Environment Support Group

EJ Matters Vol 3. Issue 14


Book Talk: “Seed Activism” by Karine E Peschard

On 13th December, 2012, ESG held a book talk to launch and discuss Karine E Peschard’s new book titled ‘Seed Activism’. In her book, Karine Peschard explores the effects of multinational corporations acquiring bioresources from local communities to develop hybrids and transgenics based on a commodification and profiteering model. She highlights the importance of conserving biodiversity and associated traditional knowledge, and the local communities’ right to seed sovereignty, while uncovering the role of power — material, institutional, and discursive — in shaping laws and legal systems. She also demonstrates how the expansion of corporate intellectual property (IP) negatively impacts farmers’ rights and, by extension, the right to food, since small farms produce the bulk of food for domestic consumption.

Bhargavi Rao of ESG set the tone for the enthralling discussion that followed. Karine Peschard’s presentation on her book was followed by Leo Saldanha who  spoke about Environment Support’s Group’s Bt Brinjal biopiracy case. Following him, Ms. Aruna Rodrigues explained her two decade long legal battle in the Supreme Court against the release of GMOs in India. Dr. Vandana Shiva spoke of the several efforts to tackle global corporations and foundations’ efforts to encroach on seed sovereignty, calling for eternal vigilance. Farida Akhter of UBINIG explained the ongoing efforts to tackle B.t. Brinjal that was introduced in Bangladesh, while Vivek Cariappa spoke of the threats there are to human health and to wildlife from the extensive spread of GMOs and associated release of highly toxic chemicals. Member of Parliament (Rajya Sabha) Sri. Aneel Hegde spoke of his efforts to raise awareness of the threats of corporate takeover of India’s agrobiodiversity. 

Access the video recording and report of this engaging conversation. See also India Seed Sovereignty Alliance, a national network of seed savers,  India’s Seed Sovereignty Declaration.

Webinar: How to protect Lakes and Raja Kaluves? 

Conducted online on 20th December, the training workshop covered a range of topics and resources that would help concerned citizens protect lakes and raja kaluves in their neighbourhoods. The report of the workshop can be accessed here

Mapping Webinar Report: How to read and create maps to narrate public interest environmental and social stories?

This 2-day webinar was conducted by ESG on 28th November and 19th December 2022. The webinar focussed on generating informative maps using remote sensing and other freely available data to enhance the narratives that would be relevant to the participant’s work. Hands-on technical training was provided for using open-source resources such as QGIS mapping software and Google Earth Engine platform, which can be used to visualise and analyse data – critical to public interest work. A brief report of this webinar can be accessed here

Biodiversity, Biopiracy and Genetically Modified Foods

Any compelling reasons for GM Mustard approval? 

In the ongoing GM mustard case before the Supreme Court, a Division Bench comprising Justices Dinesh Maheshwari and B V Nagarathna, while considering that the Centre was deviating from the Expert Committee’s opinion, asked them if there was any compelling reason to approve ‘HT (Herbicide Tolerant) Mustard DMH-11’, observing that Indian farmers might not have sufficient knowledge about gene mutations to control possible contamination of native varieties. The Attorney General Mr. R Venkataramani responded that there were no compelling reasons as such, but that it is the culmination of a long procedure of study and research over the years. 

Tracing back from when GM Mustard was developed, serious concerns have been raised time and again about releasing it without following proper procedures and accounting for social, economical and environmental impacts. Despite this, the government is holding their position that GM Mustard is critical to ensure food security, and claims that analysis and field trials show evidence that it is safe for cultivation and consumption. Agricultural experts and former government scientists have challenged the government’s data which claims GM Mustard has a 28% higher yield than other varieties. 

In what appears to be an effort to placate serious concerns against herbicide-tolerant GM crops, the Environment Ministry told Rajya Sabha that herbicide glufosinate ammonium use will be limited to seed production stage by the seed producing company and not during commercial cultivation. Meanwhile, over 100 doctors from various specialisations wrote to the Prime Minister stating that such claims will not stop farmers from spraying the herbicide, which will result in dangerous and irreversible bioaccumulation of toxic chemical residues

Is India serious about protecting biodiversity and tackling biopiracy?

