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Posts Tagged ‘Western ghats

India’s clumsy, insecure environment ministry hides mountain ecology report

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A 522-page report on the ecology of the Western Ghats and the threats to the biodiversity it harbours, a report that was months in the preparation and includes the outcomes of numerous consultations has been ‘released’ to the public by India’s Ministry of Environment and Forests. Not as a well-signposted link on the ministry website, no, that is far too direct and discomfiting for the secretive and conniving bureaucrats and their craven staff.

First there is a pdf document summarily inviting comments from the public on the report, the official title of which is the ‘Western Ghats Ecology Expert Panel’ chaired by professor Madhav Gadgil. This pdf contains a link, not to the report, but to the disclaimer! This second pdf file has the text of the ‘disclaimer’ which is: “The Western Ghats Ecology Expert Panel report has not been formally accepted by the Ministry and that the report is still being analyzed and considered by the Ministry.” This second pdf then contains a link to the actual Report [pdf, 7.7mb]!

This is from the preface by Gadgil:

“The Western Ghats are naturally an important focus of sustainable development efforts. The protector of the Indian peninsula, the mother of the Godavari, Krishna, Netravathi, Kaveri, Kunthi, Vaigai and a myriad other rivers, Kalidasa likens the Western Ghats to a charming maiden; Agastyamalai is her head, Annamalai and Nilgiri the breasts, her hips the broad ranges of Kanara and Goa, her legs the northern Sahyadris. Once the lady was adorned by a sari of rich green hues; today her mantle lies in shreds and tatters. It has been torn asunder by the greed of the elite and gnawed at by the poor, striving to eke out a subsistence. This is a great tragedy, for this hill range is the backbone of the ecology and economy of south India.”

And this from the introduction:

A section from the map of ecologically sensitive zoning of the talukas of Karnataka

“Mountains also create isolated habitats far away from other similar habitats, promoting local speciation. Hence distinct species of the flowering plant Rhododendron and the mountain tahr goat Hemitragus occur on the higher reaches of the Western Ghats and Himalayas, with a large gap in the distribution of these genera in between. Moreover, mountains, being less hospitable to human occupation, retain much larger areas under natural or semi-natural biological communities.”

“This is why the Western Ghats and the Eastern Himalayas are today the most significant repositories of India’s biodiversity. Amongst them, the Western Ghats scores over the Eastern Himalayas in harbouring a larger number of species restricted to India alone. Not only are the Western Ghats and Eastern Himalayas biological treasure troves, they are also two of the world’s biodiversity hot spots, a hot spot being a biodiversity-rich area that is also under a high degree of threat.”

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Costing Goa’s mineral resource curse

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Coconut palms line bunds between fields and alongside streams

Coconut palms line bunds between fields and alongside streams

In late August we had a discussion to talk about the ways in which the ‘suppressed entitlement’ of Goa’s population, in relation to mining profits, could be freed. This would have the effect of galvanising a sense of right and ownership using the admittedly troublesome monetary incentive route (we will find a way to deal with this).

The concentration of wealth is astonishing, even in a region that is part of a country whose state Gini coefficients for income are well over 0.45 (over 0.30 is considered to be potentially socially destabilising). Goa’s top six iron ore mining families together with India’s largest private sector iron ore exporter have amassed immense wealth. Based on the derived industry profit for 2009-10, the share per resident family is Rs 3.19 lakh (not including profits from illegal ore sale, not subtracting for the ‘producer’s share of risk and managerial input’).

Based on time-series profits for the years 2000-01 to 2009-10 and average per ton prices we can ‘entitle’ the 360,000 resident families to their ‘withheld shares’ as follows: Rs 2.80 lakh in 2008-09, and working backwards Rs 2.50 lakh, Rs 2.15 lakh, Rs 1.80 lakh, Rs 1.45 lakh, Rs 1.10 lakh, Rs 76,000, Rs 40,000 and Rs 28,000. This totals close to Rs 16.5 lakh due per family for a decade of mineral exploitation. That’s one aspect, to place in perspective the stratospheric super-profits of the main mining families (companies). The other is to work towards a ‘true cost’ accounting of the extraction.

Rice is still planted and harvested in the coastal talukas, but fields such as these are threatened by urbanisation

Rice is still planted and harvested in the coastal talukas, but fields such as these are threatened by urbanisation

The startling per family ‘entitlement’ also raises the question of how they have been used by the state of Goa. The indications from the contribution of mining and quarrying (the basic accounting head) in the Goa state accounts is that this has contributed between 6% and 4% of state domestic product. We may raise this contribution by 2% to include mineral extraction activities not covered directly by this head. Even so, where is the gross capital formation rate at the state level to show how this wealth has been used? Where is the rise in the net savings rate to show how this wealth has been retained? These are serious questions for the state government to answer.

