A climate for positive change

It would do human beings well to adapt to Planet Earth’s environment, instead of trying — inexpertly — to shape it in our own image

Bittu Sahgal
Editor of Sanctuary Asia and founder of Sanctuary Nature Foundation

January 2001: It is three in the afternoon and a brisk breeze whips my hair as I stand behind the prow of the Project Tiger patrol boat. I am making my way along the blue-green waters of the Netidhopani river in the Sundarban Tiger Reserve, having chartered the day’s course on a large map a few minutes earlier. It can get surprisingly bright on the water in the Sundarban; even with sunshades on the river’s shimmer has me squinting. Happy to be alive, I see a dragonfly and a common wanderer butterfly navigate the strong wind to bisect the trajectory of our boat, 100mts from shore. Pulling on a windcheater against the cold, I marvel at the magic of nature that gifts such fragile creatures with their flying capabilities.

About 250mts ahead of our vessel, I spot a floating log. We are moving against the current about 30mts from shore; I watch the log in a disinterested way, waiting for it to drift closer to our boat. That never happens. Instead, I begin to notice that it is moving at a 90-degree angle to us… and to the powerful current. Strange! At a distance of 150mts, I peer through my binoculars and see a small round shape, certainly not a log. It takes me a full 10 seconds to realise that a childhood dream has come true. There before me, in flesh and blood, is a wild tiger, phantom of the Sundarban.

The still largely impenetrable mangrove swamps and forests of the Sundarban — ‘beautiful forest’ in Bengali — are home to the largest contiguous population of swamp tigers in the world. Remote and tangled as this vast region of tides and trees is, the delta, stretching between India and Bangladesh and watered by the Ganges, Brahmaputra and Meghna rivers, has been whittled down over the centuries as people claimed land for agriculture and timber for construction and fuel.

While much is gone, much abides, including the iconic tiger and its preferred prey: deer, monkeys and wild pigs. That said, all is not well in this the largest of the world’s estuarine forests, also home to crocodiles, sharks, dolphins and more. Despite legal protection, the Sundarban, like virtually every other wilderness in India, is threatened by projects seeking to boost the economy, even as that existential threat, climate change, looks on course to destabilise both the ecological and economic stability of India.

Why protect the Sundarban?

What does this great forest actually do for people? For centuries the Sundarban has served as an enormous sponge-like buffer against the often-savage storms and tidal surges of the Bay of Bengal. It is a refuge for countless and, in many cases, rare species of flora and fauna. It is an astonishingly productive marine nursery that feeds much of South Asia. The Sundarban is, essentially, a green cathedral for nature-starved humanity. Now, in the era of climate change, scientists add that it offers the planet the greatest service of all: the sequestration and storage of carbon.

Little known to most, this 10,000 sq km of mangrove forest, through its multi-pronged ecological services, has unobtrusively been the key to the food, social and economic security of India and Bangladesh, thus playing the role of an infrastructure of inestimable value.

The same holds good for virtually every natural ecosystem on the Indian subcontinent. Yet the rate at which we are destroying our natural assets by turning them into cities, dams, mines, roads and commercial plantations, for short-term economic gains, continues apace. Such human actions are accelerating climate change while depleting the availability of fresh water and eroding the ability of the soil to feed our people.

Put simply, GDP growth for the sake of growth has begun to compromise India’s food, water, health, economic, social and ecological security. Clearly, we need a new breed of pioneer-practitioners to work assiduously at the critical tri-junction of economics, biodiversity and climate change.

The Sundarban, home to the single largest population of tigers in the world, has forced the felines to adapt to survive in the harsh environment of the mangrove forest. Photo: Niladri Sarkar

The way forward

An India that has positioned itself globally as reformist and modern must learn to be more nimble and adaptable. In his capacity as a board member of the Sanctuary Nature Foundation, Lord Nicholas Stern of the London School of Economics recently put the issue of development and environment in sharp perspective. In his words, “the economy is a wholly-owned subsidiary of the environment”.

Seen in this light, the most effective way forward for India’s 1.3 billion people over the next decade is to create diverse and large-scale livelihoods where positive outcomes can be measured through the regeneration of natural ecosystems across the subcontinent. Along coastal India this would, for instance, involve nurturing and restoring sand bars, corals, mangroves, mudflats, beaches and the littoral vegetation that thrives behind these bulwarks that protect the land from the fury of the sea.

Such natural infrastructure offers current and future generations their best chance to overcome the increasingly harsh impact of climate change being manifested in the form of extreme climatic events, and the deteriorating condition of our air, land and water resources.

Fortunately, we have not yet reached the point of no return. Earth’s biosphere is made up of a mosaic of self-repairing and self-replenishing life-support systems. Economists use a host of complicated indices to monitor and measure the health of the economy. Biologists use the presence or absence of plants and animals to gauge the health of ecosystems — upon which all economic edifices must inevitably be built.

The presence of the tiger indicates that the forest in which it lives is doing relatively well; conversely, a decline in tiger numbers might indicate that the forest ecosystem is in decline. Similarly, the presence of large animals such as sharks and whales in the ocean indicates that the marine food web is alive and well. The same holds true for all the grasslands, wetlands, lakes, rivers and aquifers that have sustained civilisations down the ages.

Since the beginning of life on Earth, every single species has managed to survive only by adapting to the environmental circumstances that provided them with their unique niche. It would do Homo sapiens well to take a leaf out of this tried and tested survival manual and adapt to Planet Earth’s environment, instead of trying, inexpertly, to shape it in our own image.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Tata Trusts.