Wednesday, December 16, 2009


Published in Marine Turtle Newsletter 126

By Janaki Lenin (1,6), Ashish Fernandes (2),  Aarthi Sridhar (3), B.C. Choudhury (4), Jack Frazier (5,6), Sanjiv Gopal (2), Areeba Hamid (2), Sandra Kloff (6), Biswajit Mohanty (6,7), Bivash Pandav (8), Sudarshan Rodriguez (3), Basudev Tripathy (4), Romulus Whitaker (9), Sejal Worah (10), Belinda Wright (11) and Kartik Shanker (3,12)

1 – IUCN/SSC/Crocodile Specialist Group, South Asia and Iran.
2 – Greenpeace, Bangalore India.
3 – Dakshin Foundation, Bangalore, India.
4 – Wildlife Institute of India, Dehradun, India.
5 –  Smithsonian Institution, USA.
6 – Member, IUCN/CEESP/Social and Environmental Accountability of the Private Sector
7 –  Wildlife Society of Orissa, Cuttack, India.
8 – Worldwide Fund for Nature-Nepal, Kathmandu, Nepal.
9 – Madras Crocodile Bank, Chengalpattu, India.
10 –  Worldwide Fund for Nature-India, New Delhi, India.
11 –  Wildlife Protection Society of India, New Delhi, India.
12 – Centre for Ecological Sciences, Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore, India.

Local communities – in every part of the world - define “conservation” within their environmental, social, historical, cultural, economic, and political milieu. In developing countries, where demand for natural resources (sought by communities and corporations alike) is not only high, but directly linked to life styles, effecting positive conservation action becomes a bedeviling proposition. It has been widely recognized that it is not enough to just create laws and enforcement mechanisms; for species to survive in the long-term, local communities must become partners in the conservation enterprise. A case in point is the conservation of olive ridley turtles in Orissa, India, where the conflicting demands of traditional fishermen/small scale fishing communities, mechanized fishers (including trawlers), international conservation organizations, local conservationists, enforcement authorities, the state government and corporate interests have created a monumental imbroglio (Shanker and Kutty 2005; Mathew 2004; Sridhar 2005; Shanker and Choudhury 2006; Wright and Mohanty 2006; Shanker et al. 2009).

Over the past 3 years, the waters have been further muddied by the direct involvement of IUCN/MTSG in advising a major corporation that is developing the largest port facility in South Asia, not surprisingly an environmentally and socially sensitive issue. The special issues of Marine Turtle Newsletter No. 121 and Indian Ocean Turtle Newsletter No. 8 carried eight articles with different perspectives on the IUCN’s and MTSG’s engagement with the ongoing port construction at Dhamra, Orissa, on the east coast of India. The port, being built by Dhamra Port Company Limited (DPCL), is located some 4 km from Bhitarkanika National Park, with one of the highest mangrove diversities in the world and less than 15 km from Gahirmatha Marine Sanctuary, one of the most famous turtle mass nesting beaches in the world. Shanker et al. (2009) provided a brief history of conservation and a summary of the current social and political context. Here, a section of the community, including academics, biologists, conservationists and other practitioners from a variety of institutions and backgrounds express their concerns for the biodiversity of the region, interactions with local communities, the conservation of olive ridleys, and most particularly, the interaction between IUCN and DPCL (the port promoters) and its implications on a broad range of issues fundamental to effective conservation (see for example Frazier 2008).

In numerous collective and individual letters (and other communications) to the IUCN and MTSG over the last three years, many of us have raised several concerns regarding the lack of consultation by IUCN and the MTSG with local conservationists (see MTN 121/ IOTN 8). Besides providing an update on our negotiations with TATA Steel and DPCL as well as the perception of IUCN’s impact in this region, we will focus on two concerns: firstly, the inadequacy of consultation, or even basic information-sharing, by IUCN/MTSG with national members, local fisherfolk organizations and civil society groups and NGOs, many of whom have long years of experience in this geographical area (for a full account, see MTN 121/IOTN 8); and secondly, the lack of clarity, transparency and the limited scope of IUCN’s agenda in the Dhamra case.

