The Western Ghats in India tell a fascinating tale of competing interests and agendas. Recently declared a World Heritage site by UNESCO after a persistent 10-year campaign by the Indian Government, the Ghats have been the subject of a number of different agendas, pursued by conservationists, state and central government officials, UN officials, Indian and international scientists, forest-dweller activists and development and mining advocates alike.
No one can dispute that the Western Ghats, a 1600km mountain range stretching along the west coast of India, are a “biodiversity hotspot, containing over 5 000 flowering plants, 139 mammals, 508 birds and 179 amphibian species”.
Map of Western Ghats, India, Source: IUCN
This stunning timelapse photography by renowned wildlife photographer Sandesh Kadur gives you a glimpse into that other world.
The Ghats hold at least 325 globally threatened species and form the catchment area for a complex of river systems that drain almost 40% of India. The forests in the southwestern Ghats contain the country’s largest population of Asian elephants, as well as Bengal tigers and many other species. Older than the Himalayas, but substantially lower, the Ghats “moderate the tropical climate of the region, presenting one of the best examples of the monsoon system in the planet.”
The recent listing of 39 individual locations within the Western Ghats has been symbolically celebrated in most quarters, held up as anti-development in others and thought by some to be ineffective in achieving tangible conservation outcomes. Some conservationists suggest that:
“since a heritage tag doesn’t advocate a new legal framework to protect the designated property, it leaves it upon the state party to take measures to reduce the impact of existing and planned infrastructure on the site.”
Of particular interest is the controversy surrounding the report prepared by the “Western Ghats Ecology Expert Panel” (WGEEP). Commissioned by the Government of India, the reports’ recommendations are seen by some as too focused on conservation outcomes at the expense of the livelihoods of forest dwellers and other development interests, such as mining and tourism. States have, by and large, “rejected the WGEEP recommendations saying they were impractical and in many cases seek to violate states’ rights over their natural resources”.
Others, including UNESCO and the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), had pressured for the World Heritage listing to be conditional on implementation of the report. Through some political manoeuvring the Indian government avoided this requirement, but the IUCN has recommended international monitoring to ensure that the 39 biodiversity hotspots in the region are properly preserved. In their evaluations prior to the World Heritage listing, “the IUCN considered that more work was needed on the nominations to meet the standards the Convention has set in its Operational Guidelines.”
Initially, the Indian government tried to prevent disclosure of the WGEEP report, before a Right to Information request resulted in its release. And now, rather than implement the recommendations of the report, the Indian government has decided to form a “high level committee to review its recommendations and find possible ways to implement what the new committee recommends”.
Will this result in tangible outcomes for the conservation of the Western Ghats, or will we drown under all the paperwork in the process?