Many of us today interpret economic development to mean installation of a metro rail system, grand openings of franchise fast-food chains, a steadfast rise of GDP rates, and all such vantage points of corporate success. Amidst the immediate gratification from gleaming visuals of new skyscrapers, we often forget that the purview of infrastructural developments imposes dire risks on future generations. Even when some of us acknowledge the importance of environmental awareness, the metropolitan energy that drives our busy lives in Dhaka city obscures the necessity to understand and act on challenges imposed on our surroundings.
For the past 26 years, the United Nations has celebrated May 22 as “International Day for Biological Diversity” to promote conservation efforts relating to biodiversity—the term encompassing all living flora and fauna.
In current international politics, climate change has received considerable media attention, but the need to address the decline in plant and animal life around the world remains underemphasised. The difference in the way we perceive the two concepts perhaps stems from the ability to physically witness the threats of climate change, whereas it’s difficult to track why there are less crocodiles today than there were 20 years ago, and more importantly, grasp why that deserves ample attention.
The fact is that climate change and biodiversity are intertwined and fall under the concept of “sustainable development” that aims to preserve nature and its resources to optimise short-term economic growth and design long-term strategies for a productive future.
Earlier this month, a Global Assessment Summary for Policymakers was released by the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES). The overall report stated that biodiversity is “declining faster than at any time in human history,” and estimated that “around 1 million species already face extinction, many within decades...”
Similarly, the 2015 International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) report “Red List of Extinct Species in Bangladesh” stated that a total of 1,619 animal species, including the Asian rhinoceros and marsh crocodile, have become extinct. Such findings beg the question: why are animals increasingly disappearing from our landscapes?
In “Bangladesh National Conservation Strategy (2016-2031) Executive Summary Report”, Dr M Niamul Naser, Professor of Zoology at the University of Dhaka, explains that land degradation has emerged as a prime risk to biodiversity. If the economic value of losses due to degradation was calculated using the same percentage of GDP in 2015, it would alarmingly amount to Tk 71,000 crore. One of the causes behind the depletion of land points to the agriculture industry that lacks efficient, sustainable and uniform management. Whereas many policies such as the Land Use Policy and Fisheries Policy do ensure environmental safety, there is no national policy that aims to effectuate land use management.
On the other hand, the “Bangladesh National Conservation Strategy Summary Report on Coastal and Marine Resources” exposes an irony: the recent growth of tourism in coastal regions—that is widely applauded as an achievement for the nation—can eventually lead to ecosystem destruction and the loss of cultural diversity. For example, the coral-bearing St Martin’s Island of Bangladesh in the tip of Cox’s Bazar-Teknaf peninsula is under threat of pollution and freshwater shortage due to lack of water delivery systems and waste treatment facilities. It is important to note that tourism can expand the nation’s employment scope, given that it does not violate essential environmental standards ensuring the very existence of these aesthetic regions.
The Sundarbans is another prominent site that faces threats and is expected to face more as the Rampal Power Plant, a 1,320 MW coal-fired power station located around 15km away from the mangrove forest, is set to be completed this year. A Greenpeace study from May 5, 2017 stated that the power plant would cause at least 6,000 premature deaths and low birth weights of 24,000 babies during its 40-year life. Former adviser to a caretaker government, Sultana Kamal, has repeatedly presented scientific facts to highlight such dangers of the power plant. Yet, officials have bypassed warnings, and sought funding from the Chinese government when the state-owned Government Pension Fund Global of Norway that was scheduled to invest USD 55 million in the project withdrew the fund on account of recommendations put forth by Norway’s Council on Ethics that argued for dropping the project.
On a brighter note, the report titled “Second Phase Status of Tiger in Bangladesh Sundarbans 2018” suggested that the population of Royal Bengal Tigers has marginally increased in the Sundarbans. However, Sharif A Mukul, Assistant Professor of Environmental Management in Independent University, published an article this March titled “Combined effects of climate change and sea-level rise project dramatic habitat loss of the globally endangered Bengal tiger in the Bangladesh Sundarbans.” The study forecasts that there will be no suitable Bengal habitat remaining in the Sundarbans by 2070, just about 50 years from now. In light of such terrifying predictions, heedless human actions must be held accountable.
From 2011 to 2016, law enforcement officials recovered 30 body parts of tigers, including 22 skins, which calls for imperative biodiversity considerations from businessmen. The rise in harmful killings of tigers occurred as commercial demand for tiger bones strengthened due to the rise in Chinese medicinal value. But human negligence towards our tigers, which are integral to preserve food chains and ecosystems of the Sundarbans, demonstrates that the country needs to significantly prioritise awareness and regulation of biodiversity.
Reckless killings of animals to maximise profits should not only be criticised as hazardous to nutrition systems but also unethical. In July 2018, the Forest Department and Bangladesh Coast Guard arrested two poachers with three dead deer. Venison, or deer meat, is regularly sold in many villages of Shyamnagar upazila, and is a growing economic trend. The department also stated that locals purchase venison for Tk 500 or Tk 600 per kg, which means deer poaching and hunting would possibly continue for a while.
The prevalence of such harmful practices in the region disrupts the composition of biodiversity, and it is important to realise and act on the issue before it becomes unwieldy. Our enthusiasm to commercially advance ourselves dominates socio-economic spheres, but the need to make informed, efficacious choices goes unnoticed. We must responsibly grapple with the reality of declining biodiversity. In order to do so, officials and local residents should endorse regular monitoring and awareness-building projects that can save our tigers, our birds, our nutrition cycles, and, in turn, our future.
Ramisa Rob is pursuing Masters in Arts and Public Policy in New York University.