Negotiations with the DPCL and TATA – Weaving sweet nothings

Given the lack of meaningful dialogue with IUCN and MTSG, other attempts were made to develop dialogue and explore realistic measures for preventing environmental and social problems resulting from the development of Dhamra Port – consequences that are to be expected from such a massive development project. A coalition of local conservation groups approached the port promoters – TATA Steel and Larsen & Toubro (L&T), as well as the implementing company, DPCL. The following individuals and organisations took part in the dialogue process: Ashish Fernandes (Greenpeace India), Debi Goenka (Conservation Action Trust), Mitali Kakkar and Prahlad Kakkar (Reefwatch Marine Conservation), ND Koli (National Fishworkers’ Forum), Janaki Lenin (as Regional Chair of the IUCN’s Crocodile Specialist Group), Biswajit Mohanty (Wildlife Society of Orissa),  Divya Raghunandan (Greenpeace India), Bittu Sahgal (Sanctuary Asia), Ravi Singh (WWF India), and  Belinda Wright (Wildlife Protection Society of India). Throughout the dialogue, this collective of groups consulted others, including B.C. Choudhury, Jack Frazier, Sudarshan Rodriguez, Kartik Shanker, Aarthi Sridhar and Romulus Whitaker. Between October 2008 and February 2009, four meetings were held (the last of which was at the construction site at Dhamra).

At these meetings, the obvious gaps in the sole Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) conducted in 1997 (for a totally different development site and a much smaller development project) were pointed out and the need to conduct a comprehensive, credible and independent impact assessment was stressed by the conservation alliance, some of whom are authors of this piece. It was also emphasized that a credible assessment should have been done prior to the commencement of construction work for the project. From the very first meeting on October 23, 2008, the Precautionary Principle was cited repeatedly to urge the port promoters to suspend construction until the completion of the new assessment (i.e., for a period of one year), which TATA Steel, L&T and DPCL refused to do. At the third meeting on February 10, 2009, at Dhamra, Mr. Sengupta, Vice President, TATA Steel, offered to consider deferring elements of construction by a few days to avoid interference with any fresh impact assessment but totally ruled out suspending construction or dredging. On February 20, 2009, the conservation alliance proposed a compromise and requested the company to suspend dredging during the turtle season, but this was rejected on the grounds that the latter had been advised that suspension of work was unnecessary. Requests that the port promoters share the expert advice (studies, evidence, recommendations, etc.) that recommended that suspension of work was not required, were rejected by the port developers at this meeting and subsequently (a letter from Greenpeace requesting this information was addressed to Mr. Muthuraman, Managing Director, TATA Steel dated February 27, 2009 has elicited no response) ( Additional correspondence available on request). Not surprisingly, the conservationists present at this meeting considered this a poor demonstration of good intention/will and/or application of the precautionary approach by the company and its advisors.

TATA Steel has publicly pledged to withdraw from the project should it cause unacceptable negative impact on the turtles and their nesting habitat. However, they had rejected a Greenpeace commissioned study nor have they cooperated in implementing an independent assessment. This situation left the conservation alliance with no option but to disengage from the dialogue process until such time that the port promoters were willing to reconsider their stance.  From information made available on the IUCN website, the only source of information that has been made available by IUCN, the participating organizations and individuals can only presume that the company’s reluctance to conduct such a basic, universally required exercise for any development project, particularly in an environmentally sensitive area, was instigated by their IUCN advisors. Subsequently, an arribada took place in Gahirmatha in March 2009 and this was used as evidence to show that dredging did not negatively impact turtles and their habitats, while ignoring any mention of the long-term impacts on the coastline.

