India has to choose between saving its tigers or becoming one of the largest diamond producers

A proposed diamond mining project, spread over 971 hectares of forest land, awaits the final nod of the Indian government.

India has a tough choice to make.

Will it be a Rs 20,520 crore diamond mining project or one of the world’s most beautiful wild beasts and nearly 1,000 hectares of pristine forest with other exotic flora and fauna?

For close to a decade, this question has riled decision-makers in the country as they have weighed the pros and cons of letting Rio Tinto, one of the world’s largest mining companies, look for diamonds under the Chhatarpur forests in the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh.

Now, India’s forest advisory committee – a statutory body in charge of environmental clearance – is deliberating the proposal to award the final clearance. Once the committee gives its final say, the environment ministry seldom rejects those recommendations.

Rio Tinto’s proposed project will be located in Madhya Pradesh’s Bunder region and will be spread over 971 hectares of forest land.

Activists say the project could destroy a tiger corridor – a stretch through which the big cat moves from one forest to another – that falls in the area, besides felling some 492,000 trees and displacing many native tribal communities and animal species.

Only the Narendra Modi government can stop that.

“The project is still under consideration and is being studied,” SS Negi the director general of forests and head of the forest advisory committee, told Quartz over phone.

“We are making progress on the Bunder project working through the approvals process with the government and advancing the work required to enable the mine to proceed into development,” a spokesperson for Rio Tinto told Quartz by email.

Too valuable to be mined

The Bunder project falls in an area that is estimated to have ore deposits that could yield over 34.2 million carats of diamond. The mineral value of the project is estimated at Rs 20,520 crore.

Rio Tinto claims it “would place India among the top 10 diamond producers in the world.” But the forest has been identified as an “inviolate area” or one that is too dense and valuable to be mined.

It was in 2004 that the company discovered the huge reserves. In September 2006, it secured a prospecting licence, allowing it to continue exploration in the area. In July 2013, the Indian Bureau of Mines approved its mining plan.

So far, the company has invested $90 million in exploration, evaluation and pre-feasibility studies, the spokesperson for Rio Tinto said. “Bunder is positive proof of India’s prospectivity and can showcase a new era of investment friendly governance,” the spokesperson added.

Environmental fears

The project site is located very close to the Panna Tiger Reserve and the Navardehi Wildlife Sanctuary. This area is home to species such as the monitor lizard, Indian pumped vulture, sloth bear, leopards and the Indian gazelle.

“The project certainly falls in the tiger landscape,” Raghu Chundawat, a conservation biologist, told Quartz. “We are still not clear about the size of the project, but a large project will definitely affect the movement of tigers and especially with infrastructure development.”

Even the government of Madhya Pradesh, in its report to the central government, has confirmed this. “It is reported that some rare and endangered species of wild animals (chausinga, leopard, cheetal, chinkara, peacock, etc.) are found in the area. It is also indicated that the area is used by tigers as their migratory corridor,” the government said in the report (pdf).

In 2010, tiger expert Valmik Thapar said the Bunder project is “an example of a completely dysfunctional system of government from top to bottom.” In case there is a loss of tigers in Panna, Thapar said, it would take at least 10 years for recovery.

Besides, the project could hamper water resources essential to the area’s wildlife.

A 2013 report (pdf) by London-based Nostromo Research said Rio Tinto could further aggravate the water scarcity in surrounding areas as crucial species of trees would be cut.

The Nostromo report also challenged Rio Tinto’s community development work in Bunder, pointing out gaps in education initiatives, workers’ rights policies and job creation initiatives for locals.

“There has also been a lot of opposition at public hearings from villagers, and the wildlife department has said that tiger spotting happens at the zone. But for some strange reason, the government seems to be favouring big corporates,” Sreedhar Ramamurthi, an earth scientist and management trustee at NGO Environics Trust, told Quartz.

Rio’s defence

Rio Tinto, however, maintains that there won’t be any damage to tigers or other wildlife in the area.

“First, the project is much further north of the green belt that connects the two national parks, and there have been no known tiger sightings in the last seven years in and around the applied lease area,” said the company spokesperson. “Rio Tinto has a strong track record in developing world-class diamond mines and respecting the obligations that come with access to the land.”

“The plant is highly automated, uses minimal water through recycling and water harvesting, and does not use any chemicals in the processing of the diamonds,” notes the company on its website.

Neither is India’s environment ministry entirely convinced about the damage from the project.

Last year, former Rio Tinto CEO Sam Walsh even met India’s prime minister Modi and offered to invest $2 billion in India, which includes a $500 million investment in the Bunder project. “(The) prime minister and I have met three times during the past six months, and I talked to him about the two major projects and the opportunities,” Walsh said.

Diamonds and tigers

India’s retail diamond jewellery market is worth a little over $10 billion (Rs 66,435 crore), according to estimates by Rio Tinto. The market may grow over 15% every year between 2014 and 2019. India is also expected to contribute 10% to the world’s retail diamond market by 2020, according to UK-based WWW International Diamond Consultants (pdf), an independent valuation and advisory service provider.

On the other hand, India is home to more than half of the world’s tigers, though the numbers have dwindled dramatically over the years, mostly due to habitat destruction and poaching.

Over the last four decades, the government has run a campaign to save tigers, which has recently shown some positive results. In 2006, there were about 1,411 tigers in the country. The number grew to 2,226 in 2015.

Experts, though, have said that it was too early to celebrate.

“Let’s not jump to celebrate too quickly or begin to relax, because whatever the specific numbers may be, tigers worldwide are still likely less than 5% of their population numbers of a century ago,” Luke Dollar, a conservation biologist, told the National Geographic magazine in January last year.

And with big projects such as Rio Tinto’s endangering wildlife habitat, it is only prudent to implement stringent conservation norms.

This article first appeared on Quartz.

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