The regional alliance can promote an international model for close collaboration, cooperation, coordination and communication in the protection and conservation of regional forests, wildlife and biodiversity of South and southeast Asia
The Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (Bimstec) is an international organisation of seven South and Southeast Asian nations, including India, Nepal, Bhutan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Myanmar and Thailand. These nations represent an economic zone with a population of over 1.5 billion and combined gross domestic product GDP of over $3.4 trillion.
This international initiative for cooperation is monumental, with 14-point objectives and priorities highlighting investments in each others' economies, boosting regional trade and commerce, facilitating and building regional transport and communication, exchange technology, promote tourism, develop human resources, provide boost to local agriculture, fisheries, textile and leather industry development, etc.
Different Bimstec centres have been established to emphasise the growth and development of these priority sectors to achieve the main objectives in a timely fashion.
Other priorities include active collaboration and cooperation among member nations in exchanging and promoting indigenous science and technological developments; and extending mutual assistance to one another in the realms of people-to-people contact, socio-cultural and socio-economic exchanges, promoting education, understanding; and further strengthening strategic and diplomatic ties.
However, the initiative has been criticised to be a covert agenda to bypass the stagnant and almost non-functional South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (Saarc) due to perpetual India-Pakistan geopolitical confrontations.
It has been alleged that India initiated Bimstec to exert her socio-economic, socio-political and socio-cultural influence on adjoining countries, and keeping Pakistan and China out of the equation.
There is no doubt that Saarc has lost its credibility, relevance and importance, moving towards becoming a dysfunctional organisation. It has been party due to India’s failure as an emergent global power to win the trust and cooperation of all member nations as well as several unwanted and non-cooperative obstacles put forward by Pakistan.
However, I sincerely believe that Bimstec could serve as the much-needed free trade and communication bridge between South and Southeast Asia in the long run.
It will prove to be extremely useful in bringing together the Saarc and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) for the coordinated and simultaneous development of South and Southeast Asia.
Furthermore, India has already established strong collaboration and friendship with Iran and Afghanistan on her western flank bypassing Pakistan completely.
Through Bimstec, India has also been successful in developing a platform of cooperation, connecting her immediate northern, eastern and south eastern neighbours comprehensively.
Bimstec will help develop and connect much neglected eastern and north eastern Indian states like Bihar, Jharkhand, Orissa, West Bengal, Sikkim, Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Meghalaya, Nagaland, Manipur, Mizoram and Tripura to an international trade route that will promote tourism, trade and commerce, transport and communication, education and research as well as better rates of employment across Nepal, Bhutan, eastern and northeast India, Bangladesh, Myanmar and Thailand.
The only one potential missing member that should have been integrated and incorporated in the Bimstec equation has been the island nation of Maldives. Hopefully, Maldives with its new political government and open attitude will join Bimstec to make it much stronger and well coordinated for Indian Ocean nations.
However, the Bimstec points and objectives lack emphasis on conservation efforts for the protection of regional ecosystems and environment across the seven member-nations.
The opportunities are enormous and could easily benefit a vast number of marginal communities living in these countries like ethnic tribal communities, landless marginal labourers, tribal or aboriginal communities, communities deeply associated with forest for their sustenance.
The Bimstec platform could prove to be an ideal international platform for developing a joint conservation initiative (JCI) between the member nations. It could successfully promote an international model for close collaboration, cooperation, coordination and communication (4Cs) in the protection and conservation of regional forests, wildlife and biodiversity of South and Southeast Asia.
There is no doubt that this one of the most spectacular biodiverse region of the world and home to numerous vertebrates (fishes, reptiles, amphibians, birds and mammals) and invertebrates (porifera, ctenophora, coelenterates, platyhelminths, nemathalminths, annelids, arthropods, molluscs and echinoderms); both terrestrial and aquatic.
This region also represents wide diversity of different algae and sea weeds, fungi, myxomycetes, lichens, bryophytes (such as hepatics, horneophytes and mosses), pteridophytes (lycopodium, selaginella, psilotum, horsetails, eusporangiate and leptosporangiate ferns), gymnosperms (open seeded flowering plants) and angiosperms (close seeded flowering plants).
