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Beware the Pitfalls of Eco-restoration – The Wire Science


Representative photo: Zhao Chen/Unsplash

This year’s World Environment Day, on June 5, marked the beginning of the UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration. This announcement must not be allowed to become an excuse to engage in the meaningless, tokenist rituals that many other UN programmes have elicited. At this point in history, the stakes are too high.

Atmospheric carbon dioxide levels touched 419 parts per million in May 2021. That’s the highest level of the gas since the Pliocene era, which ended 4 million years before Homo sapiens showed up. “During that time, sea level was about 78 feet higher than today, the average temperature was 7º F1 higher than in pre-industrial times, and studies indicate large forests occupied areas of the Arctic that are now tundra,” according to the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Even in the unlikely event that current international climate commitments are met, the world is certain to venture into territories hitherto uncharted in human history.

If all human activity were to grind to a halt today, we will still be locked into an unfolding horror show of an unrelentingly warming planet and all the bad news that brings. While global planetary health holds the key to humankind thriving as a species, local landscapes are what determine the fate of local communities and individuals. Healthy ecosystems, with appropriate social infrastructure, can be valuable shock absorbers in the troublesome time to come.

This is why the UN decade, which prompts us to fortify our ecosystems, is a belated yet welcome response to more than two centuries of social and ecological exploitation. But for it to mean something, the initiative should begin with a commitment to first do no further harm – primum nil nocere. Before the healing can begin, the hurting must stop.

In fact, it’s hard to overstate the importance of this UN initiative. Ecological restoration is not just about repairing damaged ecosystems, but about preventing, halting and reversing the degradation of habitats and biomes. Done properly, the UN says, ecological restoration “can help to end poverty, combat climate change and prevent a mass extinction.”

Doing it right is easier said than done. As we enter the decade of eco-restoration, here are four warnings to keep in mind.

1. Beware of the open tap

Photo: Anandan Anandan/Unsplash

When the global capitalist economic model performs well, nature suffers. The fact that the air cleared and rivers ran cleaner when the COVID-19 lockdown halted the economy in its tracks is proof of that. Economic growth is all about digging deeper, building bigger, and blasting, cutting, clearing, consuming and discarding at ever faster rates. In the words of Paul Connett, a well-known sustainability guru from New York, “You can’t stem the wastage of water from an overflowing bathtub by bailing out the water. You have to turn off the tap.”

This is the case with eco-restoration too. Take the case of plastics – the world’s favourite target of clean-ups. From a current production of around 400 million tonnes a year, plastics manufacturers plan to ramp up annual production to around 1,600 million tonnes by 2050. This is reckless behaviour, and world governments are unable to call out those profiting from endangering life on Earth. According to conservative estimates, the stock of plastic trash in the ocean in 2050 will be around 850 million tonnes, against a total fish stock of 812 million tonnes.

Removal of ocean plastics, and indeed all plastics from the environment, is impossible. But even if one were to focus only on sensitive habitats and ecosystems, the efforts will be wasted unless they are accompanied by simultaneous measures and commitments to reduce and phase out plastics.

2. Beware of solutions

File photo of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Photo: PTI

Solutions derive from what we define to be a problem. A wrongly defined problem will yield a wrong result that may be mistaken for a solution or which unscrupulous persons may push as one. Often, interventions defined as “solutions” may merely hide the actual problem or translocate its manifestation. Beach clean-ups or many of the Swachh Bharat photo-ops with broom-wielding celebrities are classic examples of false solutions. They hide the symptom of the disease by removing garbage from places valued by the social elite to places considered valueless. One person’s solution becomes a curse for an entire community, and the symptoms worsen to become the global crisis we confront.

False solutions are often worse than even the original problem. They postpone and impede real solutions. Worse, they transfer harm to under-represented or unrepresented communities of politically and economically marginalised people, non-human life forms and future generations.

False solutions also take the form of easy-to-do magic bullet interventions that claim to be the one thing that will fix a complex problem. Eco-restoration is replete with false solutions. Consider the Isha Foundation’s ‘Cauvery Calling’ campaign, which promised to make the Cauvery flow by planting 242 crore trees along either banks of the river and its tributaries. Just pay Rs 42 per sapling, and you can outsource the job of saving the river to the foundation. Simple, right?

Wrong. ‘Cauvery Calling’ oversimplifies a complex matrix of stress factors – sand mining, degradation of catchment areas, pollution, over-extraction of groundwater – that has led to a water crisis along the Cauvery. Restoration should necessarily involve all these factors. But even if one were to focus only on restoring the catchment areas, a tree-centric intervention may end up doing more harm than good.

“Riverbanks ought to have riverine vegetation that varies from one section of the river to the other. Grasses, shrubs and wetlands – not merely trees – are essential for the integrity of the river and riverine habitats,” D. Narasimhan, a noted botanist and former head of the department at Madras Christian College, told The Wire in October 2019. “Tree-centred economic considerations can often conflict with ecological goals.”

3. Beware of the ‘expert’

Local women stand atop an opencast coal field as others collect coal, in Dhanbad district, Jharkhand. Photo: Reuters

By popular definition, ‘experts’ in our society are English-literate people, mostly men, with a college education plus PhDs in natural or applied sciences, and employed in government, academic institutions or in the corporate sector. Such people with single-discipline expertise are also interchangeably, and sometimes wrongly, referred to as ‘scientists’. We assume the opinions of institutional experts to be scientific. In the context of the task at hand – restoring degraded ecosystems and repairing inequitable social relations – such a narrow definition of experts and expertise is a recipe for disaster for at least three reasons.