Continuing impasse with IUCN and MTSG – Invisible revelations

In November, 2008, several months after their interaction with the Dhamra project began, the IUCN planned a one day technical workshop at Bhubaneswar, Orissa. Presentations by the IUCN consultants on their activities at Dhamra dominated the agenda, while the meeting organizers ignored the fundamental concerns repeatedly expressed by local membership over the preceding months. Besides, some MTSG and IUCN members and several organizations with a long history of involvement in the Dhamra port issue were not even invited to participate. These objections were raised before the workshop, but no attempt was made to resolve them, despite repeated requests by several members to the MTSG and the IUCN.

In the end the workshop was postponed and finally convened again in February 2009, with exactly the same agenda. While a few select institutions received invitations seven weeks earlier, most received their invitations just three weeks prior to the workshop. Contrary to the statements issued by MTSG and IUCN, numerous key individuals and institutions (many of the same ones who had been eliminated from the earlier invitation list) were simply not invited. The lack of participation in drafting the agenda, the short notice and selective invitations did not inspire confidence, and many IUCN members (WWF, WPSI) and MTSG members (B. Pandav, K. Shanker, W. Sunderraj, B. Tripathy, R. Whitaker) declined to attend. Besides the staff of DPCL and IUCN, representatives from eight out of approximately 24 IUCN member organizations in India, four NGOs and two universities participated. Hence, less than a third of the key actors participated in the workshop. Nonetheless, the press release ( issued after the February 24-25, 2009 ‘workshop’ in Bhubaneswar gives the impression that there was widespread agreement and support of the IUCN-DPCL partnership.

On 24 April 2009, some of us requested the IUCN to provide details of their agreement with the port developers, financial and technical reports and recommendations given to the company. Specifically, we requested copies of:
1. The Terms of Reference/Scope of Engagement of the IUCN with the Dhamra Port Project.
2. The final agreement between the IUCN and DPCL/TATA Steel.
3. Financial details pertaining to the IUCN’s involvement with DPCL: particularly, how much are IUCN representatives being paid to advise DPCL?
4. Reports and recommendations submitted so far by IUCN/MTSG to DPCL.
5. Periodic assessments and compliance reports from the commencement of IUCN’s work till the present.

On 29 April 2009, Michael Dougherty, Regional Communications Coordinator, Asia Regional Office, IUCN, responded saying that these documents were circulated during the February 2009 workshop. However, colleagues who attended the workshop (among the authors of this piece) refute this claim; these documents were not made available during the workshop or at any other time. On 18 May 2009, we made the same request again. Moreover, an earlier letter was sent to the MTSG chairs (8 May 2009) requesting this information and further details on dredging and other port activities, but this also elicited no response. Hence, it has been difficult – if not impossible - to get basic information from the IUCN, and requests for specific information are not adequately answered.

While some field trip reports and recommendations are now available on the IUCN website (, most documents including the agreement between IUCN and DPCL and its financial details have been declared confidential. In short, the relationship between IUCN /MTSG and local organizations and conservationists contradicts the lofty rhetoric on the IUCN website, reminiscent of “self-laudatory monologue” typical of large international NGOs (Igoe & Sullivan 2009). We do not agree with IUCN’s claim that there is open discussion, sharing of information and positive conservation outcome.

IUCN’s impact – Naked but not transparent

Any recommendations and mitigation advice to port developers is handicapped by the lack of a scientific assessment of the environmental impacts of the project on the coastline and the ecosystems in close proximity, not to mention social and economic impacts on marginalized inhabitants of coastal communities. In general, such attempts to bridge the gap between industry and conservation have raised concerns for both ecological health and justice (Frazier 2005; Igoe & Sullivan 2009).

