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Biodiversity

International

Two new species of ginger discovered from Nagaland

Zingiber perenense was found growing in moist areas. 

Southeast Asia is a centre of diversity for the genus; several species have been found in northeast India

Scientists from the Botanical Survey of India (BSI) have discovered two new species of Zingiber, commonly referred to as ginger, from Nagaland. While Zingiber perenense has been discovered from the Peren district of Nagaland, Zingiber dimapurense was found in the Dimapur district of the State.

Details of both discoveries were published in two peer-reviewed journals earlier this year. Of the two species, Zingiber dimapurense is taller in size, with leafy shoots measuring 90-120 cm high, whereas the leafy shoots of Zingiber perenense reach up to 70 cm in height.

For Zingiber dimapurense, the lip of the flower (modified corolla) is white in colour, with dense dark- purplish red blotches. Its pollen is a creamy-white and ovato-ellipsoidal, whereas the fruit is an oblong 4.5 cm-5.5 cm long capsule. In the case of Zingiber perenense, which was discovered about 50 km from where the other species was found, the lip of the flower is white with purplish-red streaks throughout, and the pollen is ellipsoidal.

The type specimens of Zingiber perenense were collected in September 2017, when botanists were working on the ‘State flora of Nagaland’ in the Peren district. “The plant was found growing in moist shady places on the bank of a small steam in the hilly terrain forest of the Tesen village under the Peren subdivision,” the publication authored by four botanists said.

The specimen of Zingiber dimapurense was collected in October 2016 from the Hekese village forest under the Medziphema subdivision. Some rhizomes of this plant collected along with field data were planted in the Botanical Survey of India’s Eastern Regional Centre garden in Shillong, where itself they began flowering in June 2018.

Centre of diversity

According to Dilip Kumar Roy, who has contributed to both the publications, the genus Zingiber has 141 species distributed throughout Asia, Australia and the South Pacific, with its centre of diversity in Southeast Asia. “More than 20 species have been found in northeastern India. Over the past few years, more than half a dozen species have been discovered from different States of northeast India only,” Dr. Roy said.

Previous discoveries of Zingiber include Hedychium chingmeianum from the Tuensang district of Nagaland, Caulokaempferia dinabandhuensis from the Ukhrul district in Manipur in 2017, and Zingiber bipinianum from Meghalaya in 2015.

Nripemo Odyou, another scientist with the BSI, who also contributed to both the new discoveries in 2019, said that the high diversity of ginger species in northeast India reveals that the climate is conducive for the growth and diversity of the genus.

“Most species of ginger have medicinal values. More studies are required to ascertain the medicinal properties of the newly discovered species,” Dr. Odoyu said.

The rhizome of Zingiber officinale (common ginger) is used as a spice in kitchens across Asia, and also for its medicinal value. Botanists said that other wild species of Zingiber may have immense horticultural importance.

Shiv Sahay Singh

Environment

People’s biodiversity registers will collate data on plants, animals, trees, crops, traditional knowledge

By: Gulshan Ahuja 

India is among the 17 mega bio-diverse countries of the world. Four of the 34 biodiversity hotspots identified in the world are in India — the Western Ghats, the Eastern Himalayas, the Indo-Burma region and the Sundaland (includes Nicobar Group of Islands). India has 10 bio-geographic zones with 46,000 plant species and 96,000 species of animals recorded so far.
The steep decline in biodiversity is a major cause of concern across the world. Plants and animals become extinct in a gradual process but this decline has increased manifold due to human activities. Many regions in the world have seen a major dip in the biodiversity owing to changes in climate and increasing pollution levels and overexploitation of bio-resources for commercial use. Tasmanian tiger, golden toad, Caribbean monk seal, ivory-billed woodpecker, western black rhinoceros are some of the examples of animals species that have gone extinct and mountain gorilla, sea turtle, Amur leopard and tiger are on the verge of extinction. Similarly, plants and trees like Lepidodendron, Araucaria Mirabilis, wood cycad and Kokia cookei are extinct and many others are endangered.

