SSC Chair’s Office, Cape Town, South Africa.
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IUCN’s mission embraces the inherent values of species, and the goods and services they provide to human development through meeting the needs and aspirations of people. Comprised of both government and non-governmental members, IUCN provides an unparalleled platform to deal with the highly complex and often controversial conservation matters of our modern times.

This is clearly demonstrated in IUCN’s proposed 2009-2012 programme, which while focusing on conserving biodiversity, is directly concerned with improving livelihoods, reducing vulnerability of the poor, integrating ecosystem values in economic policy and markets, and enhancing environmental and human security through sustainable ecosystem management. As summed up in the 2009-2012 programme document, IUCN “helps the world find pragmatic solutions to our most pressing environment and development challenges.” This holistic approach is implicit in IUCN’s involvement in the Dhamra Port intervention.

IUCN has the ability to convene multiple stakeholders, to facilitate dialogue and to bring technical and scientific knowledge to bear in solving complicated conservation issues. It is committed to improving governance and empowering the voices of civil society to help conserve biodiversity, for its own sake and for the contribution it makes to improving human-wellbeing. In the case of Dhamra port, or any other significant development, IUCN interventions are about safeguarding both biological diversity and the needs of people.

IUCN ‘One Programme’ approach mandates greater engagement with the business sector to realise our conservation agendas. IUCN has a dedicated Business and Biodiversity Programme to oversee relationships with industry, and it goes without saying that these are never simple processes: partnering with any sector, which by its very nature does not have the conservation of biodiversity as its primary objective, makes for practical challenges. But resolutely not engaging with industry makes our task even more difficult and fosters conservation expectations that may be unattainable in reality.

Before IUCN partners with industry on any matter, every effort is made to apply due diligence through background research and dialogue between the three pillars of IUCN – the Secretariat, the Commissions and the Members. Not every approach moves on to become a concrete relationship, and many never make it past the “starting blocks”. In the case of our involvement with the Tata Group, IUCN felt it provided an opportunity to bring about more positive outcomes for marine turtles than might have happened otherwise.

The Species Survival Commission is the largest of IUCN’s six Commissions, and it is charged with providing the IUCN and global conservation community with “sound interdisciplinary scientific information”, which can influence “decisions and policies affecting biodiversity”. The SSC has no executive authority over the work of the IUCN programme, and so providing the necessary information is not as easy or straightforward as it may seem. Fundamentally, the SSC is a loose constellation of experts, that have a passion for species conservation, and who are prepared to assist the SSC gratis – though occasionally specific outputs may be paid for at cost, SSC members are not on the IUCN payroll.

Science and objectivity form the Holy Grail of the SSC. This does not mean consensus will be reached on the scientific evidence underpinning each and every decision, and the dedication and passion of SSC members sometimes conflicts with real world pragmatism. For example, it is not unusual SSC for members of the Sustainable Use Specialist Group to support a level of harvest of a wildlife population opposed by members of a taxonomic Specialist Group, who may well advocate complete protection of the same species. Strong arguments can always be made from both sides. Who is to say what is “right”? Walking the tightrope between strong views held by different conservationists is daily work for the SSC – an often unenviable and difficult operational space, but one that advances conservation in the real world.

The SSC core values, conserving all species and practicing sound science, are what brought us to the table on the Dhamra port issue, and what keeps us there still. The SSC was approached by IUCN’s Secretariat, through its Business and Biodiversity and Asia Regional Programmes, to bring our relevant expertise to bear. Through the SSC’s Marine Turtle Specialist Group (MTSG), I believe we have delivered sound science related to the port development, in the form of practical and tangible mitigation steps. Our role is not to point fingers, but rather to provide input where we felt it could do the most good given the Dhamra project was already underway. Acting on IUCN’s deeply-held philosophy pertaining to development – “do no harm” – we were faced with a port development that had been approved, was going ahead, and our role was seen as being one of using knowledge and influence to ensure it did the least possible damage to the turtles and their environment.

The Dhamra port situation is one where IUCN’s proactive engagement, through its Business and Biodiversity Programme, Asia Regional Programme, the SSC and the MTSG, is aimed at making things better than what they might otherwise have been. We are demonstrably influencing the Dhamra Port Company Ltd to deliver on its conservation promises, through good science, the use of cutting edge technologies and for the betterment of livelihoods of people in the State of Orissa. Environmental mitigation and the protection of marine turtles are fundamental to the outcomes achieved.

Perhaps the biggest criticism of IUCN’s involvement that has been brought to my attention is that we may have fallen short of bringing all concerned parties and individuals along with us in this role. I have been assured that those involved have certainly tried their best to consult, but if some feel they have been left out there is always room for more consultation. Through continued exchange of ideas, and through exploiting opportunities for collective thinking and actions, even greater conservation benefits can be obtained in future.