There is simply no reliable environmental impact assessment, nor – it would appear – any interest in producing one. It is widely believed that the IUCN capitulated to industry’s demands instead of insisting on a meaningful EIA, despite the fact that this is a basic pre-development requirement that is virtually a world-wide standard. The impacts of dredging of sand and other bottom sediments near the nesting beaches of Gahirmatha Wildlife Sanctuary (C.S. Kar pers. comm.) is apparently not being addressed by IUCN/MTSG as evidenced by the lack of reference to this in any report. The impact of annual dredging to maintain a 19 km shipping channel, and subsequent impacts on coastal currents and food webs are unknown. This is especially worrisome given the dramatic changes to the geomorphology of the Gahirmatha beaches during the last two decades (Shanker et al., 2004; Prusty and Dash, 2006). Little is known of the recommendations being made by the IUCN/MTSG to DPCL to mitigate coastal erosion, invasive species or the other concomitant negative impacts of ports, if indeed any such recommendations are being made.

MTSG’s advice to the company seems to have focused on two actions: to use deflectors on the dredger’s drag-head to shield turtles and to use light shades to reduce the disorientation of turtles and hatchlings during nighttime operations. These are likely to reduce some short-term negative impacts of the port development activities on turtles. Remarkably, the latest communiqué posted by the IUCN on its website ( indicates that the IUCN-DPCL agreement is primarily to draft an Environmental Management Plan (EMP), and that this will be drafted in the second phase of the project. However, now more than two years after the agreement was developed, the only advice that seems to have been provided are a few isolated sea turtle mitigation measures. Hence, conservationists in India are mystified and deeply disappointed by the obsessive focus on sea turtles to the exclusion of other life forms and ecological interactions, particularly since the port site lies just 4 km away from Bhitarkanika National Park (a regionally important RAMSAR site and proposed UNESCO World Heritage site).

IUCN’s engagement with the private sector is said to be governed by the private sector guidelines (, which include the preparation of a due diligence report, yet this essential document is not available on its websites. There is no information available to suggest that this was ever done. The lack of environmental precaution by the corporation and regulatory failure of the Ministry of Environment and Forests (see epilogue) has resulted in the flouting of environment laws and regulations (see MTN 121/ IOTN 8). Local conservationists view IUCN’s willingness to over-ride its own private sector guidelines in order to partner with a powerful corporation (and thereby attain significant corporate funding), as aiding and abetting an ecologically and socially devastating project, while undermining their own efforts to make the state and corporations play by environmental rules. It is particularly worrisome when IUCN has refused to collaborate with, or even recognize, local conservation NGOs or community groups.

Local individuals and groups have demonstrated their willingness to enter into meaningful discussion and constructively engage with both the company or IUCN (as summarised above), but they have been repeatedly spurned by these large, powerful organizations. Both the National Fishworkers’ Forum and the Orissa Traditional Fish Workers’ Union have opposed the project (See IOTN 8 and 9). Yet, without their crucial support, the sustainability of project recommendations is in jeopardy. Within the conservation community, IUCN has demonstrated that it is acting in isolation (if not in opposition) by refusing to seriously consider the opinions of local groups. International staff and contractors with their tenuous and ephemeral connections and superficial knowledge of the highly complex issues involved are hardly the way to effect change in the current context.

Partnerships with industry: A global strategy to curb biodiversity loss or new suit?

The collaboration with DPCL is part of IUCN’s global strategy to curb biodiversity loss. High-level dialogues and partnerships with extractive industries have been set up, e.g., the IUCN-ICMM (International Council on Mining and Metals)
(, the EBI (Energy and Biodiversity Initiative) ( and the controversial partnership with Shell. These interactions generally aim to develop voluntary codes of good environmental and social conduct and to integrate considerations of biodiversity protection in the development of extractive industry projects.

Although there is value in interacting directly with the private sector to address environmental issues, and not withstanding IUCN’s good intentions, many IUCN members worldwide, affected people, indigenous groups and advocacy organizations are deeply concerned about the way IUCN is handling these partnerships, and this concern has been elaborated in the specific case of the Dhamra Port development (Frazier 2008). At the last World Conservation Congress in Barcelona, no less than 60% of the NGO members supported a resolution to end IUCN’s partnership with Shell (Igoe & Sullivan 2009). IUCN’s partnership with DPCL is another example that justifies concern for all the reasons stated above (as well as others).