Rio de Janeiro convention on biodiversity 1992

Realizing the need to conserve biodiversity, the world community met during Earth Summit in 1992 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil and signed the convention on biological diversity (CBD), a landmark treaty that set the framework for conservation of biodiversity and its sustainable use. The treaty was ratified by 196 countries and India became signatory in 1994. The convention recognizes sovereign rights of the states over their resources with three objectives — conservation of biodiversity, sustainable use of its components, fair and equitable sharing of benefits arising out of the use of biological resources.

In India, the Biological Diversity Act was passed in 2002 and the Centre formulated Biological Diversity Rules in 2004. The National Biodiversity Authority, headquartered in Chennai, was constituted and all the states set up State Biodiversity Boards. Now, biodiversity management committees are being set up local body levels across the states.

Conservation of biodiversity

It is vital that everyone contributes to the conservation of biodiversity by reducing overexploitation of natural resources, planting trees and avoiding activities that lead to pollution as pollution is the largest single factor responsible for climate change leading to loss of ecosystems and biodiversity.

In Haryana, the Haryana State Biodiversity Board is working to achieve the objectives of the convention on biological diversity by educating people and spreading awareness on the importance of conserving biodiversity. The biodiversity management committees across the state will be imparted skill development training in biodiversity management on the importance of conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity. They will also be made aware of their rights in use of bio-resources by traders and manufacturers and will be helped in getting their share of benefits through the access benefit sharing (ABS) mechanism that was decided in the Nagoya Protocol signed by the CBD nations in Japan in 2010.

The biodiversity management committees will also be involved in creating people’s biodiversity registers (PBRs) to collate data on plants, animals, trees, agricultural crops (agri-biodiversity) and traditional knowledge existing in the area about use of bio-resources, particularly herbal plants. This information will help them become partners in benefit sharing in bio-resources occurring in the area in case of commercial utilization of bio-resources.

Bio-resources are plants, animals and micro-organisms, but not human genetic material, according to the Biological Diversity Act, 2002.

The theme of the International Day for Biological Diversity being celebrated across the globe on May 22 this year is “Our Biodiversity, Our Food, Our Health.”

Haryana is organizing essay writing and photography contests, and painting competitions by professional painters and nature lovers as well as school children. On this day, it becomes imperative for all of us to start thinking about conservation and sustainable aspects of biodiversity. The conservation of biodiversity is a necessity and we must make efforts to conserve it rather than contributing towards its decline.

(The writer, a former IFS officer, is chairman of the Haryana State Biodiversity Board, Panchkula)

International

UN report: Humans accelerating extinction of species

By SETH BORENSTEIN

People are putting nature in more trouble now than at any other time in human history, with extinction looming over 1 million species of plants and animals, scientists said Monday.

But it’s not too late to fix the problem, according to the United Nations’ first comprehensive report on biodiversity.

“We have reconfigured dramatically life on the planet,” report co-chairman Eduardo Brondizio of Indiana University said at a press conference.

Species loss is accelerating to a rate tens or hundreds of times faster than in the past, the report said. More than half a million species on land “have insufficient habitat for long-term survival” and are likely to go extinct, many within decades, unless their habitats are restored. The oceans are not any better off.

“Humanity unwittingly is attempting to throttle the living planet and humanity’s own future,” said George Mason University biologist Thomas Lovejoy, who has been called the godfather of biodiversity for his research. He was not part of the report.

“The biological diversity of this planet has been really hammered, and this is really our last chance to address all of that,” Lovejoy said.

Conservation scientists convened in Paris to issue the report, which exceeded 1,000 pages. The Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) included more than 450 researchers who used 15,000 scientific and government reports. The report’s summary had to be approved by representatives of all 109 nations.

Some nations hit harder by the losses, like small island countries, wanted more in the report. Others, such as the United States, were cautious in the language they sought, but they agreed “we’re in trouble,” said Rebecca Shaw, chief scientist for the World Wildlife Fund, who observed the final negotiations.

“This is the strongest call we’ve seen for reversing the trends on the loss of nature,” Shaw said.

The findings are not just about saving plants and animals, but about preserving a world that’s becoming harder for humans to live in, said Robert Watson, a former top NASA and British scientist who headed the report.

“We are indeed threatening the potential food security, water security, human health and social fabric” of humanity, Watson told The Associated Press.

It’s also an economic and security issue as countries fight over scarcer resources. Watson said the poor in less developed countries bear the greatest burden.

