Wednesday, December 16, 2009

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.

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