IOSEA Marine Turtle MoU Secretariat
c/o UNEP Regional Office for Asia and the Pacific
2nd Floor, United Nations Building,Rajdamnern Nok Avenue
Bangkok 10200, Thailand.
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For as long as the IOSEA website has been tracking news headlines, marine turtles of the Indian state of Orissa have probably been featured more frequently than any other single issue over the past several years. More specifically, a search of the IOSEA archives for “Dhamra port” using the built-in search tool yields dozens of stories, dating back to 2004, about this controversial development project.

In brief, concern has been expressed that the project would create a major port facility, and result in ancillary industrial development, within 5 km of a national park and close to some of Orissa’s world-renowned turtle nesting beaches.

Scientists concerned about the potential environmental impacts of the port development circulated a petition in January 2008 seeking a new, comprehensive environmental impact assessment; urging relocation of the proposed port to a less ecologically sensitive area; and calling for the IUCN Marine Turtle Specialist Group (MTSG) to reconsider its involvement in various mitigation aspects of the project. See IOSEA website feature of 20 January 2008: Petition calls for halt to deepwater port project in Orissa, India

The controversy resurfaced in the last month with a renewed appeal by some to re-examine the MTSG’s involvement in the project, raising questions about transparency and an apparent lack of consultation of Indian conservationists, including MTSG members. The various exchanges of view are reproduced below.

The two sides of this fascinating debate draw attention to a number of fundamental challenges facing the “sustainable development” paradigm.

On the one hand, legitimate concerns have been articulated about the potential ecological and social impacts of this particular development within the context of wider industrial activity along the Orissa coast. On the other hand, the project presents an unusual opportunity to pro-actively engage industry in measures to mitigate the effects of development that is probably inevitable, sooner or later.

Leaving aside purely altruistic motivation, one might suggest that the developer’s willingness to invest in mitigation stems from a vested economic interest in not harming the environment (i.e. thereby avoiding future punitive sanctions, fines etc). But, taking a more cynical view, even if the company’s main aim was merely to deflect ongoing criticism, it could still be argued: Why not make the most of its “environmental sensitivity” to try to maximise the benefits for (or, rather, minimise the damage to) the environment, in the face of India’s inexorable quest for economic prosperity.

Added to this already complex mixture is the human element, which is rarely lacking from any controversy in the real world of conservation, where organisations and individuals compete for scarce resources. Beyond the honourable stated aims of environmental protection and pro-active engagement of industry, questions will always arise as to who is benefitting — or not — from a given relationship and in what way. The Dhamra port case is no different.

In the various interventions reproduced below, questions have been raised about the nature and legitimacy of the IUCN MTSG’s association with the project; and of the actions of the developer in allegedly representing this relationship as a “green badge of approval” from a respected NGO. The report of an IUCN ‘Scoping mission to the Dhamra Port project’
( reveals an awareness and understanding of these particular sensitivities.

At the same time, it is open to speculation as to whether those opposing the development in its current form would have felt compelled to engage in this public dialogue — and would have been quite as outspoken — if they, likewise, had been offered a “seat at the table” early on in the process.

Human nature being what it is, there might be too much water under the bridge to reconcile the various opposing interests, but it might not be too late to try. A truly representative Dhamra port stakeholders meeting and a well-constituted, transparently-operated environmental review panel might be a good starting point.

# – Originally published online 25 Apr 2008 on; reprinted with permission


Director General,
Rue Mauverney 28,
Gland, 1196

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Ref: IUCN’s involvement in the Dhamra Port Project, Orissa, India

May 7, 2008

Dear Ms. Léfevre,

As members of the IUCN and MTSG in India we are deeply concerned by the process in which the IUCN and MTSG have become involved in a controversial mega-development project that is a mere 13 km from Gahirmatha, one of the most important nesting beaches of the olive ridley turtle and just 5 km away from the Ramsar site of Bhitarkanika National Park, an internationally critical wetland. Moreover, this area is used for traditional fishing and living spaces by some of the most marginalized peoples of India. In particular, we wish to register our protest at the manner in which we have been sidelined by the IUCN and MTSG leadership in undertaking this project.

Some of the more serious concerns are summarized in the following points:

  1. It is widely accepted – even by MTSG – that the Environmental Impact Assessment for the project is woefully inadequate. Therefore, any attempt at mitigation can only be of limited scope.
  2. The Dhamra Port is not a single entity; several associated industries such as a ship building yard, a steel plant, and a port-based fertilizer plant are already being planned, and more are certain to appear in the near future. The cumulative environmental and social effects of all these industries have not been considered.
  3. The issue of bilge water and invasive marine species, now recognized as an enormous environmental and economic threat at a global level, has also not been addressed.
  4. Dhamra is only one of the sites where the Government of Orissa has planned or initiated construction of ports. There has been no serious engagement on the issue of unplanned coastal development and its consequences for marine biodiversity and marginalized coastal dwellers who depend directly on living marine resources.
  5. No stakeholders’ meeting on the Dharma Port project has ever been conducted by IUCN/MTSG. Both the Orissa Traditional Fishworkers’ Union and the National Fishworkers’ Forum (the apex body for the traditional fisher community) have voiced their opposition to the port in the national press and to the IUCN through Orissa Marine Resources Conservation Consortium (OMRCC). Numerous Indian NGOs working in this area have also not been consulted.
  6. There has been virtually no consultation or even basic information sharing between IUCN – particularly MTSG leadership – and national members, many of whom have been grappling with the problem long before the IUCN became involved. This squanders considerable local expertise, besides sidelining local members. Several members of the MTSG have not only signed the petition that opposes the port, some have written thoughtful letters of concern, and the Regional Chairman of the MTSG has resigned.
  7. Despite being a non-advocacy group, the wholehearted support of the Port in public fora casts aspersions on the credibility and neutrality of the IUCN and MTSG engagement in this project. &L=cturtle&T=0&P=12430. The Dhamra Port Company Limited (DPCL) is using this purported support of the IUCN to claim that environmental impacts have been adequately addressed and mitigated. This, in particular, has undermined all other initiatives of local organizations, some of whom are IUCN members, against the port.