It is important to mention this is home to a large number of global wildlife such as Asiatic lions, one horned Indian rhinoceros, stripped hyenas, wild dogs, wild ass; as well different species and sub species of Asiatic elephants, pangolins, rodents and ant eaters, deer and antelopes, wild sheep and wild goats, apes (gibbons), monkeys, wolves, foxes, jackals, civets, bearcats, leopard cats, fishing cats, jungle cats, tigers, leopards, snow leopards, clouded leopards, bears, bats, fishes, insects, crocodiles, snakes, tortoise, geckos, monitor lizards, skinks, toads and frogs, salamanders and newts, spectacular coral reefs and associated marine species, freshwater and marine dolphins and turtles, wide diversity of resistant and migrant birds to mention only a handful.
The entire region is booming with spectacular biodiversity. However, the region is also densely populated and there are numerous associated challenges such as habitat encroachment, illegal settlements in restricted forest belts, habitat destruction and habitat fragmentation, illegal grazing, uncontrolled forest fires, natural disasters (cyclone, earthquake, floods and draughts), unplanned infrastructural developments, expansion of industrial belts and agricultural plots close to forests, poaching, hunting, illegal wildlife trafficking, high demand for bush meat as well as transmission of diseases to wildlife from domestic animals.
The entire region is impacted by high rates of poaching and hunting (for bush meat and fishes); and safely wildlife trafficking for animal organs (gall bladder, brain, eyes, embryos, heart, liver, kidneys, body fat, reproductive organs) and body parts (skulls, skeletons, teeth, bones, skins, furs, pelts, hairs, horns, antlers) for illegal wildlife markets operating in southern China, Hong Kong and certain pockets of Southeast Asia such as Cambodia, Vietnam, Laos, Philippines, Indonesia and Malaysia.
Hence, it is absolutely important that Bimstec nations join hands for the purpose of conservation of their precious natural resources in the form of freshwater, brackish water and marine ecosystems, local forests and wildlife and regional biodiversity through a JCI.
A JCI between the Bimstec member nations can not only contribute towards the conservation of natural resources; but will help build trust and economic prosperity on either side of the international boundaries.
Increased surveillance and joint monitoring can help reduce the level of criminal and insurgent activities along international borders; and bring peace, prosperity and tranquility between the countries while helping in long-term conservation of local and regional ecosystems, forests, wildlife and biodiversity.
Some important recommendations suggested for Bimstec nations towards 4Cs for successful long-term conservation of local forests, wildlife and biodiversity are listed below:
- JCI between adjacent member countries sharing international border could make a big difference between short or long-term success or complete failure in the process of conservation efforts
- Conservation of natural resources could run hand in hand with the development of the local economy. Bimstec has huge potential for tourism promotion and development between member countries as the spectacular natural beauty, majestic flora and fauna and improved infrastructure could certainly help in more tourist footfall in these countries, helping the economy to be developed steadily over time
- A part of the profit could be shared among local communities and infrastructure development; while the rest could be used for conservation of forest, wildlife and biodiversity. This could be a win-win situation for all as this will make the ecology and economy integrated if planned judiciously and executed carefully with environmental assessment of the local ecosystems regularly and diligently
- Bimstec platform can boost security along the highly vulnerable and unguarded international border areas across land and water between adjacent member nations. Under monitored and porous international borders is an extremely serious issue involving the security of South and Southeast Asian countries for past several decades
- The border areas are exploited by insurgents, local goons and criminals, smugglers, drug, human and wildlife traffickers, poachers and several other anti-social elements. This should lead to intelligence sharing between the immigration, customs, narcotics and forest departments, intelligence agencies, security forces and border guards on either side of the international border
- Additional monitoring and surveillance of the densely forested border areas or vast coastal zones by member nations will reduce incidents of insurgent infiltration, pirates attacking commercial vehicles, poaching of fish and other marine resources by foreign groups in the deep ocean or in the Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZ) could be effectively handled
- High-powered satellite and drone-based aerial surveillance will also help alert member nations regarding potential security threats by insurgents or illegal migrants, traffickers (drug, wildlife and humans), potential natural and/or anthropogenic disasters (cyclones, floods, forest fires, earthquakes, tsunamis, etc,) in due time for proper management and handling of the situation