It is critical that the IUCN and MTSG develop partnerships with local groups and address the range of conservation concerns engendered by the Dhamra project. Anything short of that runs contrary to the Precautionary Principle and the IUCN/MTSG’s own conservation mandate, but instead fits the general behaviour of large international NGOs that are notorious for undermining local groups to achieve their own agenda (Frazier 2005, Igoe & Sullivan 2009). When local environmental organisations and affected peoples lose confidence, then IUCN should reevaluate its partnership with the private sector and efforts should be made to bring these communities into the process.

While we believe that it is necessary and possible to engage constructively with the DPCL and TATA Steel, this has to be done in a manner that truly considers local stakeholders and gives credence to local opinions and concerns. If these basic principles are not observed, any potential value of the IUCN- private sector partnership will be reduced to cheap greenwashing.


Recently obtained documents from the offices of the Forest Department of Orissa show that the land on which the Dhamra port project is being built is a Protected Forest. The project does not have the mandatory clearance from the Government of India’s Ministry of Environment and Forests for usage of such land and has therefore violated the Indian Forest Conservation Act, 1980. An application has been filed in the Supreme Court by conservationists Bittu Sahgal, Romulus Whitaker and Shekar Dattatri seeking punitive action, and on October 9, 2009, the court issued notices to the Ministry of Environment and Forests and the state government of Orissa.

Literature cited

FRAZIER, J.G. 2005. Biosphere reserves and the Yucatan Syndrome: Another look at the role of NGOs. In: R. Smardon and B. Faust (eds.) Biosphere Reserve Management in the Yucatan Peninsula - Special Edition. Landscape and Urban Planning 74: 313-333.

FRAZIER, J. 2008. Why do They do That? Ruminations on the Dhamra Drama. Marine Turtle Newsletter. 121: 28-33.

IGOE, J. &  S. SULLIVAN. 2009. Problematising Neoliberal Biodiversity Conservation: Displaced and Disobedient Knowledge Executive summary of workshop held at Washington D.C., American University, Department of Anthropology, May 16-19, 2008,

MATHEW, S. 2004. Socio-economic aspects of management measures aimed at controlling sea turtle mortality: a case study of Orissa, India. Paper presented at the Expert Consultation on Interactions between Sea Turtles and Fisheries within an Ecosystem Context, Rome, 9-12 March2004. FAO Fisheries Report No. 738, Suppl. Rome, Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), 2004. 238p.

PRUSTY, B.G. & S. DASH. 2006.  The effect of rookery geomorphology on olive ridley nesting in Gahirmatha, Orissa. In: Marine Turtles of the Indian Subcontinent (eds. Shanker, K. & B. C. Choudhury), pp. 384-392. Universities Press, Hyderabad, India.

SHANKER, K. B.C. CHOUDHURY, A. FERNANDES, S. GOPAL, A. HAMID, C. KAR, S. KUMAR, J. LENIN, B. MOHANTY, B. PANDAV, S. RODRIGUEZ, A. SRIDHAR, W. SUNDERRAJ, B. TRIPATHY, R. WHITAKER, S. WORAH & B. WRIGHT. 2009. A little learning …..: the price of ignoring politics and history. Marine Turtle Newsletter 124: 3-5.

SHANKER, K., B. PANDAV & B.C. CHOUDHURY. 2004. An assessment of the olive ridley turtles (Lepidochelys olivacea) nesting population in Orissa, India.  Biological Conservation 115: 149 – 160.

SHANKER, K. & R. KUTTY. 2005. Sailing the flagship fantastic: myth and reality of sea turtle conservation in India. Maritime Studies 3(2) and 4(1): 213-240.

SHANKER, K. AND CHOUDHURY, B.C. 2006. Marine turtles in the Indian subcontinent: a brief history. In: Marine Turtles of the Indian Subcontinent (eds. Shanker, K. & B. C. Choudhury), pp. 3-16. Universities Press, Hyderabad, India.

