A plea for life and progress in harmony with nature
Two high-profile environmental conferences—the UN Biodiversity Conference under the Convention of Biological Diversity (CBD) and the UN Climate Change Conference under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC)—were held recently in Kunming, China and Glasgow, Scotland, respectively. The biodiversity conference recognised that change in land and sea use, overexploitation, climate change, pollution, and invasive alien species are the main drivers behind biodiversity loss worldwide. Following that recognition, world leaders pledged to reverse the current trends of biodiversity loss by 2030 and envisioned living in harmony with nature by 2050. In this context, it is vital to note that saving nature and biodiversity is the key to solving climate-induced socioecological problems. Rightly so, the UN climate conference has emphasised reducing deforestation by 2030. Climate scientists and activists have also called for saving nature and utilising nature-based goods and services to tackle climate-induced problems—popularly known as "Nature-based Solutions" (NbS) to climate change. These conferences, ideas, and pledges suggest that conservation of nature and biodiversity is necessary to tackle climate change, thereby vital for our survival and existence.
Now that we realise the importance of conserving nature and biodiversity, we also face the challenge of conserving them while meeting our developmental needs. This is because development often involves clearing forests or natural areas, while conservation actions demand that forests and natural areas remain intact. So, how do we deal with these conflicting interests? One of the ways to do that is to find a balance between development works and conservation. Rightly so, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has emphasised building a developed and prosperous Bangladesh, but at the same time, building it green and climate-resilient. That is, the government's policy is friendly to both development and nature conservation.
That being said, our development and conservation-friendly model faces a significant problem in practice. Policy implementers and activists often take one of the two ideas that suit their interests more. On the one hand, conservationists often emphasise the idea of a green and climate-resilient Bangladesh and protest against any project near the forests, even if the project is vital for the country. On the other hand, development activists often emphasise the idea of a developed and prosperous Bangladesh and push for any project, even if that could potentially cost greenness or climate resilience. Take these two examples: first, there have been news reports recently regarding tree felling in Sylhet in the name of development work. The action directly conflicts with protecting greenness and climate resilience. Second, a letter of concern was published in the Science Magazine that Padma Bridge would threaten the Sundarbans. That concern directly conflicts with development and prosperity. The first case illustrates the short-sightedness of development workers, while the second case demonstrates exaggeration from conservationists. This type of debate usually takes place on an emotional ground, rather than on scientific understanding, which is somewhat frustrating and does not serve the country's best interest. What is needed the most is that policymakers and activists take both the ideas—not just the one that suits their own individual interests—by heart, argue scientifically, and look for the overall sustainable development of the country, instead of sectoral development.
At this point, we must appreciate the pace at which Bangladesh is currently developing. Many development projects are now in progress, with more in the pipeline. However, we are also among the top-ranked climate vulnerable countries globally, in need of more climate adaptation and resilience efforts and measures. Although essential, setting aside a vast chunk of land purely for nature conservation or climate change adaptation is becoming increasingly challenging. So, we must offset the potential loss of nature by creating new nature around our dwellings, and achieving the overall goal of "net zero deforestation."
The very first step towards achieving the goal of net zero deforestation is changing our mindset. Our conservationists still adhere to traditional attitudes and focus merely on forests, ignoring nature beyond forests, such as urban areas and riverbanks. The assessment of conservation success also pays little attention to biodiversity and ecosystem services, focusing mainly on restoring or preserving forest areas instead. The Forest Department has a specialised branch named wildlife and nature conservation circle, but the circle is still in its infancy. Its focus has so far lied on the conservation of charismatic animals, instead of plant diversity or the diversity of non-charismatic animals. Thus, it is not uncommon that some forests in our country are characterised by a lack of vegetation cover or single-species plantation—that is, they represent nature of poor quality and poor biodiversity. On the other hand, we traditionally measure development success through the extent of infrastructure developed—including roads, bridges and buildings—with minimal regard to their costs on greenness or climate resilience. I suggest that it is time to move on from our traditional ideas of conservation or development. We should embrace newer ideas, such as: a) nature conservation is more than just protecting forests, and it is about saving biodiversity and ecosystem services within forests and beyond; and b) greenness can be incorporated within the development plan, as illustrated by the Pudong model of development in China.
I, therefore, urge the relevant authorities and experts to minimise the development-versus-conservation dilemma by broadening the scope of nature management and promoting green development. That is, we should (a) keep our natural forests intact; (b) improve the quality of our forests—by paying attention to biodiversity and ecosystem services; and (c) bring our city spaces, urban areas, and riverbanks under nature management to improve greenness. Relevant and applicable development projects must be eco-friendly, cautious about greenness, and planned away from natural forests. We must keep in mind that we cannot survive without nature—neither can we stop the wheels of development. So, we should coordinate among the stakeholders, including political leaders, and adapt to the modern approaches that can save nature, promote development and improve the quality of our living, leading to a modern and climate-resilient Bangladesh.
Dr Shekhar R Biswas is a professor of ecology at East China Normal University in Shanghai.