15 days ago

Development not at the cost of biodiversity

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A survey conducted on 1,000 plant species by four senior botanists of the country to prepare a red list of flora on behalf of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) should shed light on relations between humans and the world of flora here. Reportedly first of its kind, against red lists of animals made several times, the initiative is highly important. But it must be admitted that this belated exercise also exposes weakness and indifference of scientists of the related field and also the ministry in charge of biodiversity and ecosystem to this important area.

No wonder, therefore that the four-member team has found on their assessment that out of 1,000 plant species seven have already become extinct, five are critically endangered, 127 are endangered, 262 are at risk, 69 are nearly at risk. The good news is that 271 plant species are doing well in the environment. However, the news is not so good about 258 species as information on them is missing. What does it mean? It is a huge number and if information about them is unavailable, there is serious doubt about their existence.

In the process of evolution, no life form comes into existence without a purpose. Much as humans may have developed an insight into new frontiers of material and living worlds, a colossal dark and unknown area is waiting to be explored. So the species with little utility or those that apparently appear to be harmful for humankind may have been destroyed with impunity. But when it comes to preservation of the ecology, maybe, the seemingly useless also have a necessary part to play.

The survey on only 1,000 plant species has brought to the fore a most disconcerting fact. What a picture of the country's flora world will emerge if the remaining 3,000 species are studied comprehensively may give one a nightmarish experience. Human beings have poisoned the environment in more ways than one. The use of chemical fertiliser, insecticide and herbicide for decades has proved notoriously harmful not only to various species of flora and fauna but also to the species that has produced and applied those. Discarded polythene and plastic of mountainous volumes compound the problem beyond redemption.

One of the reasons for climate change is deforestation and accumulation of greenhouse gas in the atmosphere. Plants and trees cleanse air by absorbing CO2. If there are not enough green covers on the Earth's surface, harmful gases such as CO2 and methane released from various human activities get deposited in the stratosphere and this contributes to rising temperature. So, conservation of plant species or for that matter forests is not just a subject of botany or forestry, broadly it is life science. From this perspective, each member of the plant and animal life has its distinct place in the world of creation and deserves respect.

In a country overburdened with an outsize population, the stake is high for land use. This does in no way mean that green cover of its land area has to be depleted and plant species protected only on the basis of food and economic considerations. Food and economy are a prerequisite for survival but the correlation of these two with the environment is more decisive. It is impossible to grow paddy in the desert of Sahara. So, there is an overriding need to know how much exploitation of Nature is enough for the purpose and how much is too much.

In their rush for expanding the range and scope of agriculture aimed at producing enough cereal for feeding the nation, policymakers paid little attention to plants, woodlands and forests. Villages where most homesteads were once full of naturally grown wild plants and trees became precariously denuded because of the clearing spree all around. Many of the herbs, shrubs, plants and trees present plentiful even in the 50s of the last century have now disappeared forever. Once Barun and Hijal trees, not valued much in terms of timber, had their proliferation in villages. Today there is hardly any village to host a Barun tree. Hijals are also on their way out. 

No, these are not included in the endangered plants' list by the study team. The seven plants that have disappeared are uncommon and few people have ever heard of their names. They are Kurajiri, Bhanu Deypat, Gola Anjan, Sat Sarila, Therma Jam and Mytrasis. The five endangered species are not as uncommon as the seven extinct varieties but again few people know all their names. Teli palm is no longer found in the wild but more people are likely to be familiar with its name. A few exist in small botanical enclosures under management of research institutes. Of the seven, Ball tree may be familiar to people in the southern districts. Bashpata (brown pine), is native to Meghalaya. Sylhet's hills could host them. Wild date, Balborax and Tall Trias orchid complete the list of the endangered species.

So the importance of conservation of plants irrespective of their commercial and other values cannot be overemphasised. In the interest of ecological balance, environmental sustainability and by extension survival of the human species, the conservation of all the plant species is a sine qua non.

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