SRIDHAR, A. 2005. Sea turtle conservation and fisheries in Orissa, India. Samudra Monograph. International Collective in Support of Fishworkers, Chennai, India.

WRIGHT, B. AND MOHANTY, B. 2006. Operation Kachhapa: an NGO initiative for sea turtle conservation in Orissa. In: Marine Turtles of the Indian Subcontinent (eds. Shanker, K. & B. C. Choudhury), pp. 290-303. Universities Press, Hyderabad, India.

Peeling the onion: the politics of conservation and corporations at a sea turtle rookery

By Kartik Shanker, Janaki Lenin and Ashish Fernandes

The Hindu Survey of The Environment 2009

There is a large body of work on the impact of development on the environment, including rigorous historical accounts, and careful studies on governance, institutions and political ecology and economy. More visible however is the widespread, somewhat histrionic rhetoric, from pro-development capitalists and environmental activists. A common thread between those in favour of development and those advocating environmental sustainability appears to lie in the realm of social and environmental justice and equity. One can therefore ask if those who claim to subscribe to this common goal – ie. “self-proclaimed” socially responsible corporations and environmental conservation organisations –  actually do justice to it in their actions.

Typically, this battle between environment and development has been cast as a fight between “good versus evil” (or at best, “good versus misguided”) by both sides. However, the role of big international NGOs (or BINGOs) in conservation has been questioned in recent years. In his seminal article, “A challenge to conservationists: can we protect natural habitats without abusing the people who live in them?” in World Watch in 2004, Mac Chapin questioned the corporate funding of large international conservation NGOs working in developing countries, such as Worldwide Fund for Nature, The Nature Conservancy and Conservation International, and their drive to establish protected areas from which indigenous people are excluded. While displacement of people to enable infrastructure development such as dams is well-known, people are also evicted in the name of conservation, dubbed ‘conservation refugees’ by Mark Dowie.

Currently, many of these large conservation organisations work with or receive significant funds from large corporations. For example, Conservation International’s website states “We partner with businesses such as Wal-Mart, Starbucks, and McDonald’s to help them establish “green” benchmarks and embrace environmentally sound practices.” IUCN has major partnerships with Royal Dutch Shell, Total (French Oil Giant) and other agreements are in the pipeline. Recently, the partnership between Shell and IUCN came under considerable criticism at the World Conservation Congress held at Barcelona in October 2008. According to the agreement, the partnership aims “to enhance the biodiversity conservation performance by Shell” and “to strengthen IUCN’s capacity for leadership in business and biodiversity”. Though more than 60% of the IUCN membership voted for a motion to end the agreement, it was rejected on a technicality.

In India too, there is substantial controversy over the conflicting demands of environmental conservation and development, and the role of policy in facilitating change. For example, the recent suggested replacement of the Coastal Regulation Zone (CRZ) Notification, 1991, with a Coastal Management Zone Notification, is believed to be driven by business interests that would result in the development of the coast, at the cost of local inhabitants and habitats. The politics of conservation and development, involves a variety of players, and is not simple. We illustrate this here through the battle over a port and a sea turtle nesting rookery involving many actors, including large corporations, international conservation organisations, local conservationists, and many others.

A brief history of sea turtle conservation in Orissa

Olive ridley turtles nest en masse at several beaches in Orissa, mainly Gahirmatha, Rushikulya and Devi River Mouth. Sea turtle conservation started in Orissa in the mid 1970s, when Robert Bustard, a FAO consultant, visited Bhitarkanika on a crocodile survey, and discovered the mass nesting beach at Gahirmatha. Over the next two decades, various organisations including the Forest Department, Central Marine Fisheries Research Institute (CMFRI), and Utkal University were involved in sea turtle research and conservation. During the late 1970s and early 1980s, following the introduction of mechanized boats, there was large scale exploitation of adult turtles in Orissa (>50,000 turtles per season) for sale as meat in West Bengal. Due to the implementation of the Wild Life (Protection) Act, 1972 by the Forest Department in the early 1980s, and conservation efforts by many individuals and organisations, this was eventually stopped. Notably, late Prime Minister Indira Gandhi expressed her support for sea turtle conservation in Orissa and facilitated the involvement of the Coast Guard, which helped in enforcing regulations.

