The 75th session of the United Nations General Assembly stated that “Biological diversity—or biodiversity—is the variety of life on Earth and the natural patterns it forms. The biodiversity we see today is the result of 4.5 billion years of evolution and, increasingly, of human influence as well. It forms the web of life, of which we are an integral part and upon which we so fully depend.
Most scientists agree that many species are now disappearing hundreds, even thousands, of times faster than the natural background rate of extinction. The scientific community has repeatedly sounded the alarm on the nature crisis and its principal causes: habitat loss, over-exploitation, pollution and climate change. An example of the impact of biodiversity loss on human wellbeing is the case of pollinators, such as bees and other insects, whose abundance is declining rapidly but upon which we all depend for the bulk of our fruits and vegetables.
The highest levels of terrestrial biodiversity are found in tropical forests, which host over 80 per cent of species of terrestrial animals, plants and fungi. Around 1.6 billion people depend on forests for their livelihood, and a quarter of all modern medicines come from tropical forest plants. Yet, deforestation is continuing at an alarming rate, particularly in tropical regions: 7 million hectares of forest area, roughly the size of the Republic of Ireland, are destroyed every year, particularly in tropical regions. The need to conserve biodiversity is not restricted to the terrestrial environment. Oceans also play a vital role in climate change mitigation, are a source of life for some 3 billion people, and contain countless species we know very little about, and which could be the source of novel medicines and materials.
Biodiversity and emerging pandemics
The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the complex linkages between emerging infectious diseases and the unregulated trade in wildlife, habitat loss, biodiversity fragmentation and shifting dispersal patterns caused by new weather extremes. Research shows that the prevalence of emerging zoonotic diseases (that is, diseases transmitted from wild or domestic animals to people) is on the rise. About 60 per cent of all infectious diseases known to infect humans, and 75 per cent of emerging infectious diseases, are zoonotic. A scientific assessment published in July 2020 by UNEP and the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) concluded that unless countries take dramatic steps to curb zoonotic contagions, global outbreaks like COVID-19 will inevitably become more common. Zoonotic infectious disease does not only come from the mishandling and consumption of unsafe meat. New research shows that habitat alteration creates ecological niches for generalist species, like bats and rodents, and brings them into closer contact with people. By virtue of their diversity, these species are more likely to be reservoirs of zoonotic pathogens.
Biodiversity and the Sustainable Development Goals
The coronavirus pandemic is having a disproportionate impact on the health and the livelihoods of the poorest and most underprivileged people — often the people who most directly depend on biodiversity for survival. Poverty, inequality, economic recessions, poor health and environmental degradation are all problems that the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) aim to solve by the year 2030.
Achieving the SDGs will require deep transformations in our governance and economic systems, and there is not a moment to lose. These transformations need to be adopted and put in place in the course of the upcoming Decade of Action to Deliver the Global Goals. While the primary biodiversity Goals (SDG 14 and 15) seek to conserve and sustainably use the marine and terrestrial environment respectively, all 17 SDGs ultimately depend on healthy ecosystems and biodiversity. The health of our planet ultimately underpins our own health and wellbeing. To stop this devastation and initiate restoration world requires sound environmental governance, which place biodiversity at the heart of the environment and development decision-making to enable enlightened choices for people and the planet. Agricultural biodiversity is linchpin to the ecology. It not only reduces the pressure of agriculture on frangible areas, forests and endangered species but makes farming more sustainable, conserves soil and increase natural soil fertility and health.
As far as the state of Agro biodiversity in India is concerned, I would like to discuss three dimensions. First is regarding the green revolution, in late 1960’s Indian government placed lot of emphasis on the high yield varieties of wheat, rice and potatoes. The main idea was to lift country out of the hunger, therefore farmers were encouraged to increase crop area of particular crops through subsidized seeds, fertilisers and MSP. Although country achieved self-sufficiency of food but it resulted in the decline of agricultural biodiversity because the entire emphasis was on particular cropping. Particular type of crops consumed particular nutrients from soil therefore soil became unhealthy that again did harm to the Agricultural biodiversity. Unfortunately, we are keep moving on the same track till date. Last year country experienced a long agrarian movement unfortunately it was framed around these crops only, the issue of sustainable agriculture and soil health was nowhere in the demands and negotiations.
Second aspect of this issue is the new economic model adopted after 1990s’. When LPG Liberalisation, Privatisation and Globalisation came in to existence in early 1990’s, it led towards the extinction of cultural diversity by promoting homogenised culture. As a traditional society and older civilisation we were very rich in folktales but it is gradually on declining mode due to homogeneity. When a folk tell dies it leads towards the death of a set of thoughts and practices. Being an agrarian society, we used to inherit agricultural biodiversity through folk songs and folk tales projected in local dialects. Now they have been replaced by modern tools of communication and entertainment therefore subtle understanding of agricultural biodiversity is fading away. Now we are not speaking the language of local ecosystems, we are being trained to speak the language of market that promotes agribusiness not the agri-biodiversity.
Third aspect of agricultural biodiversity is our changing climatic approach to the food system. Climate is the main determinant of food but it’s being replaced by market capitalisation. I would like to share one aspect of this. Now it is presently summer season in India and we are having heat ways in my region that is north-western Rajasthan, the Thar desert. We have been using a homemade drink that is made from millet, Turkish bean and buttermilk, we call it Rabri in the local language. It’s a great drink that protects a person from heat stroke but now it is being replaced by carbonated cold drinks that makes more vulnerable to heat stroke but market has skill to sell it. With the decreasing amount of Rabri intake, the crop area of millet and Turkish bean is shrinking because the use of Rabri is substituted by other food habits and drinks i.e cold drinks.
Now Turkish bean is cultivated for different purpose. This is one example of a shift in food consumption there are many more those are responsible for decline in agro-biodiversity. To combat this decline, we need more societal engagement in restoration activities. Familial Forestry is one among them that makes families understand about the local dimensions of climate change and aware them about the importance of biodiversity. It engages families in plantation of native trees, restoration of grass lands. Familial Forestry also promotes ethnic ecology by engaging older people in plantation and follow up activities and clubbing biodiversity with rituals. A complete shift in thought and practices is functional prerequisite to stop this extermination of biodiversity. Political and administrative intervention must be backed by societal norms and practices otherwise we cannot move towards ecological civilization.
Goswami, Aparnesh. (2018, Feb 04). ‘A Sociology teacher in Rajasthan’s Bikaner driving forestry revolution’, Hindustan Times.
India Today Web Desk, (2021, June 17). ‘Indian climate activist gets prestigious UN land conservation award’, India Today.
Jhalani, Nandini. (2021, Sep 23). ‘For 18 years, a teacher has been leading afforestation efforts in Thar desert’, Scroll.in
Reuters, (2022, June 05). ‘Rajasthan embraces tree planting as a custom, reaps gains’, The Telegraph Online.
Shyam Sunder Jyani
Associate Professor of Sociology at Government Dungar College, Bikaner, Rajasthan and UN’s Land For Life Awardee for Familial Forestry Concept and its application. He can be reached @TreeManOfDesert on Facebook and twitter.