By Prof S K Barik
World celebrates Biodiversity Day every year on 22nd May to reiterate the commitment of the international community towards protection and conservation of biodiversity, i.e. the whole living world that shares planet earth with humans. Such celebrations raise awareness among the people about the biodiversity, its uses, and the urgent need to conserve it. Biodiversity refers to variety and variability among all living organisms including humans. It can be expressed at four levels: (i) species or organismic diversity meaning diversity of species, (ii) genetic diversity i.e. diversity of genes and genetic races, (iii) ecosystem diversity that encompasses diversity of ecosystems, habitats and ecological processes. Cultural diversity is often considered as the fourth level of biodiversity that cuts across the above mentioned three levels and represents diversity of culture and often intrinsically associated with biodiversity conservation. Meghalaya, popularly known as the cradle of flowering plants among botanists, and home to several lower plants and diverse animal groups, is part of the Indo-Myanmar global biodiversity hot-spot (one of the 34 global biodiversity hotspots of the world). Global biodiversity hot spot is a term used to describe those geographical areas where the concentration of endemic species i.e. the species with a very restricted area of distribution, is very high (at least 1500 species) and their habitats are in danger of degradation (about 70% of the total geographical area is already degraded). While the state is proud of being one of the habitats for high number of species and endemics, increasing loss of various species and habitat is a matter of great concern. Besides habitat fragmentation due to shifting cultivation, deforestation, mining and other commercial and economic activities, cross-border bio-piracy, illegal extraction or even over-extraction and export of valuable medicinal plants and other components of biodiversity, are some of the major factors responsible for biodiversity loss in the state.
To address the issues of biodiversity conservation and provide support to the communities and agencies involved in the biodiversity conservation effort, a new law was introduced, viz. the Biological Diversity Act was passed by Parliament, in the year 2002, to protect and conserve biodiversity. This act was a follow-up to Convention on Biological Diversity which was adopted at the landmark Rio Conference in the year 1992. India is a signatory to this international convention where biodiversity was recognized as a sovereign right of each country. Under the provisions of the above law, each state framed biodiversity rules and constituted State Biodiversity Board to take care of the state-specific biodiversity conservation issues. The Meghalaya Biological Diversity Rules, under this act, were notified in 2010 and the Meghalaya Biodiversity Board was constituted in the same year.
Meghalaya has a unique place in the biodiversity map of the country. Besides its rich biological diversity and high endemism, the state has the unusual distinction of being the place of origin of several crop species. Citrus is one such example. Meghalaya is also a forerunner in traditional biodiversity conservation practices. The community ownership of land has facilitated several practices such as maintenance of sacred groves, and protected reserves enriching the state’s wonderful natural heritage. The recent community biodiversity conservation initiatives in different parts of the state demonstrate that the practices are still evolving as per the changing socio-economic needs of the people. Forest gardening, Community Biodiversity Conservation Areas, and modified shifting cultivation practices are some of the examples in this direction. These biodiversity conservation areas are additions to the protected areas and reserved forests formally constituted by the Government under the Wildlife (Conservation) Act and Indian Forest Act. The effective traditional health care system of Meghalaya which heavily depends on diverse medicinal plants of the state is one example of sustainable utilization of biodiversity elements in the state. We also need to remember that our biodiversity through its several ecosystem services is the single most important resource which enables the rural poor to successfully adapt to changing climatic conditions.
However, issues such as unscientific coal mining and unplanned forest harvesting, massive mining of lime stone without adequate compensatory measures and development of associated industries without much emphasis on biodiversity conservation need to be addressed on an urgent basis to protect the terrestrial and aquatic habitats of our biodiversity-rich state. In fact, these issues are now threatening our recent efforts as well as our history of being conservators of biodiversity. Biodiversity conservation is an integral and indivisible part of development. Nature clearly shows us that balance is crucial to our existence. Planners need to clearly recognise this fact. No law can be effective, unless society as a whole and rural communities in particular, realize the importance of biodiversity, its sustainable use, and stand up for its conservation. This is essential in a state like Meghalaya, where most land ownership lies with communities, clans, and individuals. The highest responsibility rests with our traditional institutions, under whose jurisdiction our landscapes and waterscapes fall. Our school children need to be educated on biodiversity science through a well-planned school curriculum and people in general must take part in biodiversity conservation efforts, in addition to the traditional government agencies. The development actors must behave responsibly to minimize the impact of their ‘development’ projects on biodiversity, and must take adequate mitigating measures. All these are indeed big challenges, but certainly achievable if we work together. In fact, all out efforts to conserve our biodiversity is now a necessity if we wish to hand over to our future generation the same bio-resource-rich state that we inherited from our forefathers.
(Prof SK Barik is Member State Biodiversity Board, Meghalaya).