Despite an alert issued by the CMFRI, the mortality as incidental catch in trawl nets continued to increase dramatically through the 1990s, and in recent years, more than 10,000 dead turtles wash up on the Orissa coast annually.  The unpredictability in the extent and timing of arribadas, declining size of nesting turtles, aggravated by the huge mortality of adult turtles, is believed to be indicative of an impending decline in olive ridley populations in Orissa. It has also become clear that changes in the geomorphology may be leading to the decline in nesting at Gahirmatha, while nesting in Rushikulya appears to be increasing, and mass-nesting in the Devi region has not occurred for more than a decade.

Through the 1990s, many conservation organisations and programmes such as Operation Kachhapa focused on mitigating trawler related mortality through enforcement and media campaigns. Around the same time, the USA extended its domestic law to all its trading partner countries, requiring shrimp trawlers to use Turtle Excluder Devices (TEDs). Following extensive protest and deliberation at the WTO (in which India was one of the complainants), the US position was upheld. Though mandated through law in Orissa, few trawler owners are inclined to use TEDs for a variety of reasons. As elsewhere, such as the USA, trawler owners protested that only one of the causes of turtle mortality was being targeted.

The focus on trawlers created a vitiated atmosphere, in which most fishermen perceived conservation as anti-people. In 2004, recognising the impasse between fishing communities and turtle conservation, local and national conservation organizations and individuals, community organisations, and fishworker support organisations came together under the umbrella of the Orissa Marine Resources Conservation Consortium ( This group has been attempting to promote the conservation of marine biodiversity, including turtles, along with the livelihoods of the poor artisanal fishermen. The laws are conducive to this goal as they mainly seek to prohibit mechanised fishing in near-shore waters, which is beneficial to turtles and traditional fishermen. Today, a large number of international, national, local and community-based organisations are involved in various aspects of sea turtle conservation in Orissa (see

History of the port at Dhamra

The Dhamra Port has been in the pipeline for over a decade now. Clearance to build a port was granted in 1997 taking advantage of an amendment to the Coastal Zone Regulation (CRZ) Notification that allowed the expansion of minor ports (Dhamra is a notified minor port) with clearance issued by the Ministry of Surface Transport rather than the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF). The power to clear such projects has since returned to the MoEF. The port was to be built by International Seaports (India) Private Limited under an agreement with the Government of Orissa. In 2004, Tata steel and L&T agreed to develop the port as a 50:50 joint venture through the Dhamra Port Company Limited (DPCL) which was awarded a concession by the Orissa Government to build the port. According to the website, it will be the deepest port in India and strategically close to the mineral belts in nearby states ( Although the characteristics of the current port proposal vary from that of International Seaports Limited, the environmental clearance granted to the latter was used. It is widely considered that the scientific and legal validity of the EIA and environment clearance for Dhamra port are questionable, given the change in scale and location of the project.

The opposition to this port citing negative impacts on sea turtles picked up again about 3 years ago, with Greenpeace being the most outspoken critic. Citing concern for sea turtle conservation, representatives of Tata & DPCL then contacted several biologists around the country and requested that they conduct studies (offshore distribution studies of olive ridley turtles with satellite telemetry) to see if sea turtles would indeed be adversely affected by the port. Biologists and subsequently NGOs such as Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS) and WWF declined to engage with DPCL unless the company agreed to a fresh EIA and to stop construction while studies were ongoing.