Aneel Hegde, Member of Parliament (Rajya Sabha) raised several concerns, including if the amendments to the Wildlife Act was considering GMOs as ‘Invasive Alien Species’. In a related question he enquired if the loopholes in the Biodiversity Act, 2002 (“BDA”) highlighted in ESG’s PIL would be addressed, now that the Supreme Court had by its order dated 22.11.2022 restored the PIL that questions the constitutionality of Section 40 of the BDA. Subsequently, another question was also raised enquiring if National Biodiversity Authority (NBA) is proposing to seek vacation of the stay of the Karnataka High Court order that rejected the plea of Monsanto and others accused in biopiracy in B.t. Brinjal  to quash criminal proceedings against them. In response, the MoeFF&CC appears to have given an answer that obfuscates rather than clarifying the Government’s intent.  

COP 15 and Biodiversity Conservation

Biological Diversity and the 15th Conference of Parties of the UNCBD (COP15)

Nearly 200 countries met at the 15th Conference of Parties of the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity at Montreal, Canada during 7th to 19th December 2022, following four delays caused by the pandemic, and one half of the conference conducted virtually in 2021. The main aim of this conference has been to establish a new set of goals to protect the world’s biodiversity over the next decade so we can all live in harmony with nature by 2050. It aimed at protecting 30% of the land and seas of the world by 2030 and to resume commitments to the Joint Programme of Work on the Links between Biological and Cultural Diversity

Key goals also included tackling biopiracy and enhancing access and benefit-sharing. At the conference, the India’s Union Environment Minister pushed for conservation of biodiversity on the bases of ‘Common but Differentiated Responsibilities and Respective Capabilities’ (CBDR) as climate change also impacts nature.

The Conference concluded with the Global Biodiversity Framework which UNEP claims to be  a landmark agreement. Amnesty, however, criticised the COP as narrowly addressing only certain goals, and completely missing an incredible opportunity to protect indigenous peoples rights given that they may constitute only 5% of the global population, but are protectors of 80% of the world’s biodiversity. The failure to meaningfully integrate human rights was not unexpected.

Alongside, IUCN released a list of threatened species at the conference, revealing that of the 1,50,388 species assessed, 42,108 became threatened, 902 extinct and 16,364 endangered. In India, 1,355 of over 9,472 species assessed fall within the categories of critically endangered, endangered, or vulnerable to extinction.

Wildlife Conservation Status: Improving or not?

The IUCN Red List unveiled on 9th December includes 239 new Indian species in the list, 29 of which are in the threatened category. Among these are the Andaman Smoothhound, the Dancing Frog, and the Himalayan Fritillary plant. These species that exist in unique environments have been pushed towards risk of extinction due to over-harvestation and severe climatic events in the past decades. 

This list comes after the hearing on the Great Indian Bustard deaths due to electrocution. A species that was once endemic to the whole country is now limited to Rajasthan and Gujarat. A bench of the Supreme Court headed by Chief Justice of India DY Chandrachud asked the Union government on 1st December, 2022  if a Project Bustard, similar to Project Tiger, could be put into motion. The court also ordered the formation of a committee to look into prevention of Bustard deaths due to electrocution.

While the situation may look dire for wildlife, all hope for conservation is not lost – it appears. There have been several positive attempts towards wildlife conservation that have yielded good results. In the Dudhwa Tiger Reserve of Uttar Pradesh, the rhino population has increased from 4 to 40 in the past 38 years. There have also been species which have escaped extinction thanks to the efforts of conservation projects. Efforts to map out and build an “elephant-corridor” for free movement of elephants in Kodagu are also taking place.   

