A handful of mass nesting locations remain worldwide for the olive ridley turtle. Gahirmatha is one of the largest. Already threatened by trawling, the last thing the turtles need is a mega port less than 15 km from their mass nesting beaches. The port is also less than 5 km from India’s second largest mangrove forest, Bhitarkanika.
Given that this will be the deepest port in India and the entire region, and one of the largest, its location in an area of ecological significance is obviously a matter of concern, particularly given that no proper environment impact assessment has ever been conducted for this project. The only EIA that exists has serious flaws, and considers a project with a different location and specifications from the one being built. (See www.greenpeace.org for a critique of the EIA). A biodiversity assessment study conducted in 2007 has thrown up rare species of reptiles and amphibians on the port site itself, species that found no mention in the EIA!
There are some things about the IUCN-Tata partnership that just don’t make sense. Like the IUCN agreeing to provide advice on mitigation measures, rather than first insisting on a comprehensive impact analysis. The IUCN has acknowledged that procedural loopholes prevented a proper review of the port’s environmental impacts, and also that the project’s EIA was substandard (see http://www.dhamraport.com/). The IUCN also said in its first scoping report that a comprehensive EIA was needed, yet this was never done. Why didn’t the IUCN first conduct such an EIA? How can it advise on mitigation after accepting that the impacts are unknown? Is this in keeping with the Precautionary Principle?
Another puzzle: The IUCN’s refusal to consult with turtle researchers, Marine Turtle Specialist Group (MTSG) members and conservation groups in India. Tata approached IUCN prior to July 2006. Yet there was no effort to inform, let alone consult or involve, other groups in India. The apprehensions of conservationists, NGOs and fishermen’s associations had been public for close to eight years. Why the secrecy?
What really doesn’t make sense is Dr. Nicholas Pilcher, MTSG Co-Chair and now chief consultant on the mitigation plan, vociferously defending the economic necessity of the port itself, and asserting that it poses little threat to turtles (http://lists.ufl.edu/). It doesn’t make sense because Dr. Pilcher had clearly stated in December 2006 that turtles would be impacted, by lighting, dredging and most of all the secondary development that would follow the port’s establishment. Why the turnaround?
In 2005, the Bombay Natural History Society refused to undertake a Tata-funded study to ascertain turtle presence in the area on the grounds that the project (land acquisition, etc.) was already underway, raising the probability of a fait accompli. Tata now claims that it was ready to abandon the project had anyone advised them. But surely continuing work while an impact study is ongoing doesn’t indicate readiness to abandon a project (see background http://www.greenpeace.org/ ).
The IUCN is ignoring the fact that mitigating all impacts is impossible. Mitigation measures (maintenance dredging and lighting restrictions, ballast water discharge regulations, etc.) need to be implemented on a daily, yearly basis. Who will monitor this, for how long and with what safeguards? The IUCN scoping report (Pt. 8.7 and 8.8, page 8) identifies this problem, but how is it being addressed?
What about impacts that cannot be mitigated, particularly from secondary development (a ship yard is planned, and other industries will follow to take advantage of the port)? While the scoping report (Pt. 8.5) zeroes in on this as a major problem, again, no word on how it will be tackled. Such development will not be controlled by the port company, and the state government couldn’t care less.
An example of what lies in store can be seen by the dirty industrialization around Paradeep port to the south. Paradeep is over 50 km. from the Gahirmatha mass nesting beaches and over 40 km. from the former mass nesting beaches at Devi. While turtles are still seen near the port, there is no mass nesting site close by. No one knows what the turtle nesting situation was before Paradeep came up in the 1960s. Gahirmatha was only ‘discovered’ after Paradeep had been built.
Of course it’s better to have a port that employs some mitigation efforts, rather than one that doesn’t. But the situation was never a stark either-or. At the time the IUCN entered the scene, only preliminary construction and land acquisition was underway and the company was under pressure to consider alternatives. The company claims that it withheld construction for a year. However, project funding was tied up in February 2007, and immediately components of the project got underway. Some, such as the credit guarantee for the dredging component by Belgian bank ONDD were already in the works.
If the IUCN had a) stuck to its mandate of putting nature first, b) advised against the port at its current location, or c) at the very least insisted on a thorough impact analysis before the project proceeded, the company would have had little choice but to agree, or run the gauntlet of international censure. The IUCN’s involvement has instead provided the company with the proverbial fig leaf, albeit one that is tattered and dangling precariously in the wind. The IUCN name is now being used to greenwash a major business development. This might not have been the IUCN’s intention, but it is happening, and the IUCN is refusing to stop it.
The IUCN-Tata deal over Dhamra has set a disastrous precedent and vindicates fears about the potential pitfalls of the IUCN’s Business and Biodiversity Programme. Why would industry think twice about entering an ecologically critical area if it can get the IUCN to prepare a ‘mitigation’ plan? As conservationists, isn’t the first priority to keep destructive development away from ecologically critical areas?
Indian groups and IUCN and MTSG members have asked the Union to issue a simple clarification that it does not endorse the port project at its current location. A simple enough statement, right? Yet the IUCN has refused to do this. How is this one statement in any way contrary to the IUCN’s principles or its espoused commitment to the Precautionary Principle?
With no coherent explanation forthcoming from Gland, conjecture is all that remains. Is the IUCN’s pro-business section wary of the precedent such a statement would set? Are there other links between Tata and the IUCN that could be jeopardised? And where does this leave the turtles and the future of one of the world’s largest arribadas?
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