A fisherman unloads his catch in the port of Suao, north eastern Taiwan on June 21, 2015. (AP Photo/Wally Santana)

The report’s 39-page summary highlighted five ways people are reducing biodiversity:

— Turning forests, grasslands and other areas into farms, cities and other developments. The habitat loss leaves plants and animals homeless. About three-quarters of Earth’s land, two-thirds of its oceans and 85% of crucial wetlands have been severely altered or lost, making it harder for species to survive, the report said.

— Overfishing the world’s oceans. A third of the world’s fish stocks are overfished.

— Permitting climate change from the burning of fossil fuels to make it too hot, wet or dry for some species to survive. Almost half of the world’s land mammals — not including bats — and nearly a quarter of the birds have already had their habitats hit hard by global warming.

— Polluting land and water. Every year, 300 to 400 million tons of heavy metals, solvents and toxic sludge are dumped into the world’s waters.

— Allowing invasive species to crowd out native plants and animals. The number of invasive alien species per country has risen 70% since 1970, with one species of bacteria threatening nearly 400 amphibian species.

“The key to remember is, it’s not a terminal diagnosis,” said report co-author Andrew Purvis of the Natural History Museum in London.

Fighting climate change and saving species are equally important, the report said, and working on both environmental problems should go hand in hand. Both problems exacerbate each other because a warmer world means fewer species, and a less biodiverse world means fewer trees and plants to remove heat-trapping carbon dioxide from the air, Lovejoy said.

A couple walks through a forest with the Frankfurt skyline in background near Frankfurt, Germany on Oct. 21, 2018. (AP Photo/Michael Probst)

The world’s coral reefs are a perfect example of where climate change and species loss intersect. If the world warms another 0.9 degrees (0.5 degrees Celsius), which other reports say is likely, coral reefs will probably dwindle by 70% to 90%, the report said. At 1.8 degrees (1 degree Celsius), the report said, 99% of the world’s coral will be in trouble.

“Business as usual is a disaster,” Watson said.

At least 680 species with backbones have already gone extinct since 1600. The report said 559 domesticated breeds of mammals used for food have disappeared. More than 40% of the world’s amphibian species, more than one-third of the marine mammals and nearly one-third of sharks and fish are threatened with extinction.

The report relies heavily on research by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, or IUCN, which is composed of biologists who maintain a list of threatened species.

The IUCN calculated in March that 27,159 species are threatened, endangered or extinct in the wild out of nearly 100,000 species biologists examined in depth. That includes 1,223 mammal species, 1,492 bird species and 2,341 fish species. Nearly half the threatened species are plants.

Scientists have only examined a small fraction of the estimated 8 million species on Earth.

The report comes up with 1 million species in trouble by extrapolating the IUCN’s 25% threatened rate to the rest of the world’s species and using a lower rate for the estimated 5.5 million species of insects, Watson said.

Outside scientists, such as Lovejoy and others, said that’s a reasonable assessment.

The report gives only a generic “within decades” time frame for species loss because it is dependent on many variables, including taking the problem seriously, which can reduce the severity of the projections, Watson said.

“We’re in the middle of the sixth great extinction crisis, but it’s happening in slow motion,” said Conservation International and University of California Santa Barbara ecologist Lee Hannah, who was not part of the report.

A lemur looks through the forest at Andasibe-Mantadia National Park in Andasibe, Madagascar on Dec. 14, 2011. (AP Photo/Jason Straziuso)

Five times in the past, Earth has undergone mass extinctions where much of life on Earth blinked out, like the one that killed the dinosaurs. Watson said the report was careful not to call what’s going on now as a sixth big die-off because current levels don’t come close to the 75% level in past mass extinctions.

The report goes beyond species. Of the 18 measured ways nature helps humans, the report said 14 are declining, with food and energy production noticeable exceptions. The report found downward trends in nature’s ability to provide clean air and water, good soil and other essentials.

Habitat loss is one of the biggest threats, and it’s happening worldwide, Watson said. The report projects 15.5 million miles (25 million kilometers) of new roads will be paved over nature between now and 2050, most in the developing world.

Many of the worst effects can be prevented by changing the way we grow food, produce energy, deal with climate change and dispose of waste, the report said. That involves concerted action by governments, companies and people.