A ‘true cost’ accounting of the extraction will help us achieve two things:

1. It will help fix the liability of the state administration towards the costs of ecosystem loss and degradation caused by mineral extraction.

2. It will similarly ‘spread the liability’ on a per family basis so that an economic disincentive is created at the household level for such an activity (mining) if households shared both profit and liability.

How are the populations of the 11 talukas (populations in the note below) to benefit from their share of ‘entitlements’ and ‘liabilities’ of the export profits and environmental burden of iron ore mining? To what extent must the state administration bear the liability and underwrite the costs of mitigation for all of Goa’s affected (directly and indirectly) families? How can participatory shares and fund instruments be created that embody these concepts, who will regulate them, how will they be counter-guaranteed? These are the community economics questions that will face us when we make such calculations.

The full article is on this page.

Woodfuel in the Western Ghats

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Goatherds in Chikodi taluka, Belgaum district, Karnataka

Goatherds in Chikodi taluka, Belgaum district, Karnataka

The woodfuel-and-dungcakes energy mix for rural India is alive and well in the hills of Maharashtra’s Deccan. The indications are that a combination of factors is at work. There’s less income for smallholder farming households, those farming families which have earnings have seen their monthly household budgets squeezed by rising food prices, and energy costs at least the same or more. That’s why I’ve seen in November and December – when early mornings and nights are cool to chilly, and heating at home is needed – more evidence of woodfuel use.

If you ask the energy planners and econometricians, they’ll say that fuelwood markets are important and have a great influence on shaping demand. As a rule this is likely to be true, but what we’re seeing here has resulted from a variety of volatile conditions. Let’s look at some of the alternatives that rural households in the hills use. A cylinder of LPG (liquefied petroleum gas) costs about Rs 325 in a town in western Maharashtra (the 14.2 kg domestic cylinder). A sack of coal costs about Rs 300 to Rs 350 (20-25 kg) which will usually include the cost of transport (it’ll be carted along with other goods on the roof of an old jeep, in a tempo or lorry – state transport bus conductors are not partial to letting these sacks on board any more).

From the planners’ point of view, market conditions for wood are highly distorted due to government policies on fuel, energy and forests. That’s why discussing both demand and supply in the context of prices and market conditions is important, because in isolation the terms ‘demand’ and ‘supply’ for rural energy mean next to nothing.

It’s important too to a rural household that wood is a multi-use material. For instance, for eucalyptus, the thickest portion of the trunk can be used as timber, if the girth of the trunk, with bark, is more than 70 cm. Poles are used for scaffolding support and as roofing material. The dimensions of logs for use as poles are 3 to 6 metres in length, and 30 to 70 cm in girth (cut pieces of similar girth but shorter are used as pulpwood in paper mills). All smaller pieces, twigs, bark, and roots, which cannot be used elsewhere, are used as fuelwood. Thus there is no single wood market in a town or peri-urban settlement. I’ve found it safe to say that the set-up and behaviour of each market differs from others depending upon the range of species available, and the purposes for which each wood species can be put to use.

Hillside grasses, ghat in Kolhapur district, Maharashtra

Hillside grasses, ghat in Kolhapur district, Maharashtra

All that said, the main point here is that the price of fuelwood has risen in the hills of Maharashtra’s Deccan. A buyer will now pay Rs 60 for a ‘maund‘ of ‘jungli‘ wood and Rs 80 for a ‘maund‘ of babul wood. Now a ‘maund‘ is around 37 kg, so that makes a metric ton of ‘jungli‘ wood worth about Rs 1,620 (without complicating the matter with discounts for weight) and a metric ton of babul wood is worth around Rs 2,160. That’s a pretty steep annual growth rate because at the start of the 2000s – according to those who know about these things in Kolhapur, Satara and Pune – the price of a ton of ordinary wood was around Rs 1,300 and they also said that the price then was twice what it had been (around 700/ton) a decade earlier.

This is both worrying and curious. Worrying because it means that sources of energy among some sections of the rural population are defaulting to the woodfuel-dungcakes mix. Worrying also because it means that natural and protected forests, orchard and scrub are being scoured for woodfuel. Curious because we are in 2010 going to be less informed about the relative importance of the three major biofuels to rural households: has the animal population grown in the last decade? have the growing number of bio-gas plants installed during the last 15 years taken away from the dungcake source? have commercial crops reduced the available quantities of husk and straw (and what’s the effect on these as animal feed? We know a lot less than we think, but we do know what a ‘maund‘ of babul costs so that it can heat a hill household in winter.