91 crore to Rs 16,202.11 crore annually. These are based on services such as pollination, water retention, carbon sequestration and benefits for human health.
At the same time, a fair question to ask is whether these numbers will be used to avert projects which have already been planned to undercut these tiger reserves.
For instance, the report says that Melghat tiger reserve provides flow benefits (pollination, water retention, gene pool protection etc.) worth Rs 12,349.3 crore per year (Rs 6.09 lakh per hectare) and stock benefits (carbon and timber) of Rs 75,043.33 crore per year.
As another example, Panna tiger reserve is found to give flow benefits worth Rs 6,954.6 crore per year (Rs 4.08 lakh per hectare) and stock benefits of Rs 13,745.53 crore per year.
But projects which have nothing to do with these tiger reserves—and are actively inimical to them—are being planned.
In earlier times, it was not unusual for roads and railways to cut through tiger reserves. With a current change in land-use, railways and roads through wildlife habitat—which kill animals regularly—are just a means to move goods quickly. In many instances, railways through forests are set up only for transporting coal.
In the Melghat Tiger Reserve, a proposal to broaden existing railway gauge will undercut existing ecosystem services. The centre has been pushing for broadening of railway lines, not just through tiger corridors but also tiger reserves. A proposal to broaden railway gauge through Melghat has been put on hold after sustained protests, but the reserve remains under threat as the policy push is for railway “upgradation”. Railway lines kill wildlife; but they also cause noise, garbage and light pollution and bring in invasive species. Tree species change near disruptions like railways, transforming the flow of ecosystem services.
The government has also clarified that if the land is a ‘railway land’ (i.e. ownership of the land vests with Railways) and which is under ‘non-forest use’ before Oct. 25, 1980, then forest clearance approvals are not required, in effect making gauge broadening easier.
Bypasses for railways and roads are always possible but are not favoured because they may involve moving people. It is easier on files to go through forests. In the case of river inter-linking, convincing hydrological data proving that the Ken river actually has surplus water to give Betwa is yet to be presented. But large irrigation projects, a major reason for forest diversion, is favoured over proven solutions like drip irrigation and local rain water harvesting.
At the centre of this is the more altruistic question; and it echoes the same concerns one has with Musk and Bolsonaro.
What is the intrinsic value of nature, and should we consider not just nature’s value, but also the cost of drowning, bisecting, bombing or burning it?
Nature exists for myriad organisms, some of which don’t have much to do with people. Yet, a biting centipede or a venomous viper has the right to exist because it is part of a web of life. Though we engineer this web of life, we are still only a part of it, not mistress of it.
They say the best things in life are free; they also say we can’t live on love and fresh air. Yet, some things are irreplaceable, because we are animals born of nature, not robots.
We need the Circadian rhythm of light. We need to experience sun, rain and sand. We feel better when nature is healthy, and worse when we have to drink water from plastic bottles and pesticide- laden food from Styrofoam containers.
Nature can’t be valued only in rupees; but the government should nevertheless consider the cost of losing our finest forests through an economic valuation framework it can understand.
The doctrine of common heritage of mankind says we should preserve humanity’s heritage for the future—including, for example, the moon. If the idea of nuclear bombing Mars shocks you, perhaps drowning a tiger reserve should too.
Neha Sinha works with the Bombay Natural History Society.
Views expressed are personal. The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of BloombergQuint or its editorial team.