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Issue #1662      October 29, 2014

India: Forests and tigers vs coal mines

The Indian government’s approval of new coal mines in Central India has led to a lot of debate and much opposition in India and elsewhere. Permission has already been given for a three kilometre wide underground mine, which the Indian government maintains will cause less adverse environmental impacts than an open cut mine. But this type of mining will still cause plenty of deforestation and fragmentation of Bengal Tiger and other wildlife habitat in the region. And Coal India wants to establish several more new coal mines in Central India next to forest habitat that is crucial for sustaining endangered Bengal Tigers.

Bengal Tiger.

A hundred years ago there were hundreds of thousands of Bengal Tigers in the world, but now there are less than 2,000 left. The Bengal Tiger population has been reduced mainly due to hunting and destruction of their natural habitat. And now India is the Bengal Tiger’s stronghold. According to the International Union Conservation Network’s Red List, the Bengal Tiger is an endangered species. It is also India’s national animal and an important part of the countries eco-tourism appeal. Some of India’s most famous Bengal Tiger reserves like Kanha, Bandhavgarh, and Tadoba-Andhari lie in these Central Indian forests.

Thirteen new coal mines and numerous coal-fired power plants are planned to be constructed in Central India. These proposed coal mines therefore pose a real threat to India’s precious Royal Bengal Tigers, with the forests turned into coal mines, further displacing forest communities and destroying vital habitat. About 1.1 million hectares of tropical rainforest and at least ten Tiger sanctuaries are at stake.

India has been one of the bright spots in the global effort to save Tigers from extinction. The country has over half the world’s remaining population of wild Tigers. Although India’s Bengal Tiger population is unfortunately declining there have been some population increases in parts of the country that give great encouragement that the situation could be turned around.

India is a signatory to an ambitious conservation plan to double wild Tiger populations worldwide by 2022, a plan which was endorsed by all the 13 countries with Tigers in 2010. Worldwide, Tigers have been decimated by habitat loss, prey depletion and hunting, now largely to feed the Chinese medicine trade. These great cats have been left with only about seven percent of their historical range and already three Tiger subspecies have vanished forever.

Impacts on other wildlife

Wildlife is severely affected by coal mining operations. When coal companies start digging for coal, they cause a drastic decline of wildlife populations that inhabit the forests. As well as Bengal Tigers these forest habitats support populations of other rare wildlife species, which are also on the IUCN Red List, including Leopards, which are listed as Near Threatened, Asian Elephants, listed as Endangered and Sloth Bears and Sambar Deer, as Vulnerable. The region also has other deer and antelope species.

New coal mines will also destroy important corridors between the forests that the threatened Bengal Tiger and other wildlife need to survive and thrive. The Indian government says it wants to save the Tigers, but it also wants to profit from coal. But the Indian government can’t have both. So far, it’s coal that is winning over the preservation of the Bengal Tigers.

The problems with coal

The problems with coal production are well-known; it fuels climate change and spreads toxic pollution. Climate change is largely driven by burning of fossil fuels like coal, which is already wreaking havoc across the planet, so if these new coal mines go ahead they will make things worse.

Deutsche Bank is providing finance to Coal India to assist the construction of these new coal mines. Coal India is not only the largest company in the world in terms of coal production; it is also one of the worst. It has in the past forcibly displaced forest communities, destroyed critical Tiger habitat and used child labour. It is hoped the bank’s support for Coal India can be stopped by public protests. Environmentalist groups, tribal peoples and other locals strongly oppose the project due to its negative impact on forests.

Greenpeace report

“Unfortunately, for the Tiger, its largest contiguous habitat – Central India – is also where most of India’s coal lies,” Ashish Fernandes, author of a Greenpeace report.

Greenpeace India has researched the effects of these proposed coal mines and construction projects on the wildlife and people of the region. Almost half of the forest-dependent communities in the country depend on the forests of Central India for their livelihood and way of life.

In a report published in 2012, Greenpeace analysed the effects of the proposed coal mines on the region. It said, “Analysing 13 Central Indian coal mines, in various stages of exploitation, the report finds that full open pit mining in these areas would destroy over a million hectares of forest.” According to official data, 18 percent of these forests are known to be used by Tigers, 27 percent by Leopards and 5.5 percent by Asian Elephants. In all, eight of India’s well-known Tiger reserves will be impacted, potentially adversely affecting the estimated 230 Bengal Tigers in the region (13 percent of India’s Tiger population).