Individuals can help with simple changes to the way they eat and use energy, said the co-chairman of the report, ecological scientist Josef Settele of the Helmholtz Center for Environmental Research in Germany. That doesn’t mean becoming a vegetarian or vegan, but balancing meat, vegetables and fruit, and walking and biking more, Watson said.

“We can actually feed all the coming billions of people without destroying another inch of nature,” Lovejoy said. Much of that can be done by eliminating food waste and being more efficient, he said.

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Follow Seth Borenstein on Twitter: @borenbears

Environment

Despite Landmark Judgment, Issues of Regulation Remain in India’s Biodiversity Regime

by Shalini Bhutani and Kanchi Kohli

The issue of regulating access to genetic resources and biological materials (GBMR) and associated people’s knowledge by user/accessor companies from the de facto biodiversity keepers on the ground continues to challenge administrators in India. Under the Biological Diversity (BD) Act, 2002, the government agencies tasked to do so are the National Biodiversity Authority (NBA) and the State Biodiversity Boards (SBBs).

For access by foreign entities, the power to approve/reject applications rests with the NBA. Additionally, the NBA vets all access applications for intellectual property rights (IPRs), whether they are by an Indian entity or a foreign body. SBBs have been set up in all the 29 states of the country.

As per Section 7 of the BD Act, no Indian person is allowed to obtain any Indian biological resource for commercial utilisation without prior intimation to the SBB concerned. This interpretation has never been challenged.

However, the role of the SBBs with respect to determining the terms of access and benefit sharing (ABS) has been contested. While SBBs argue that they are legally empowered to set terms for access by Indian entities, user/accessor Indian companies have challenged the same.

This has been the main contention of a recent judgment of the Uttarakhand high court that eventually interprets the BD Act in favour of enhancing powers the SBBs. With this, the long-standing debate on the powers of an SBB to regulate access stand clarified.

It is important, however, to engage with both the merits and limitations of this judgment and contextualise it within the old, unresolved discourse on ABS.

Chronology

1994: India became a party to the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD)
2002: Biological Diversity (BD) Act passed by Parliament of India
2003: National Biodiversity Authority (NBA) set up in Chennai
2004: Biological Diversity Rules issued by MOEFCC
2014: India becomes a party to CBD’s Nagoya Protocol on Access & Benefit Sharing (ABS)
2014: Guidelines on Access to Biological Resources and Associated Knowledge and Benefits Sharing Regulations notified by NBA

What does the recent judgment clarify?

The December 21, 2018 judgment by the Uttarakhand HC clarifies that SBBs are not limited to merely receiving prior intimations of access from Indian entities using biological resources. This was the dominant interpretation of the law until 2013, when SBBs began demanding access fees from Indian companies.

The SBBs got more legal backing after the ABS Guidelines were issued by the NBA in 2014, pursuant to the coming into force of the Nagoya Protocol (the international regime on ABS) which India is a party to. The judgment clarifies that the board has a core function of regulation, which also includes asking for benefit sharing and determining the terms and conditions to be imposed on the user/accessor against access to GBMR/TK.

Also Read: How Laws to Protect Biodiversity Backfired on Scientists Trying to Save It

The Uttarakhand Biodiversity Board (UBB) sent a notice to Divya Pharmacy in early 2016 stating that the company was in violation of the BD Act for using biological resources from the state for its Ayurveda products, without duly intimating the Board and that it was liable to pay an ABS fee. Divya Pharmacy is the commercial arm of Baba Ramdev’s Patanjali Yogpeeth, which manufactures ayurvedic products from its units based in Uttarakhand.

Challenging the board’s notice, the company filed a writ petition before the Uttarakhand HC in December 2016. It sought the court’s interpretation of the provisions of the BD Act, particularly Section 7, which requires Indian entities to give prior intimation to the SBB before obtaining bioresources for commercial utilisation.

The four respondents in the case were Union of India, i.e. Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change (MoEFCC), the UBB, the NBA and the state of Uttarakhand. The petition challenged the powers of the SBBs to regulate access and determine benefit sharing upon access by Indian entities. Two years later, in the final judgment the court decided in favour of the UBB.