The Wild Life (Protection) Amendment Act, 2021 and the Threat to Elephants

While India signs up on all international pledges to protect biodiversity, at home MoEF&CC is on a drive to destroy gains made painfully over the decades.  The most recent attack is on the Wildlife Act 1972, and is indicative of the obfuscation underway to protect certain interests over that of the nation’s biodiversity and ecological security. Mukesh Ambani’s trust ‘Radhe Krishna Temple Elephant Welfare Trust’ was caught transporting ten live elephants from Chowkham, Arunachal Pradesh to Jamnagara, Gujarat in 10 trucks. Transport of live animals can cause grievous injury due to habitat displacement and is therefore currently illegal under Wildlife Protection laws in India. In direct contravention to conservation principles, the Wild Life (Protection) Amendment Bill was introduced by the Minister of Environment, Forest and Climate Change in the Lok Sabha on 17th December 2021, and was passed by the Rajya Sabha on 8th December 2022. The Amendment has received massive criticism from animal rights activists and organisations, such as PETA who call it a ‘death knell’ for the country’s elephants. The Amendment permits commercial trading and transport of live elephants with the mere requirement of ownership certificates and adherence to conditions prescribed by the Central Government, by a body constituted almost entirely of bureaucrats appointed by the Centre. Further, the Amendment inserts a proviso to Section 43 of the principal Act which effectively allows any person to sell an elephant for ‘a religious or any other purpose’, thereby widening the demand for these animals and encouraging their illegal trade.  

This comes close to global criticism of India abstaining from a critical decision on banning ivory trade, and it is presumed that this constituted returning Namibia’s favour of supplying Cheetahs to India.

Money flows related to environmental causes

The European Summit met on 14th, 15th and 16th December, 2022 in the buildings of the Council of the European Union, at the Rue de la Loi, Brussels, with the hope to reach a deal to impose a carbon dioxide tariff on polluting goods such as cement and steel. However, the result of the meeting was only a review of the progress on EU measures to tackle the energy crisis. Meanwhile, the U.S. Department of Agriculture plans to distribute an additional $325 million in funding for projects that would reduce greenhouse gas emissions by small-scale farmers, making its total annual investment in eco-friendly farming exceed $3 billion.

Mangrove trees felled to make way for bullet train

Making way for the Mumbai-Ahmedabad bullet train project, the Bombay High Court has permitted the National High Speed Rail Corporation (NHSRCL) to fell  22,000 mangrove trees in Mumbai and its neighbouring districts of Palghar and Thane in “public interest”. The NHSCRL has paid the mangrove cell for the planting of nearly 2.5 saplings as a compensatory measure but Conservation Action Trust, the NGO opposing the permission, says that an Environment Impact Assessment has not been provided and no study has been conducted to analyse the survival rate of the saplings.

National Green Tribunal Decisions

NGT stays Fishing Harbour construction in Chennai

The National Green Tribunal (NGT) has suspended the environmental clearance (EC) granted to a tuna fishing harbour in Chennai and imposed a Rs 12 lakh penalty on the State fisheries department for starting the work without acquiring statutory clearance and conducting adequate studies. The NGT has directed them to prepare a marine biodiversity management plan and carry out a study of sediment deposit and sediment erosion, as well as assess the impacts of spillage of fuel or engine oil, lubricant from the construction site.

NGT directs Manipur Govt to pay Rs. 200 Crore for Environmental Violations

Meanwhile, the National Green Tribunal (NGT) deeply troubled by Manipur Government’s woeful neglect of the state’s environment, in particular the extensive pollution from Imphal which it drains into the Loktak lake, has directed the Manipur government to pay Rs 200 crore as environmental compensation for improper management of solid and liquid waste.  The tribunal said the first change required is to set up a centralised single window mechanism for planning, capacity building and monitoring of waste management at the state level. The NGT also directed six monthly progress reports with verifiable progress to be filed by the Chief Secretary before it.

Updates from Loktak

11th Anniversary of the ‘Loktak Arson’

Champu Khangpok villagers gathered in hundreds to conduct a public meeting and a canoe rally to mark the 11th anniversary of the ‘Loktak Arson’. Indigenous Perspective convenor Ram Wangkheirakpak declared that “the fight for justice” was not over, especially considering the state’s negligence of fisherfolk welfare and the lake’s biodiversity, and constant assertion of promoting anti-fisherfolk and anti Loktak biodiversity policies, reminiscent of what happened 11 years ago. He further stressed on the “need to unify and organise and seek the help of other democratic forums” to persevere their struggle for justice.