“Several of India’s largest coalfields ... include forest areas adjoining Tiger Reserves where Tigers are found. Coal mines are already eating into these areas and with the ongoing expansion, this will worsen,” Fernandes says.

India’s Protected Areas/Tiger Reserves are small by global standards, with fewer larger than 500 square kilometres. As such, if isolated their Bengal Tiger populations are not viable in the long term. “Tigers, males in particular, roam large areas in search of mates, and this ensures genetic vibrancy. As young Tigers mature, they also need to establish their own territories, or face conflict with dominant males. Corridors help aid this dispersal and ensure a healthy gene flow between different ‘source’ tiger populations.” explains Fernandes.

Coal mining in Central India also raises broader issues beyond wildlife and the effort to save the Bengal Tiger. India’s natural forests continue to disappear at a fast rate. According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), only around 19 percent of India is covered in natural forests, excluding monoculture plantations and many of the remaining forests are degraded and fragmented. Last year the federal government announced a US$10.14 billion plan to expand its forests by five million hectares, while improving forest quality on another five million hectares. But the state of India’s forests remains generally one of ongoing decline.

“India is losing natural forests at a rate of between 1.5 to 2.7% a year – alarming when you consider that the country has already lost 70% of its native forest cover. Plantations however are growing – usually with fast growing monoculture species such as acacia. Plantations are no substitute for natural forests. The Indian government is using its aggressive plantation program to hide the ongoing destruction of natural forest – primarily for mining, dams and other large infrastructure projects,” states Fernandes.

Impact on forest communities

“We are totally dependent on these forests,” says Kanti Kumar, a local tribal member. “Our source of livelihood is mahua and tendu leaf (a minor forest produce used in India) which we collect and sell for survival. If you take away our forest from us then how shall we live?”

The loss of these forests will drastically impact the livelihoods of local communities, their wood for fuel, building material, animal fodder, food supplies and water are all found in the forests.

According to Fernandes, “India’s forest communities rely on a variety of forest produce for their own domestic use and for sale in local markets – honey, fruits, flowers, seeds, bamboo products, firewood. In many areas, the forest doesn’t just supplement other incomes, it is the main income.” Fernandes added that “forest loss in one area may result in ongoing pressure elsewhere. When a forest is lost to a coal mine, the community that depended on it is forced to migrate in search of other options – usually casual labour, if available, or move closer to another forest area, increasing the human pressure on remnant forests.”

Renewable resources

The environmental impact of cutting down forests and the burning of coal that lies beneath will release large quantities of CO2 into the atmosphere, perpetuating the destructive effects of climate change. In its report, Greenpeace argues that it’s time for India to make a rapid transition to renewable energy sources, such as wind and solar.

“In some parts of India, wind energy is already on par with grid power,” Fernandes says. Such a transition would also relieve the nation’s dependence on a grid system full of problems, since solar and wind can provide power without connecting to the grid. And sometimes the system breaks down; not long ago India’s grid failed twice, leaving 700 million people without power.

“For thousands of [remote] villages, the cost per unit of most forms of renewable energy at current rates is considerably less than the cost of grid-connected electricity,” reads the report.

Despite the climate, social and wildlife hazards of India’s coal boom, the country has no plans to slow coal production. According to the report, the government plans to increase domestic coal production 41 percent by 2017 from last year’s levels.

“This game has only losers – there are sound domestic reasons why India needs to get off coal. The financial, social and environmental costs of coal on the Indian people are too high,” Fernandes states.

More effort must be made to prevent more habitat loss, in order to preserve the endangered Bengal Tiger population and save them from extinction. Bengal Tigers deserve a right to live in peace with sufficient habitat to ensure their survival. Hopefully public pressure can force the Indian government to change course on the new coal mines program and stop the cutting down of these precious forests that Tigers depend on for survival. The National Parks and surrounding habitat zones that have been set aside must be protected to help Bengal Tigers breed, so the diminishing Tiger population can recover.

What can be done:

Please publicise this situation, support Greenpeace and other organisations that oppose the new coal mines and write or sign petitions urging the Indian government to stop the destruction of more forests in Central India and protect the remaining Bengal Tigers.

Next article – US responsible for Ebola outbreak – Liberian scientist

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