By Bittu Sahgal, Editor, Sanctuary Asia

TOURISM, THE ROPE THAT BINDS

But India needs a new breed of economists and leaders

Edited from TOFTigers

Good Wildlife Travel Guide 2016

India is a multi-destination country with a variety of tourist attractions and facilities. It is the second largest net foreign exchange earner by way of invisible exports. Tourism creates more jobs than any other sector for every rupee invested. It has a major role in promoting large-scale employment opportunities.”

The Government of India

I was on the river in the wildlife-rich Tale Valley Sanctuary in Arunachal Pradesh on August 1, 2001on an official site visit to the Subansiri on behalf of the Indian Board for Wildlife. I was investigating claims by the promoters of the Lower Subansiri Hydroelectric Project that “no threatened plants or animals existed in the Lower Subansiri Valley.”

The leopard and elephant spoor I had seen had put paid to that casual claim within five minutes of disembarking from the boat. Several very credible naturalists had surveyed the area over the years and consistently affirmed that the Lower Subansiri Valley was one of the richest biodiversity vaults in India. Much more than countries such as Rwanda or Botswana, the Northeast was made for tourism, which could guarantee every man, woman and child a dignified living, with a much, much higher standard of living than they now enjoy.

But such opinions do not sit well unfortunately,across planners and politicians who understand little about sustainability and even less about development. Their mantra is “Show me the Money” or “Show me the Votes, fast”. Consequently, Himalayan slopes have been deforested; mangroves in the Sundarbans and Orissa have been stripped; mighty rivers such as the Ganges and Brahmaputra have been poisoned; and cities have been assaulted by rapacious constructions with virtually no environmental mitigation or protection steps taken. The consequences have been felt, less by planners and more by the people and wildernesses they write of casually as “acceptable collateral damage”.

Adding to this litany of environmental horrors, almost half a million poverty-stricken farmers and fisher folk have chosen to commit suicide in the decade gone by. Rather than face the climate-related  crop failures that left them unable to pay back loans taken for chemical pesticides and fertilisers, or motorised boats and nets… heads of families chose to give up on life. This, if nothing else, should waken our Rip Van Winkles (Kumbakaranas) to the possibility of a win-win situation that welds the objectives of biodiversity conservation, social and economic welfare and climate change mitigation, using ecologically sensitive and socially just tourism as the rope that binds.

By returning farms and landholdings carved from forests to their natural state, millions of people living in communities close to our sanctuaries and National Parks could privately own and run wildlife conservancies on their own properties.

Of course this is easier said than done. For this happy occurrence, we must somehow cajole economists and planners into abandoning intellectual arrogance,ecological ignorance and the ever-present avarice that is the handmaiden of big money.

Here is what the Indian Government says: “India is a multi-destination country with a variety of tourist attractions and facilities. It is the second largest net foreign exchange earner by way of invisible exports. Tourism creates more jobs than any other sector for every rupee invested. It has a major role in promoting large-scale employment opportunities.”

Here is what the Indian government does: Truncates the National Board of Wildlife to facilitate oil exploration, thermal power projects, highways, power lines, limestone and other mining, irrigation and water supply projects, oil pipelines, limestone mining, border fencing and other defence projects. Most of these will seriously hurt the sustainable tourism income that India hopes to earn, particularly close to Tiger Reserves such as Tadoba and Nagzira in Maharashtra, Pench in Madhya Pradesh, the Rann of Kutchh Wild Ass Sanctuary in Gujarat, Periyar in Kerala and Dampa in Mizoram.

Tourism is not going to be the only casualty of this misadventure. Since economists have no tools to measure ecosystem services, the only way they will be able to satisfy their GDP ambitions is to allow forests to be cut, or drowned because standing trees do not show up on their faulty calculators. The most life-saving, economically vital infrastructures – forests, rivers, grasslands, swamps, glaciers, corals and coasts – are therefore considered less valuable than wastelands, which can at least be used to dump toxics (that is not yet allowed by law in bio diverse areas).

No smart economists have emerged to measure the immense services offered by natural ecosystems that gift us flood control, water supply, oxygen supply, carbon sequestration and storage and the fertility that is bequeathed to our farms. The moment growth goes down, the GDP-chasers begin to dig into our natural resource vault to plunder a bit more to artificially boost the economy. Their vision extends only to the extent that their tenures last and they crave the accolades and spotlight that is shone on them by their peers. But their days (and reputations) are numbered. Nature is not going to send out judgments, only consequences. Deforest the planet…you get floods and droughts; deplete oceans…you get empty fishing nets and hunger; kill soils with pesticides and fertilisers… soil organisms die and, ultimately, soils will stop delivering food; burn ungodly quantities of coal and oil…you get a warped climate, with its attendant cyclones, diseases and the manifold uncertainties that make a mockery of all financial projections.

Nature tourism is a conservation tool, an economic tool, a social justice tool and a climate change mitigation tool. But as with any tool, it can be used expertly or inexpertly. TOFTigers is trying to nudge India and the world in the right direction. As the Editor of Sanctuary Asia, I am happy to be working towards the same objective, irrespective of how high that mountain promises to be.

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