‘Urbanisation is no solution–a resource black hole that we can no longer afford’.

 

Guwahati: The ongoing Covid-19 crisis has exposed the damage ecological degradation will wreak in the future–not just future virulent pandemics (WEF 2019), but droughts (Pearce, 2018), water and food insecurity (FAO, 2019) and the increasing desertification of once fertile soil (CSE, 2017).

The cost of this is astronomical: natural disasters caused by biodiversity loss and climate change cost about $300 billion annually (IPBES, 2019). By 2050, land degradation and climate change are predicted to reduce crop yields by 10% globally and up to 50% in certain regions.

The World Economic Forum’s 2020 report on global risks reflect how closely these concerns prey on the minds of leaders globally. Biodiversity and environmental related risks were both named the top risks in terms of likelihood and impact facing businesses globally.

Yet despite these cold, hard facts, India and the North East are facing the temptation to return to business as usual, by pumping investments into the carbon economy and removing environmental protections in the name of economic growth.

AN OPPORTUNITY FOR TRANSFORMATION

Forward-looking countries and businesses now accept that ecology is the new economy. Over 30% of Germany’s COVID-19 recovery plan invests in renewables and electric vehicles among others – with little going to petrol and diesel automobiles, a staple of the German economy.

A green recovery could create up to 65 million new jobs by 2030. Meeting emissions targets for both the 1.5- & 2-degree rise will multiply India’s net income by up to 25 times over the next two decades.

Well-designed agroforestry, adapted to local conditions and needs, can improve yields for farmers by up to 56% while putting nutrients into the soil, stabilizing water tables and improving overall biodiversity.

North East states like Assam, with their rich forests and biodiversity, must take advantage of this opportunity to invest in preserving and regenerating its commons – and the communities living alongside it. India’s commitment, under the Paris Agreement and the Draft National Forest Policy 2018, to restoring 33% of its forests is a step in the right direction.

However, care must be taken to ensure that green cover restoration is a) scientific and diverse, using endemic species that support to local biodiversity and b) does not displace local communities in the name of forest restoration and protection.

NATURAL CAPITAL FOR RURAL FUTURES

Instead of displacement and ecologically devastating monocultures, these natural commons are an opportunity to create Rural Futures: real rural prosperity, through not just economic, but ecological and social wealth. Initial payment for restoration and protection, combined with agroforestry in buffer zones generates an initial 40% increase in socioeconomic mobility – as evidenced by our pilot programmes in Sonitpur and Udalguri districts. This return value more than doubles over each year, and by year 3, according to our projections, basic agroforestry and bamboo growing will earn these communities INR 39 lakhs/hectare. The profits from these natural assets will eventually create a self-sustaining system not only of livelihoods, but also delivery of universal basic assets such as healthcare and education, through reinvestment in communities.

Urbanization is no solution–a resource black hole that we can no longer afford. Neither is the dismantling of Environmental Impact Assessment. Nature is no obstacle to development, like the rural, it is the mitochondria of our economy. We need an environment positive Environmental Impact Assessment, to move businesses to incorporate biodiversity management across their value chains and account books. To update Franklin Roosevelt for the 21st century: a nation that destroys its forests, destroys its future. To eliminate poverty and income security, let us invest in biodiversity first for real Rural Futures.

(Ranjit Barthakur is Founder, Balipara Foundation. Research support by Joanna Dawson and Saurav Malhotra)