Given these grave problems that threaten the future of critical protected areas, the credibility of the IUCN in India and the livelihoods of tens of thousands of marginalized peoples, we call upon the IUCN to:

  1. Issue a statement that the IUCN abides by the precautionary principle and therefore does not support the construction of the Port in principle. Clarify, in this statement, that any advice that they provide could only mitigate some of the threats to marine biodiversity, endangered species, and local livelihoods and even then, only partially.
  2. Insist that the DPCL conduct an EIA to compile baseline ecological data, assess the impact on sea turtle movement, recruitment and nesting beaches, and the effects on Bhitarkanika National Park and Gahirmatha Marine Sanctuary.
  3. Urge the Government of Orissa to reconsider the unrestricted coastal development plan and to seriously integrate environmental concerns and mitigation into their planning.
  4. Actively consult and engage with its membership, many of whom have long years of experience working in this geographical area, who speak the local languages, and who understand the complex socio-cultural-political realities of the situation. Also include representatives from local artisanal fishing organizations, NGOs and other relevant organizations in these consultations.

We look forward to hearing from you. Please reply to:

Belinda Wright
Executive Director, Wildlife Protection Society of India (WPSI)
S-25 Panchsheel Park, New Delhi 110017, India

Yours sincerely,

Harry Andrews, MTSG-India member
B.C. Choudhury, MTSG-India member
Kartik Shanker, MTSG-India member
Wesley Sunderraj, MTSG-India member
Basudev Tripathy, MTSG-India member
Rom Whitaker, MTSG-India member

Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS), IUCN member and IUCN Indian National Committee member,

Foundation for Ecological Security, IUCN member and IUCN Indian National Committee member,

Gujarat Institute of Desert Ecology, IUCN member and IUCN Indian National Committee member,

Indian National Trust for Art & Cultural Heritage (INTACH), IUCN member and IUCN Indian National Committee member,

Salim Ali Centre for Ornithology & Natural History (SACON), IUCN member and IUCN Indian National Committee member,

Wildlife Protection Society of India (WPSI), IUCN member and IUCN Indian National Committee member,



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The Dhamra Port Company Limited (DPCL) in Orissa, India, has requested the advice of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) to mitigate the impact of the port’s development on the Olive Ridley Turtles. In fulfilling that role, IUCN has been receiving enquiries and questions about its overall involvement in the project. This brief clarifies the nature and extent of IUCN’s role.

The Dhamra Port project was conceived several years ago and project development is in progress following Indian government approval. The project is located in close proximity to turtle conservation areas. The potential impact of the project on the turtles has been a matter of concern to environmental organizations, and thus a subject of extensive debate. In 2006, after the project had been approved and development was underway, DPCL invited IUCN to advise on addressing the potential impacts of the project on turtles. IUCN carried out a scoping mission in November – December 2006 that led to our current engagement involving mobilization of IUCN scientific expertise to provide the requisite advice. All along, IUCN has been guided by the advice of the scientists in the Marine Turtle Specialist Group (MTSG) of the Species Survival Commission. The scientists have visited Dhamra on two different technical missions – a dredging mission in December 2007 and a lighting mission in March 2008. The reports of both these missions can be viewed on the IUCN Asia Regional Office website at:

At the time of IUCN’s first involvement, the decision to develop the port had already been taken and work was already underway. IUCN was assigned the role to influence the course of the development. Over the past two years of our engagement, and as a result of it, DPCL has worked towards carrying out turtle-sensitive dredging including putting in place turtle deflectors, fitting screens in inflow pipes, and developing an observer programme. The engineers and DPCL’s contractors are currently designing turtle-sensitive lighting systems. In pursuance of a holistic solution for turtle conservation in Orissa, IUCN is liaising with the Government of Orissa to propose a lighting ordinance which would address lighting at a greater geographical scale than in Dhamra alone. The IUCN team is also designing programmes to generate awareness amongst local communities, especially children, about the turtles and the need to conserve them; and is working with fishermen to encourage them to use turtle excluder devices (TED) to reduce the incidence of bycatch.

IUCN’s decision to get involved in the Dhamra port project was guided by its Mission to influence, encourage and assist societies for the conservation and sustainable use of nature. In engaging with business, IUCN seeks to conserve fragile and unique ecosystems and mitigate the negative environmental impacts of developments. In the DPCL case, IUCN has been fulfilling and continues to fulfil its Mission and role by providing assistance with mitigation of the impact of port development activities, such as dredging and lighting, on marine turtles. In addition to this, IUCN is encouraging DPCL to develop a comprehensive environmental management plan that would address the broader issues of environment. More details on IUCN’s support to DPCL are available at:

It is important to remember that IUCN is not a regulatory organization and does not have a mandate to adjudicate in cases such as this: rather, it provides independent scientific advice when called on to do so. Any such involvement is neither intended nor should be construed as approving or disapproving a particular development but rather as a means to help those making decisions with respect to the conservation of nature. IUCN hopes that its work with DPCL will generate useful tools and examples around mainstreaming biodiversity conservation in major economic development projects, and that lessons from the Dhamra port experiences will benefit the planning and development of other ports in the country, notably in terms of the importance of comprehensive planning, early stakeholders’ engagement, and timely access to scientific advice.

Gland 04 June, 2008