The judgment is an important milestone in clarifying the ABS powers of the SBBs. However, many other basic issues, both in the design and the implementation of this regime remain unclear. While some of these have been central to the debates since the time the Biodiversity Convention (CBD) was signed, others are practical questions that need to be sorted out to even operationalise such pro-ABS judgments.

Access when?

One of the most fundamental aspects to be established for enforcing ABS obligations is the point of access, i.e. when the access can be said to have taken place. The BD Act does not offer guidance on this. Neither is there case law in India on this precise issue, even though a previous study of legal cases by the authors showed that between 2004-16, ABS matters were the maximum in number being litigated under the BD Act.

Is it when merely the physical raw material is obtained, or when a commercial utilisation occurs with the development into drugs or industrial products and their subsequent sale? This is important to trigger the legal duty of the user/accessor to share the benefits with the source country/community. In the present case, the benefit claimers would be the local communities in the state and the UBB, through which the benefit-sharing agreements would have to be routed.

Accessing GMBR/TK for commercial utilisation would imply benefit-sharing obligations on Divya Pharmacy since the Act came into force in 2003. Therefore, the exact point in time when the Divya Pharmacy accessed the bioresources in Uttarakhand and began manufacturing products would be important to determine the “end use”. But it was a decision of the SBB to use 2014 as the start date. Neither the existing law nor the judgment offers any guidance on this front.

Which date?

A critical question that the SBBs are confronted with is of the start date of calculation of the ABS fees. The ABS Guidelines were issued on November 21, 2014. In line with that, the UBB put out a Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) for commercial users of biological resources (Access and Benefit Sharing); therein it states that this procedure will be followed for every financial year starting 2014-15. In the Divya Pharmacy case too the SBB calculated the fees payable from 2014-15 onwards.

But the court does not get into the question of date, for example, what about fees for access prior to 2014? After all, the BD Act came into force in 2003. To make things more complex, what about cases in which the GBMR or TK is obtained in the raw form prior to introduction of Nagoya Protocol/ABS Guidelines in 2014, but commercially utilised after these came into force?

The Nagoya Protocol (NP), also cited in the judgment, is silent on this aspect. The domestic ABS guidelines also, as of now, do not offer any guidance on that front. Therefore, in view of the broad objectives of the CBD and the BD Act, it might be useful for the NBA/MoEFCC to take a clear position on this in India. This will offer a blueprint to the SBBs and also aid the discussions on this at the international level.

Baba Ramdev. Credit: Facebook/Patanjali Products

The Divya Pharmacy petition challenged the powers of the SBBs to regulate access and determine benefit sharing upon access by Indian entities. Baba Ramdev. Credit: Facebook/Patanjali Products

What benefit?

The benefit sharing demanded by the SBB in the present matter of Divya Pharmacy is monetary in nature. The NBA and SBBs while keen to ensure ABS, also have to be mindful that it is not reduced to a fee collection initiative. This aspect is critical and requires serious scrutiny from within and outside the government.

As per GoI/NBA guidelines, SBBs may retain a share not exceeding 5% of the benefits realised towards administrative charges, while the remaining 95% share of the benefits shall be passed on to the concerned Biodiversity Management Committees (BMC) or to the benefit claimers, once identified. However, where benefit claimers are not identified, any monetary benefit shall be deposited in the State Biodiversity Fund.

Quantification of benefits is in itself a poser. The SBBs genuinely seek guidance from NBA/MOEFCC for situations when against a demand for monetary benefit sharing by the SBB, the defaulting company agrees to do non-monetary sharing for a lesser monetary value.

For instance, if the boards raise a demand for ABS fee of an amount of 10 crore, but the user/accessor company offers a school building valued at Rs 10 lakh. ABS agreements are negotiated on mutually agreed terms (MATs); yet SBBs need some operational guidance in line with state policy. India does not have a clearly stated ABS policy per se.

It is 16 years since the BD Act came into force and over four years since the Nagoya Protocol became effective. There is a need for tools and techniques to determine what could be non-monetary benefits. A comprehensive assessment capturing all working models and possible options needs to be undertaken.

What next?

The Indian industry has been resisting being brought under an ABS regime; this is something that the NBA and SBBs will have to continue to contend with. Meanwhile, the Ministry is trying to streamline the procedures for the industry in the hope that they can be brought into the ABS net. In March 2017, the then environment minister launched the e-filing of ABS applications.

