Preserve nature’s biodiversity and you preserve life on earth. Much has been said and written about the loss of forests, flora and fauna being the cause of pollution, erratic weather behaviour, floods, tsunamis, ice melts, and climate change. But now the viral spread of Covid-19 has upped the urgency with which we must address environmental concerns. It is almost as if we needed a pandemic to remind us of the crucial link between loss of biodiversity and zoonotic disease.
It is not just preserving our forests that needs attention. It has been forecast that by 2100, about 90 per cent of the world’s population will be living in urban areas, begging the need to preserve native flora and fauna at the local level in cities and towns across the globe. In India, over a dozen cities have opted for such a project in the hope to ‘firewall’ their boundaries, as it were, from a future of climatic disasters and zoonotic outbreaks.
A statement by UN Secretary-General António Guterres underscores this point: “COVID-19 — which emanated from the wild — has shown how human health is intimately connected with our relationship to the natural world. As we encroach on nature and deplete vital habitats, increasing numbers of species are at risk. That includes humanity and the future we want.” A recent UN document ‘Bio-Diversity & Coronavirus’ reiterates this: “When we destroy biodiversity, we destroy the system that supports human life. The more bio diverse an ecosystem is, the more difficult it is for one pathogen to spread rapidly or dominate; whereas biodiversity loss provides opportunity for pathogens to pass between animals and people.”
The India project
The project in India, being implemented by the South Asia arm of ICLEI – Local Governments for Sustainability, is aimed at mainstreaming biodiversity conservation into city planning. ICLEI is a global network of over 1,750 local and regional governments who sign up as members and commit themselves to sustainable urban development. The cities most active in the initiative include Kochi, Panaji, Gangtok, Thane, Ichalkaranji, Nagpur, Hyderabad, Rajkot, Solapur, Dehradun and Siliguri.
Mainstreaming biodiversity in a city does not mean landscaping it with ornamental greenery. It means assessing its native biodiversity, mapping its natural assets, planning their restoration and maintenance, and advocating for their right to thrive and enrich the city’s landscape. As Dr Monalisa Sen, Programme Coordinator (Biodiversity) of the ICLEI project, explains, “Urban biodiversity and natural resources management need to be strengthened through improved policy, governance and collective action. Biodiversity provides ecosystem services such as flood control, water security, food security, improved human health, pollination, climate change mitigation, pollution abatement, livelihood generation and aesthetics.”
To do this, ICLEI has a host of initiatives at work, each customised to suit the natural landscape, climate, and culture of the city it is working with. The first step is an assessment of the biodiversity of the region. by studying the diversity of plants, moths, spiders, butterflies, and medicinal plants present.
This is followed up by creating natural asset maps for the cities, a tool most useful to identify natural resources in the area. In the long run, this enables local governments to integrate ecosystem management into city planning, keeping in mind the role it can play in the economy, public health, aesthetics, and sustainability of the city. Currently such maps have been created for Kochi, Thane, Rajkot, Siliguri, Panaji, Hyderabad and Gangtok.
Shakti Singh Choudhary, Mayor, Gangtok Municipal Corporation, acknowledges the help. “ICLEI South Asia has been helping the city of Gangtok to ensure sustainable ecosystem services through the promotion of eco-friendly, nature-based initiatives for the well-being of inhabitants and habitats.”
ICLEI has also developed the People’s Biodiversity Registers (PBR) for Thane, Nagpur, Ichalkaranji and is in the process of developing these for Gangtok, and 56 villages and 11 municipalities in Goa. The PBR was mandated as far back as 2002 when the Biological Diversity Act was enacted. It envisaged Biodiversity Management Committees in all local bodies, both in panchayats and municipalities throughout the country, but most left it on the back burner. This was some years after India signed the Convention on Biological Diversity, a UN multilateral treaty at Rio de Janeiro, for the sustainable management and conservation of the country’s natural resources.
This year brings an end to the UN decade on biodiversity (2011-2020) and a PBR document for each municipal corporation may be the best way to respect it. The PBR will provide the city’s local government comprehensive information on its bio resources, how they are being utilised and the traditional ecological knowledge of the region.
“The PBR helps to protect intellectual property rights and forms the basis for implementation of the access to benefit sharing mechanism. The same is a major focus area of all Biodiversity management committees (urban and rural). The national government too has furthered the cause of biodiversity governance by including the application of the City Biodiversity Index in the Climate Smart Cities Assessment Framework (CSCAF) put out by the Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs,” says Emani Kumar, Executive Director of ICLEI South Asia. This index is designed as a self-assessment tool so that cities can monitor and evaluate their progress in biodiversity conservation.
The green ‘firewall’ for Indian cities
However, ICLEI’s involvement with the cities does not end with maps and documents. It is also aiding some of them with their local plan of action on biodiversity. The Development of Local Biodiversity Strategy and Action Plan (LBSAP) is mandated in India’s commitment to the Convention on Biological Diversity.
The city that seems to be going all the way to implement it is Kochi. It is planning the restoration of the Thevara-Perandoor Canal and developing a nature interpretation centre at Subhash Chandra Bose Park. This is not all. The city is also being helped in the formation of investment strategies to generate revenue for its dependent communities, urban local body, and for the protection and maintenance of specific ecosystems, specially mangroves.
“Kochi is committed to conserve its biodiversity, maintain the uninterrupted flow of ecosystem services, and ensure sustainable, safe and climate resilient development by managing its mosaic of ecosystems through a participatory planning approach. We are very happy to associate with ICLEI South Asia for ensuring biodiversity conservation and sustainable urban development in Kochi,” says Soumini Jain, Mayor, Kochi Municipal Corporation.
However, biodiversity conservation’s greatest need are its keepers — the people themselves who need to recognise how essential it is to keep a balance between natural environs and urban living. For this, ICLEI conducts capacity building among corporators and citizens while developing for each city pictorial handbooks of the city’s taxa. “For instance, we have developed pictorial handbooks of trees of Kochi and Fort Kochi, documented moths and spiders of Kochi, trees of Siliguri and are documenting the high-altitude moths of Himachal Pradesh,” says Sen.
Besides this, ICLEI has brought out an engaging comic book for children as well as adults, titled, ‘Hope in the City’. This seeks to help urban residents understand the importance of urban biodiversity, and also spread critical thinking among students on climate issues. “One of the most important target groups is children. Building an understanding of the biological, chemical and physical urban environment helps students to understand environmental dynamics. Mainstreaming biodiversity conservation into urban planning is the need of the hour. We are helping cities to incorporate blue-green infrastructure into planning in order to ensure sustainable urban development,” concludes Kumar.