In 2006, DPCL contracted the IUCN, to draft an environmental management plan. The IUCN, working through its voluntary body, the Marine Turtle Specialist Group, undertook the project, over-ruling the opposition expressed by almost all its local members. Members of the MTSG in India believe the agreement was  effected without due process, a lack of transparency, in contravention of the precautionary principle, and therefore likely to undermine local efforts towards sea turtle conservation in Orissa. To illustrate the extent of protest, IUCN’s involvement in the project is opposed by WWF, Greenpeace, OMRCC, Wildlife Protection Society of India, Wildlife Society of Orissa, biologists working at the Wildlife Institute of India, Indian Institute of Science, WWF, Gujarat Institute of Desert Ecology, and several local conservation organisations.  Despite protests and numerous letters, the IUCN and MTSG continue to engage with the company.

While IUCN’s advice to use deflectors on dredgers and light reduction may reduce negative impacts on turtles, the need is for an environmental management plan, based on a comprehensive impact analysis. Inexplicably, the IUCN advisors who stressed the need for a fresh EIA in their scoping mission, today conclude that it is unnecessary. The focus on sea turtles to the exclusion of other biodiversity, particularly in Bhitarkanika National Park which is closest to the port site, and ignoring the consequences of coastal erosion/accretion, invasive species brought by visiting ships and the other concomitant negative impacts of ports, is likely to have long term fallout. So too is the IUCN’s refusal to work with local conservation organisations, while partnering with a major international corporation.

Over the last 6 months, the port promoters (Tata Steel and L&T, as well as DPCL) have held meetings with a coalition of local conservation groups. The conservationists continued to stress the need for a comprehensive, credible and independent impact assessment given the very obvious gaps in the 1997 EIA. Again, due to the refusal to pause construction (or even dredging during the nesting season) while studies were ongoing, the dialogue did not lead to a resolution.

Corporate conservation: a tangled web

Clearly, all parties have taken some actions ostensibly to effect positive impacts on the environment. IUCN, through the MTSG, has stuck to the argument that its engagement with the project will be beneficial for sea turtles. Local conservation groups have argued for a broader conservation outlook which addresses a wider set of concerns including habitat conservation and local livelihoods. Tata Steel/DPCL’s willingness to accept some environmental safeguards may have been (and still be) an opportunity to mainstream some of these as regulations in port and coastal development.

However, both conservationists and corporations have also been remarkably similar in their singular approach to meet their mandates. The corporation has been clearly unwilling to negotiate on the critical issue of a faulty EIA or to consider halting construction. As noted sea turtle conservationist Jack Frazier has repeatedly stressed, big conservation NGOs, especially IUCN, have largely ignored a range of other issues such as the impact on social development, environmental consequences of social change, impacts on fisheries, introduction of invasives through bilge water disposal, and most importantly impacts on the coastal ecosystems. Conservationist organisations have a lot more in common with corporations than they would like to believe, particularly in the way that they use information selectively. And large international conservation organisations appear to have much in common with their benefactors,  especially in the way they function and make decisions.

In conclusion, it is not clear that such conservation – corporation partnerships are beneficial for long-term conservation of species and habitats, especially when done in contravention of the precautionary principle, in opposition to local conservation groups, and with little transparency. By focusing exclusively on sea turtles to the neglect of coastal ecosystems and people, it appears as if this BINGO has either abdicated its role as a leader in the field or has set its bar so low that it does no more than provide a green chit to the company. In developing nations such as India where resources are scarce, the long term viability of conservation depends substantially on local support. Lack of attention to social issues can alienate local communities from conservation, ultimately jeopardizing the survival of species and habitats.

Acknowledgements: This article has benefited from comments and discussions with Jack Frazier, Sudarshan Rodriguez and Aarthi Sridhar. For more articles on this issue, see the Marine Turtle Newsletter ( and the Indian Ocean Turtle Newsletter (

Kartik Shanker is with the Centre for Ecological Sciences, Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore & Dakshin Foundation, Bangalore.
Janaki Lenin is the IUCN/SSC/Crocodile Specialist Group’s Regional Chair for South Asia and Iran.
Ashish Fernandes is an Oceans Campaigner for Greenpeace, Bangalore.