In September 2018, the Ministry issued an office memorandum directing the NBA to decide all ABS cases that require prior approval of the NBA, on merits and within a period of 100 days from the date of issuance of the OM. However, the dilemma remains as to whether the NBA should be mild (and ask for benefit sharing only for 2017-18) or insist on strict compliance for all previous years of access.

While in the Divya Pharmacy matter, the court addressed the legal questions that arose in the case; the uncertainty on practicalities of enforcing such a favourable order still remains. This is the core issue i.e. how to actually operationalise the benefit sharing with local communities and harness any resources generated for local conservation. Although the NBA has issued Operational Guidelines for SBBs on how to deal with ABS under Section 7 cases, the real-time experiences will continue to test the system. And each matter will have to be dealt with on a case-to-case basis.

Finally, the BD Act’s implementation is still heavily dependent on the integrity and honesty of users/accessors who forward applications for access. The regulatory agencies step in for determining benefit sharing based on the ABS guidelines only after that. In some cases, the SBBs have proactively issued notices on non-compliance with the law.

However, there is need for more to be done to act as deterrence against avoidance of fair and equal benefit sharing (FEBS). Non-centralising this further could be one step and creating community-government partnerships another.

While a legal judgment clarifying that SBBs are empowered to demand FEBS is welcomed, but there are several pending issues still to be resolved before actual benefits to local communities can be realised. Meanwhile, the access continues.

Shalini Bhutani and Kanchi Kohli are independent legal researchers and jointly coordinate BioDWatch, a list serve with updates on the implementation of India’s biodiversity law.

First published in the Wire

International

Community-led strategies offer hope for east Himalayan biodiversity

Local farmers and communities are succeeding to conserve crops and wildlife where government has failed in one of the world’s biodiversity hotspots in northeast India

by Mubina Akhtar

The Singchung Bugun Village Community Reserve, an NGO from the West Kameng district of India’s northeastern state of Arunachal Pradesh, won the National Biodiversity Discovery Award on May 22, 2018, in Hyderabad for its unique endeavour to conserve rare local wildlife on the fringes of the Eaglenest Wildlife Sanctuary. The award highlighted the role of civil society organisations in preserving the unique biodiversity of the region.

A biodiversity hotspot

The jungles of Northeast India host some of the world’s most interesting species – from the greater one horned rhino to the Hoolock gibbon, from the shy pygmy hog to the elusive white-winged wood duck, from the majestic golden langur to the playful river dolphins and mahseer. There is a staggering variety of wildlife in the marshes and forests of Arunachal Pradesh, part of the eastern Himalayas. Sadly, many species are disappearing before they have even been identified.

A great one horned rhino in Kaziranga National Park.

A large array of new species have been found  in recent years. Researchers at the GB Pant Institute of Himalayan Studies recently recorded six new species of fish while researchers from the Rajiv Gandhi University recorded another. And researchers at the Jawaharlal Nehru College, Pasighat, recorded yet another discovery of a new ornamental fish – Microphis ignoratus – in a tributary of the Siang river. This was the first discovery of a freshwater pipefish in the sub-continent.

The recent discovery of a new family of legless amphibians highlighted that region’s hidden biodiversity was in need of “improved inventories,” as the researchers wrote in their paper. Another stunning discovery was made by wildlife researchers in the wetland area of Nagula, Tawang, 4,200 metres high in Arunachal Pradesh. Researchers and forest officials carrying out a baseline survey of Nagula wetland found nearly 70 birds, three species of mammals and an amphibian. The mammals include two mountain pikas and Himalayan marmot (ground squirrel).

In 2012, a new species of frog from the Dicroglossidae family was discovered at Mawphlang, near Shillong in Meghalaya. “More than 100 amphibians have been identified across the Northeast of which many are endemic to the region,” said Jagadinda Roy Choudhury, who retired as the head of the Zoology department at B Barooah College, Guwahati. “Herpetofauna [reptiles and amphibians are] a key component of our natural ecosystem and as such the top priority of our conservation strategies should be on an improved inventory of these little-known amphibians,” he added.

