In recent years, it has become fashionable to assign monetary value to everything. The plea invoked is that assigning a standard value helps everyone understand relative values easily. Since all economic systems are built up on the exploitation of nature, investors realised that the term “nature” was the mother lode. If it were possible to change society’s perspective from “mother nature” to “natural capital”, one could entirely deal out conservationists and those concerned about the welfare of future generations. The stated justification for converting natural systems to cash models, of course, is the elementary need for policy planners to be able to weigh schemes for exploitation against preservation of natural resources.

In India, the latest fad among governmental agencies is to assign monetary value to protected landscapes. This glib talk is but the first move in which policy planners will helplessly shrug their shoulders and de-notify protected areas for the greater good, since the economic benefit of joining rivers or setting up open cast coal mines (where coal is extracted from an open pit in the earth) far outweighs the economic benefit of keeping the landscape undisturbed.

Note that, unusually, the trend has not originated in the United States or Europe: superficially, it appears to be an entirely Indian initiative. However, it should be noted that according to some estimates, 95% of forests in the United States have been clear-felled and replaced with quick growing hybrids. Meanwhile, the last primeval central European forest, the Bialowieza forest in Poland, was opened up for logging last year. Essentially, American logging companies presented a fait accompli to the public, while there are practically no natural habitats to preserve in Europe.

At the Second International Dialogue on Himalayan Ecology held in Chandigarh in January, experts spoke of gross environmental product and how it can be used to evaluate forests, according to science and environment magazine Down to Earth. The report quoted Jai Raj, Uttarakhand’s principal chief conservator of forests, as saying that the Himalayan forests are worth Rs 943 billion a year, citing an estimate from the 1990s. The value of ecosystem services (benefits obtained from the ecosystem, such as food and water) from India’s forests stands at Rs 6.9 lakh crores annually.

By way of the ecosystem services it provides, the Corbett Tiger Reserve in Uttarakhand is worth Rs 14.7 billion annually, according to a study by the Bhopal-based Indian Institute of Forest Management, the report said. Similarly, it added, the Kanha National Park in Madhya Pradesh is worth Rs 16.5 billion annually and the Sundarbans in West Bengal Rs 12.8 billion annually.

The ecosystem services it provides makes the Corbett Tiger Reserve in Uttarakhand worth Rs 14.7 billion annually, according to a study. Photo credit: HT
The ecosystem services it provides makes the Corbett Tiger Reserve in Uttarakhand worth Rs 14.7 billion annually, according to a study. Photo credit: HT

The wrong solution

The point that is being obscured with these clever manoeuvres is that forests and undisturbed landscapes comprise life support systems, at least in India. Almost all Indian rivers begin and end in India. At the same time, not one major Indian river is what might be called healthy, with many of what were perennial rivers becoming seasonal or almost seasonal, since the forested hills where they arise have been deforested.

The reason for the change from perennial to seasonal was mismanagement of the headwaters or source of the main river as well as its tributaries. The organisation largely responsible for the mismanagement was the forest department of the concerned states. When the problem was perceived to be one of the biggest challenges facing India, steps were taken to rectify the situation. The solution, unfortunately, was expected from the very organisation that had mismanaged things to begin with. It followed that the solution proposed was as ham-handed and clumsy as the policies that had caused the problem, that is, “plantation of forests”. As I have pointed out, this is an oxymoron, especially in an Indian context with complex tropical forest ecosystems. So now we have large sums being spent on “watershed management”, the management consisting of the same random plantation of trees, often exotic, in the belief that “greening the countryside” will “restore the ecological balance”. The perpetrators of these solutions are often not even aware that there is no such thing as a balance of nature, this being merely a romantic vision of early conservationists from the time before the functioning of nature was understood.

What, then, is the solution? How can we ensure that long-term sustainability of natural systems is not undermined by short-term economic goals? How else can policy planners weigh the benefits accruing from exploiting a landscape versus the benefit of leaving it alone?

Ecology over economy

The answer, of course, is staring us in the face: educate the policy makers. We are talking about long-term life support systems versus immediate economic benefit – the coal that is mined today from an open cast mine is going to be used to produce short-term wealth, while the benefit of leaving the forest undisturbed is going to secure the region’s water, fuel, grazing, and sundry other services in the long term. How then can mining coal or minerals in hitherto undisturbed forest even be considered, leave alone require a major public agitation to undo?

When the present Indian Forest Service was set up, a network of natural habitats were set aside as reserve forests, which were to be left untouched. This network is the only reason that no Indian creature, besides the cheetah, has gone extinct in the post-Independence period. The only bird that is known to be extinct from the Indian subcontinent is the pink-headed duck, which, unlike its congeners, did not go to inaccessible Siberian or trans-Himalayan swamps to breed, but bred in the Terai and Bhabar marshes at the foot of the Himalaya. When these were converted into farmland, the duck had no place to breed.

Today, we need a network of untouched forests and natural ecosystems in the headwaters of every, repeat, every Indian water source, in order to stabilise our water resources.

Not one major Indian river is what might be called healthy, with many perennial rivers having turned seasonal because the forested hills where they arise have been deforested. Photo credit: Alex Ogle/AFP
Not one major Indian river is what might be called healthy, with many perennial rivers having turned seasonal because the forested hills where they arise have been deforested. Photo credit: Alex Ogle/AFP

Anyone who cannot see that is unworthy of occupying a decision-making post. Anyone who cannot understand the processes whereby life exists on earth should not even be allowed in the door of decision-making committees.

To see life support systems through the lens of economics, with its assumptions based on profiteering masquerading as science, is nothing short of suicidal. To assign monetary value to life support systems brings life on earth on the same scale as profit for industrialists, which is impossible – life on earth existed long before money and wealth was conceived of and will certainly outlive this illusion.

In short, a degree in ecology, not economics, should be a pre-requisite for policymakers and planners. Economists probably know that to establish an economic system that requires a growth rate of 6% and more to be considered healthy while depending largely on finite resources is simply not going to last long. By no stretch of the imagination can such a course be considered sustainable. The initial boom is always followed by a bust, except that in the case of modern models, the bust period is also a period of poisoned landscapes, depleted fossil groundwater and washed away topsoil that will take centuries to heal. If economics has the answers to that, too, then it would be in a position to dictate policy and the limitless exploitation that it advocates nowadays.

Peter Smetacek runs the Butterfly Research Centre in Bhimtal.