- Bimstec can also help in establishing hospitals and medical facilities for the remote, rural communities along the sensitive borders or frontier areas where very little or no modern healthcare is available. The development of infrastructure like highways and railway networks, bridges, under passes and freeways, water-based transpiration networks, building airports and harbours at suitable places and locations will bring in employment and economic prosperity for the local communities
- Together with conventional tourism as well as ecotourism in the forested areas with spectacular natural beauty; there are ample opportunities for both long-term and short-term economic growth for all member nations
- The agreements between the member nations can be proactively used for establishing different forestry and wildlife conservation educational and research institutes for building research and development capability of individual member nations for protecting their unique ecosystems. Exchange of technology, expertise, tools and gadgets between member nations will further facilitate the roots of conservation in these countries deep enough to sustain and protect numerous vulnerable and extremely fragile ecosystems located in this region
- Bimstec platform should be also properly exploited for the purpose of mass education and awareness among citizens of member nations regarding the ecological and economical values of the local ecosystems, forests, wildlife and biodiversity in their local languages and dialects. This will help build positive attitude among the mass regarding the need and value of conservation and will also encourage them to come forward in the process as stakeholders
- In addition to several priority centers being built to fulfill the target objectives of Bimstec, it is important to establish different nature and ecology interpretation centers, wildlife retention and rehabilitation centers to facilitate conservation
- Students at the primary, secondary and tertiary levels of education in Bimstec member nations will be particularly benefited by academic visits to such forests, ecosystem, wildlife and biodiversity interpretation as well as wildlife retention and rehabilitation centers through sensitisation about ecological and environmental issues
- Bimstec platform can thus generate a new breed of future conservators, ecologists, foresters, teachers, veterinarians, lawyers, lawmakers and legislators to push forward the conservation agenda for protecting local and regional natural resources and help in promoting JCI between participating governments by building positive opinion through people-to-people contact
- The Bimstec opportunity has significant role to play for the security and conservation of transboundary migrating mammals (elephants, tigers, leopards, etc) and migratory birds between different member nations. This platform provides the opportunity to sign treaties and/or agreements to safeguard mammal and bird migration corridors and flight paths respectively, through proper legal framework supported by respective parliamentary and/or judiciary process. This will secure wildlife that strays across the border and protect them with priority under proper joint legislative umbrella. This could also be easily extended to protect estuarine and marine flora and fauna among member nations that move from the water of one country to another
- The process will also help in marking international marine boundaries of member nations where applicable; and will prevent illegal exploitation of marine resources by third party members or by a law violating member nation and help in marine conservation and will also establish peace and tranquility in the Bay of Bengal, the Andaman Sea and the Indian Ocean region
- One of Bimstec’s major priority objectives has been agriculture and this should be integrated with conservation of ecosystems, forests, wildlife and biodiversity in member nations. All Bimstec member nations suffer from some form of political destability and disturbances integrated with slow economic growth and exponential rise of human population putting extra pressure on the carrying capacity of their local natural ecosystems and environments
- Due to economic backwardness, people settled in and around forested areas are heavily dependent on the local forest for their sustenance as well as livelihood. This heavy anthropogenic footprint on the local ecosystems is steadily depleting local forest of major and minor forest resources. Due to the absence of organised poultry, cattle and livestock people are dependent on the availability of bush meat as a cheap and significant source of their daily need for protein. This has been depleting local wildlife in several parts of Bimstec nations and needs to be controlled urgently
- Agricultural development in such areas and within such communities will certainly help reduce their heavy dependence on local forests for sustenance and livelihood