Studies suggest many of the amphibians are facing extinction due to habitat destruction combined with other factors like pollution and radiation, introduction of exotic species and large-scale illegal trading for human consumption.

Decreasing forest cover

Native forests are crucial for conserving biodiversity. However, local studies have shown that forests have decreased in some of India’s most important biodiverse areas. Native forests are pooled with exotic tree plantations such as eucalyptus, acacia, rubber, and teak which have very limited value for endangered biodiversity.

The India State of Forest Report (ISFR) 2017 showed a decrease in forest cover in six states of Northeast India, which include loss of 630 square kilometres in the eastern Himalayas.
The reasons for the decrease are said to be shifting cultivation, rotational tree felling, diversion of forest land for developmental activities, submergence of forest cover, agriculture expansion, natural disasters and other pressures. The Northeast also has a diverse tree population but many of the species are now facing threat from the same factors. The report showed a 567 square kilometre increase in Assam’s forest cover, which is 35.83% of the state’s geographical area. Unfortunately this does not offset the overall loss in the region, especially as these are often not the dense forests of the past, but newly planted trees often of non-native varieties.

Migratory birds in Pobitora Wildlife Sanctuary.

Conservation strategies

Government led conservation efforts have failed to reach this corner of India. India’s biodiversity legislation has three main objectives, conservation of biodiversity, its sustainable use and ensuring equitable sharing of the benefits from use of the country’s biological resources or related traditional knowledge. To achieve this, the Biodiversity Act has a three-tier institutional structure—the National Biodiversity Authority (NBA), State Biodiversity Boards (SBBs) in every state and Biodiversity Management Committees (BMCs) at local village/urban levels. Unfortunately, the SBBs or BMCs barely play a role in the biodiversity conservation in this part of the country. On the contrary, privately funded projects or work by NGOs has yielded better results.

A capped Langur in Garbhanga Reserve Forest, Kamrup, Assam.

Saving seeds, saving lives

One effective conservation strategy is “seed saving”, or the practice of saving, exchanging, and reusing seeds that were handed down generation to generation through families or communities over centuries. In the past, farmers carefully selected crops for various traits adapted to many growing conditions and climates, creating a rich genetic plant heritage that formed the base of the global food supply. However, over the last century, this agricultural biodiversity has undergone a rapid decline, with many heritage and native plant species being replaced with commercial crop varieties.

Padma Kanta Nath, a farmer from Kaliabor, in the Nagaon district of Assam, has worked to collect more 110 traditional rice varieties. The growing dependence on a dwindling number of crops worldwide has raised big concerns about global food security. This means revitalising the practice of seed saving is vital.

Akhil Gogoi, the leader of Krishak Mukti Sangram Samitee (KMSS or Farmer’s Freedom Movement Organisation) who is spearheading the movement against mega dams in Assam, is also leading another movement to gain back control of seeds from industry. Gogoi’s repository has a collection of more than 200 indigenous varieties of rice in the Kaziranga National Orchid and Biodiversity Park. “Saving the seeds will not only guarantee our future food security but will keep alive our culture, diversity and our identity,” said Gogoi.

The KMSS is a people’s movement committed to upholding the rights of farmers and protect local heritage and resources. Protection of indigenous plants, fish and crops is one of the key agenda items of KMSS. As part of this, KMSS has created a sprawling 30,000 square metre Kaziranga National Orchid and Biodiversity Park, the first of its kind in the region. “The basic purpose of this park is to conserve the local varieties of orchids, flowers, fruits, fish as well as our colourful ethnic culture and to spread knowledge about them,” Gogoi said.

The park, inaugurated in 2015, hosts more than 600 varieties of wild orchids, a medicinal plant garden, a fishery for indigenous fishes, an extensive forest of native trees, a garden for native flowers and fruits and a rice museum.

Some 150 kilometres away from the park, Rahmat Ali Laskar, a school dropout from the little known town of Udali in Hojai district in Assam, received an honorary degree from a French University for the conservation of orchids. He has collected some 1,200 species and sub species of orchids and another 270 varieties of bamboo under one roof. Laskar aspires to use his collection to contribute to the knowledge of orchids, particularly the threatened and highly valued species.

The report first published in The Third Pole

All photographs by Jt. Chandan Kumar Duwora