What’s in a name? The future of an ecosystem, apparently

Wed 25 Jan 2017

When the forest officers attached to the British Raj surveyed the vast expanse of grasslands and woodlands in the country, they decided to term them ‘forests’. For many modern-day scientists, however, this is when the unfurling of our public policies for our ecosystem begin.

“If only they considered these landscapes of grasslands and wooded areas as savannahs, we would perhaps have had better policies to manage these ecosystems,” said Jayashree Ratnam from the National Centre for Biological Sciences, who has worked extensively on African Savannahs. She was speaking at the international conference on ecology and conversation organised by the Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment (ATREE) — to commemorate their 20th year — here on Tuesday.

“A forest implies dense canopy cover. But, a savannah implies sparse tree cover, grasslands which are prone to forest fires, and abundant herbivores. Many of our “forests” are ecologically like savannahs, but are being managed like forests. So, we’re subduing forest fires, which has led to an increase in invasive species within these ecosystems. We are losing biodiversity here because these grasslands have become targets for government afforestation programmes,” said Ms. Ratnam. She believes that if the “misnaming, misunderstanding and mismanaging” are corrected, then we can treat these forest areas (for instance, Bandipur or Nagarahole) as savannahs where an optimum number of forest fires can be gauged and herbivore population maintained to protect biodiversity in the ecosystem.

Reducing costs

British biologist Georgina Mace, known for her work in developing the IUCN red list of endangered species, said good environment management could help India reduce costs incurred in firefighting ecological disasters. Referring to the drought in Karnataka, she said, “Good ecosystem management, such as preserving catchment basins, planting trees, can help prevent such crises.”

ATREE’s founder-president Kamaljit Bawa said as Bengaluru slips further into crisis with water shortage and air pollution on the top of everyone’s mind, the role of science-based think-tanks such as ATREE grows.

Profitable sustainability

Belgian ‘serial entrepreneur’ Gunter Pauli wears many hats, but at ATREE@20, he regaled his audience with the possibilities that putting innovation and a respect for nature together can help realise. And the possibilities ranged from underwater vertical gardens in South Africa and recyclable diapers to sustainable goat rearing in Mongolia and fair price organic tea in Assam. What sets his work apart is that at every step, Mr. Pauli and his team looked to nature for answers. “We tried to build profitable ventures and cut out middlemen so that the farmers and rearers would earn a decent income,” he said.

Mr. Pauli is the author of The Blue Economy, which plans to create 100 million jobs through 100 innovations across the globe. He believes that rather than expecting governments to spend money to save the ecosystem, business ventures which benefit communities and take lessons from nature can make a marked difference.


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