Natural injustice

Published: Saturday 15 November 2008

Ignoring ecosystem services will only push us to a faster ecological crisis

OF THE different all-India services, the Indian Forest Service is the one that is marginalized. Its resources are less and its power to influence policy even lesser. It is understandable. As the focus shifted from timber to biodiversity conservation, revenue dipped and so did investment in the sector. This myopic view of the world does not take into account the water and clean air forests provide. Forests also regulate the weather, act as shields against storms, are ecosystems that sustain varied forms of plant and animal life and are the most valued carbon sinks. These benefits, unlike the timber that kept the cash registers ringing, are intangible and not valued by the book keepers.

The fault lies with the political economy that governs our world. Economic prudence advises profit-driven growth while political acumen crafts policies that benefit profiteers. Domestic policy makes it easy for all businesses to source invaluable and finite natural inputs at a low cost so that a higher profit can be booked. Ecosystem services are not factored in when resource costs are calculated.

Environmentalists have been arguing for the market to be fair and value ecosystem services. In spite of the globally accepted economic system that externalizes natural costs showing signs of decay, policymakers are yet to wake up. Since we can't protect what we don't value, there is a need to add tangible value to whatever environmental service we use.

There is of course the larger question of how the payment is to be shared, because there are communities who have protected these ecosystems for ages and deserve their due. Since we have hardly ever managed to employ the market principle for greater common good, there is another word of caution too: the higher cost of ecosystem should not deny people who depend on it directly and use it prudently from their customary rights. The bad news is that ecological crisis cannot be visible in a single day, as environment is not monitored in any of the bourses of the world. Can we expect the foresters to become environmental economists so that they can regain their power?

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