- Another important opportunity that can lead from this Bimstec platform is the exchange of related species and sub species between similar ecosystems and habitats across different member nations. There are strong similarities of species’ habitats across South and Southeast Asia. Many species had wide distribution across the region historically; but has now been restricted to distinct habitats within particular country due to numerous natural and anthropogenic factors. For example, avian species like blue peafowl (popularly called peacocks) and antelope like blue bulls have now got wide distribution and substantially large populations in India due to successful conservation practices. Their numbers have increased to such an extent that in many Indian states these two species have become pests for standing crops. It gave rise to huge controversy and resulted in strong human-animal conflicts. Neighbouring Bangladesh, however, has seen these two species becoming extinct in the past. Through Bimstec platform excess species could be relocated to suitable habitats and help bring back lost species
- Another good example is green peafowl that is currently found in the wild only in certain pockets of old forests in Southeast Asia like Myanmar and Thailand. At one point of time green peafowls were found commonly across various states in Northeast India. But due to hunting, illegal capture and habitat loss, the species has become extinct in India. Through BIMSTEC platform breeding pairs could be imported from Southeast Asia to re-introduce and re-establish the green peafowl once again across their historic Northeast India habitats
- Gharials have become extinct from most parts of South and Southeast Asia; with last breeding populations surviving in Nepal and India only. But, successful captive breeding programs and relocation in suitable wild habitats across Bhutan, Bangladesh, Myanmar and Sri Lanka could be achieved through exchange of breeding pairs and introducing them to ideal habitats in older range of the species following proper conservation management and constant surveillance and monitoring
- Similar captive breeding programs for pangolins, red panda, Indo-Chinese tiger, Indo-Chinese leopard, snow leopard, clouded leopard, Asiatic lions, one horned Indian rhinoceros, Asiatic elephants, river dolphins, dancing deer, gaur, bears, sloths, gibbons, various species monkeys and endangered raptors and vultures with trans-border distribution could be practiced under BIMSTEC agreement to reintroduce species to their old range of distribution through legal exchange of breeding pairs and captive breeding and re-introduction approach
- Recently there have been numerous reports across South Asia and Southeast Asia regarding overcrowding of certain species that needs relocation and redistribution in other open habitats for their healthy and sustainable growth and to avoid any unwanted genetic bottlenecks. Furthermore, overcrowding of a dominant species in one single habitat also runs the risk of unexpected extermination through the dissemination of contagious diseases or due to any natural and/or anthropogenic disturbances such as drought, flooding, earthquake or massive forest fires
- The high concentration of Asiatic lions in the Gir Sanctuary in the western Indian state of Gujarat or one-horned Indian rhinoceros in the Kaziranga Biosphere Reserve in Assam in Northeast India and Chitwan Reserve Park in Nepal or Royal Bengal tigers and Asiatic elephants in western, central and southern India, Nepal and Bhutan wildlife sanctuaries and reserved forests can be cited as examples. BIMSTEC platform could help member nations share this overcrowding in related suitable habitats in adjacent countries having similar species and quality habitats
- Wildlife retention and rehabilitation centers could serve as another important objective through the BIMSTEC platform. On one hand they will serve as a treatment and rehabilitation centers for injured or captured or recovered wildlife species. On the other hand they will serve as an important center for training and education of young and budding conservators, ecologists, foresters, wildlife veterinarians, animal care specialists and experts under the supervision of local, regional and international experts
- Wildlife and conservation biologists, foresters, ecologists and other experts from the seven BIMSTEC member nations should have easy access to visit forests, sanctuaries, biosphere reserves, protected areas and national forests and parks, zoological and botanical gardens and museums in adjoining countries for the purpose of research and development, education and training
- Yearly evaluation of the status of the forest, wildlife and biodiversity in the BIMSTEC nations needs to be released following comprehensive surveys
- Yearly or biannual meeting of conservation experts should also take place regularly by rotation. Valuable lessons learnt should be shared and discussed among members
- A BIMSTEC high-powered steering committee should be formed that would provide updates and progress to their respective parliamentary members in a regular manner
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