First, ecosystems host complex interrelationships between their living and non-living components. Ecosystems also tend to feature cultural, economic and social attributes of different human communities, and the complex relationships between communities. Each of these communities has different ways of knowing, making sense of and relating to the habitats they use. Ecosystem restoration, therefore, cannot simply be a technical exercise informed by a panel of institutional scientists with expertise in different domains.

Communities that have lived in and off these ecosystems have a way of knowing them that the sum total knowledge of single-subject experts can never approximate. If the ecosystem has to be restored in a manner that is relevant to local communities, the notion of ‘expertise’ has to be expanded beyond its institutional bounds to include the experiential experts. From the development of baselines to preparation of restoration plans and post-remediation monitoring protocols, local communities and sub-communities of women, Dalits and indigenous people within them have to be roped in.

The second reason is the background of experts. Institutional experts are generally timid, pro-establishment folk, given the controlled institutional spaces they operate out of. This induces an opinion hesitancy when their findings have the potential to rock the boat. Such experts are generally not available or able to advise communities. Barring a few exceptions, access to them is restricted to corporations and the government.

Because formal postgraduate-level education is a criterion for expertise, this community is overwhelmingly composed of upper-caste members from privileged sections of society, whose interactions are often restricted to other members of the same club. Their domain expertise is therefore incomplete as it is unlikely to be seasoned by the lived-life experiences of a majority of the world’s population.

This lapse is magnified when such science is put on a pedestal, and shielded from public scrutiny and critique, and scientists are not subjected to the rigours of accountability. Even more dangerously, these lapses will persist and worsen unless academia is opened up to reflect the diversity of India. The bar for scheduled castes and tribes against entry into PhD persists despite laws and affirmative action, especially in elite institutions that should be leading the way in the interests of good holistic science. A report in The Hindu based on the reply to a question in the Rajya Sabha is telling:

“Of the 25,007 PhD scholars admitted in the 23 IITs over [a] five-year period, only 9.1% were from the SC communities and 2.1% from the STs. This is lower than the 15% seats reserved for the former and 7.5% for the latter.”

Science and expertise should never be left to the experts. Instead, they should be squarely in the public domain and open to critique by non-experts. The case of the Anglo-Dutch multinational Unilever’s mercury contamination in Kodaikanal demonstrates what eco-restoration will be like when left to experts. Unilever operated a mercury thermometer factory in this Tamil Nadu hill town from 1987 to 2001, all the while discharging mercury fumes and toxic effluents into the neighbouring Kodaikanal Wildlife Sanctuary. “Expert” engineers of the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board (TNPCB) inspected the factory every month, but did not detect it or report it. Experts in the multinational company knew about the discharge and its dangers but preferred to keep quiet. It was local community and citizen activists – the ordinary people – that discovered the transgression, reported it, educated the TNPCB and had the factory shut in 2001.

Since then, the TNPCB hasn’t undertaken even one independent study – either to determine the extent of contamination or to fix appropriate standards for mercury clean-up and eco-restoration. At every step of the way, even in the face of contrary opinion presented by citizens, it has allowed itself to be led by Unilever’s consultants. Two experts – from CSIR National Environmental Engineering Research Institute and IIT Delhi – proposed a standard 67-times weaker than acceptable levels in the Netherlands, 20-times weaker than in the UK and three-times weaker than a standard adopted in India. Other experts in the TNPCB and the Central Pollution Control Board accepted it without objection.

Moral of the story: Good science requires not just a college degree but also integrity and courage to resist inducements and withstand pressure.

Eco-restoration projects should be included in the schedule of activities requiring environment impact assessments and public consultation.

4. Beware of the elite gaze

Representative photo: Merilin Kirsika/Pexels

Given the class-caste-gender bias in the community that defines problems and solutions, the results of these exercises end up shortchanging communities on the margins and perpetuating a perverted status quo of social relations.

What happens in the name of eco-restoration, especially in urban spaces for example, is often gentrification and elite aesthetics masquerading as environmentalism. In city after city around the world, the poor have been disproportionately targeted in the name of urban renewal, ecological restoration and city beautification. In the wake of the 2004 tsunami and the 2015 floods in Chennai, the city administration, goaded by judges with no understanding of the lives of the urban poor, used disaster mitigation and environmental restoration to justify large-scale evictions. The lack of sincerity in these professedly environmental missions becomes evident when one sees these agencies hesitate to apply the same standards to elite encroachers who construct in eco-sensitive locations.

The sociologist Amita Baviskar has called this bourgeois environmentalism. Leisure, tourism and aesthetics for the city’s elite become the objectives of ecosystem restoration to the exclusion of other meanings – including livelihood and cultural uses of local communities. The transformation of the Chetpet tank in Chennai from a degraded pond used only by fishers to a landscaped, paved and fenced-off water park out of reach of fishers, or the development of the Sabarmati riverfront, which academic Navdeep Mathur has called “urban planning as totalitarian governance,” are prime examples of bourgeois environmentalism.

According to a study by Housing and Land Rights Network India, more than 53,700 homes were demolished in India’s tier 1 and tier 2 cities just in 2017. Of these, 68% were destroyed in the name of environmental restoration, city beautification, conservation and/or wildlife protection and disaster management.

If corporate capture of global institutions, elite bias and the restrictive definition of ‘expertise’ are reasons for the ongoing violence against ecosystems and communities, redesigning our economic model, capping the size and power of global corporations and expanding the space for local communities to determine their collective destinies is a necessary first step on this journey of healing.

Nityanand Jayaraman is a Chennai-based writer and social activist.



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