Over the past fortnight, the Asian Development Bank (ADB) Consultation Mission for India visited Manipur, particularly Loktan. The mission’s primary agenda is billed as promoting “Sustainable Loktak Lake Ecosystem Restoration, Eco tourism and Livelihood Improvement Project” (previously, Loktak Lake Eco-tourism Project).  But ADB chose to not meet with the All Loktak Lake Area Fishers Union, Manipur (ALLAFUM) which has been systematically raising awareness on the ongoing onslaught on the rights of local communities and Loktak’s biodiversity.  They protested such disregard of ADB for the rights of local and indigenous communities, and besides organising protest meetings, also issued a Press Statement. 

Loktak lake to be a site for G-20 Summit

It is now confirmed that Loktak lake will be one of the venues of the G-20 summit.  Manipur Chief Minister Biren Singh has used this context to threaten local communities and civil society groups with strong action as they have been questioning his government’s brazen approach of ‘developing’ Loktak into a tourism destination, unmindful of the serious and irreversible adverse consequences to the lake’s biodiversity and the hundreds of families who depend on it for their livelihoods. Local civil society groups hit back in a major televised discussion.     

Memorandum on Indigenous people (USA)

In a path breaking decision for the United States, the ‘Guidance for Federal Departments and Agencies on Indigenous Knowledge’ was notified by President of the United States of America (30 November, 2022) stating “Indigenous Knowledge” is a ‘valid form of evidence for inclusion in Federal policy, research and decision making’.  This goes a long way in stating the United States’ acceptance of the oft-looked-down wisdom of the Natives who govern forests and other natural landscapes as their “Territory of Life”, upon which they share a relationship that dates back to those early days when humans first colonized the surface of Earth during the prehistoric times.

Consequently, on December 1st, the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) and the White House Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) released new government-wide guidance and an accompanying implementation memorandum for Federal Agencies that would recognise and include Indigenous Knowledge in research, policy, and decision making. It is a promising step taken by the Biden-Harris Administration to promote oral and written knowledge collated by tribal and indigenous communities as an important source that contributes to the scientific, technical, social, and economic advancements of the country. 

In Fort Belknap reservation in northern Montana, students and interns from the tribal college are aiding in the reintroduction of native species such as swift foxes and black-footed ferrets, which disappeared generations ago due to poisoning campaigns, disease and farm ploughs, converting the open prairie into cropland and cattle pastures. They are being guided by Native American elders and outside wildlife groups.

People are Fighting Back: Protests Against Anti-Environment Actions

A 65 year old woman sat in the middle of the road in protest of trucks transporting soil and scattering dust over her farm and damaging her crops. She further spoke of the harm caused by the excavation of such soil from 20-30 feet below the ground and its irreparable detrimental impact on the topography.

Renewable Energy and Growing Concerns 

In recent years, the Indian government has made a push for renewable energy and has set ambitious targets to reduce its reliance on fossil fuels, despite having the 5th largest coal reserves in the world. India has made fast progress in renewable energy, with the union government setting a target of 500 GW installed renewable energy capacity by 2030; among other ambitious goals.

While the transition to clean energy may be a promising move, several concerns surrounding renewable energy in India need to be addressed. Farmers, whose land is used for many renewable energy projects, are yet to be recognised as stakeholders in this transition. Due to this, there is growing resistance to such projects in various parts. Alongside, there are strident arguments being made about the near impossibility of phasing out coal based energy, even as concerns over the viability of mega renewable projects are growing.  

Prevailing Water Crisis and Tourism

In a surprising turn of events, Bali’s booming economy is resulting in a grave environmental crisis threatening the region’s water security. With the intention of promoting tourism, rice fields, where Bali’s irrigation system- Subak – coursed through, have been turned into golf courses and forests. Regions where water collected, has been cut down to build villas.

Meanwhile in India, the shift to focus on tourism in the Namami Gange project is drawing attention to the conservation of the river Ganga. Fairs are being planned, natural and organic farming corridors are being built, afforestation is underway, and early indications are that the long neglected status of the river appears to be getting some attention due to growing investments in tourism.

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