Earth needs our help!

Earth Day is a momentous occasion in the history of humankind; it reminds us of the birth of a modern environmental movement in 1970. Dr. Uttam Saikia writes on the significance of Earth Day.

On 22nd April, 1970, Senator Gaylord Nelson of Wisconsin and a group of activists inspired 20 million Americans to demonstrate cross country against the deteriorating environmental quality due to industrial developments over the century. That mega event, unprecedented in the history of environmental movements of the world, brought together people across political beliefs, cultures, race, religion and social status to unite for the common cause.

The Earth Day was born, and gradually it went global, especially with the worldwide campaign launched in 1999, involving 200 million citizens of the planet Earth!

Today, Earth Day is recognized as the largest secular observance in the world reminding us to change our behaviour and bring about policy changes at all level. It also reminds us of the grim reality that with each passing day, the ravages of climate change are becoming more apparent.

The future of life on Earth is becoming more uncertain.

Global Challenges

As we prepare to celebrate Earth Day, we face a dual challenge of deteriorating environmental quality and unprecedented biodiversity loss. A recent comprehensive report titled, “Global Assessment Report on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services” warned that nature is declining at an unprecedented rate, with species being lost at an alarming rate – tens to hundreds of times higher than it has averaged over the past 10 million years.

The Chairman of the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) which prepared the report, Sir Robert Watson ominously warned “The health of ecosystems on which we and all other species depend is deteriorating more rapidly than ever. We are eroding the very foundations of our economies, livelihoods, food security, health and quality of life worldwide.”

However, the current global response to mitigate it is insufficient.

It is important to mention that loss of species from Earth is not an abnormal phenomenon. Some species go extinct in the face of competition from others or inability to survive in the face of changing environmental conditions. In the distant past, large number of species were exterminated from the Earth due to catastrophic changes in the environmental regime called mass extinction events.

Scientists have evidenced at least five such mass extinctions in the past.

That said, what the Earth is undergoing in the present time is an unprecedented loss of biodiversity, entirely driven by a species sharing ancestry with the monkeys!

With increasing populations, rapid migrations and capability to tweak environment through habitat modifications, no other species on Earth has a larger environmental footprint than us, the Homo Sapiens.  Famous Harvard biologist Edward Wilson once remarked “It was a misfortune for the living world that a carnivorous primate and not some more benign form of animal made the breakthrough.”

Clearly, we are deep in to another extinction event, aptly called “sixth extinction” wherein biodiversity is being lost at a very fast pace from the Earth, putting the long-term survival of our own race in to question.

All available scientific data suggest that the loss of biodiversity is a close-knit event with the spread of humans around the globe. The human race is the only factor catalysing the environmental changes that culminates in rapid loss of species. Loss or modification of habitat is one of the prime reasons for this global biodiversity loss.

As human population explodes, their resource needs also increase, leading to modification or destruction of natural habitat for settlement, agricultural expansion and resource exploitation. It is estimated that about 10,000 years ago, fifty-seven percent of the world’s habitable areas were covered with forests. We have lost two-thirds of this forest till now.

Overexploitation of natural resources is another serious threat to biodiversity.

Forests are overexploited for timber and numerous non-timber forest products, wild animals, therein, are hunted down for bushmeat, live animal trade or for pseudo-medicinal use. This has happened in almost every part of world leading to biodiversity impoverishment of the Earth than ever.

The Northeast India: On the Razor Edge

It is a widely publicized fact that the north-eastern region of India has been recognized as parts of two global biodiversity hotspots – the Himalayas and the Indo-Burma.

Hotspots are regarded as regions which have a high degree of species endemism (species restricted to particular geographic area) and also face a high degree of threat (because of severe loss or degradation of habitat).

New species of plants and animals are being regularly reported from this region. A region with ethnic and cultural heterogeneity and abundance of natural resources but economic insolvency, people’s dependence on nature is also high leading to over-exploitation of resources. Researchers working on this aspect note that rapid growth in population here is creating a number of environmental problems because of uncontrolled urbanization, industrialization and massive conversion of forest land for agricultural purpose.

As per the Indian State of Forest Report 2019, North East India, which accounts for about one-fourth of the total forest cover of the country, has lost about 765 sq. km of forest cover during the preceding two years. Shifting slash and burn cultivation practice prevalent in the region is stated to be the main culprit for this massive loss.

Tropical forest is known as storehouses of biodiversity. Such large-scale destruction of forest for subsistence agricultural practices like Jhum is certainly a huge environmental concern.

Besides this, unabated destruction of forest land for timber extraction, to clear ways for roads and other infrastructure projects, to extract mineral resources etc., are some of the major factors driving this loss of forest.

Hunting of wild animals is a very widespread practice among the people of North East. In some areas, this has also been linked to commercial motives. Such rampant hunting could lead to an impoverishment of animal resources in a forest, also known as “empty forest syndrome”.

Time to act

The issues of peoples’ livelihood, environmental degradation and loss of biodiversity are too complex and multifaceted. In reality, there is no single silver bullet strategy to deal with that.

But as the Earth Day reminds us, we can gradually change our behaviour and act at local levels.

Population explosion is the root cause for all the above-mentioned ills. While government regulation regarding population control is controversial, perhaps, the time has come for people to realize about the benefit of a small yet healthy family. Penetration of education at all levels of society is essential for that. To achieve this, government agencies and NGOs can also play a big role in educating people.

Likewise, local communities should debate and think about abandoning age old yet harmful practices like Jhum cultivation, and instead, opt for modern agricultural practices with high productivity. The role of Government incentivising the communities for the same is paramount.

The issue of balancing development with environmental concerns is a complex topic throughout the world but certainly a compromise can be achieved. What we need to realize wholeheartedly is that the inherent value of our planet’s biodiversity is more than any monetary amount that we assign to it.

So yes, we can!

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