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Perilous battle to save nature

The Pioneer, New Delhi, 19th June, 2013
The gravity of environmental crime, be it illegal trade in animal parts or the assault on natural habitats, cannot be underestimated. The racket in wildlife is linked not only to the smuggling of arms and narcotics, but also to financing terrorism
On May 30, 26-year-old Jairo Mora Sandoval, a dedicated Costa Rican conservationist working for many years to protect the endangered leatherback turtles, was killed by the mafia that plundered turtle nests to steal their eggs, which command a lucrative market as delicacies, or are sold to drug traffickers. Sandoval patrolled the beach every night during the nesting season. He was abducted, stripped, beaten ruthlessly, shot in the head and left to die. His naked and bruised body was found on the same beach he protected for the turtles to nest in.
The leatherback is the world’s largest and deepest-diving turtle, and is listed as critically endangered in the International Union for Conservation of Nature Red List. This brutal murder shocked the conservation community in Costa Rica and globally. However, reportedly, there is a reluctance to link the murder with the turtle egg trade and there hasn’t been much progress in arresting the murderers — or the trade. The killing has put in jeopardy the protection of this threatened turtle and revealed the murky underbelly of wildlife crime, spotlighting  the risk inherent in the task of conserving wildlife species and habitats. Illicit wildlife trafficking is a multi-billion dollar organised crime, and its scale compares with that of narcotics and arms. Even the cartels are linked.
Equally fraught with risk is the battle to protect the world’s last remaining natural resources. In 2010, the UN special rapporteur on human rights noted: “Defenders working on land and environmental issues in connection with extractive industries and construction and development projects in the Americas face the highest risk of death as a result of their activities.”
A 2012 report by environment action group Global Witness estimates that the death toll of community leaders, campaigners and journalists involved in the protection of forests, water and land has risen dramatically — almost doubled in the past three years. This is backed by a report from the Paris-based group, Reporters Without Borders. “In many countries, journalists who specialise in the environment are in the front line of a new war”, the report says, adding that they face harassment, persecution and threats from “thugs in the pay of criminal entrepreneurs or corrupt politicians.” Resource and forest-rich countries like Brazil have the highest environment conflict — over a thousand have been killed in two decades in conflicts. The majority of victims are connected to illegal forest clearance by loggers and large scale industrial farming in the Amazon and other remote forests.
One particularly gruesome incident was the murder of two environmental activists who opposed mining projects in the El Salvador in December 2009. One of them, Dora Alicia Recinos Sorto, was eight months pregnant when she was shot dead in front of her two-year-old child, who was also wounded in the attack. In 2008, in the Philippines, journalist Aristeo Padrigao had his face blown off in Gingoog City after investigating illegal logging, and the involvement of local politicians, which he reported both in radio and print. In Indonesia, where prime rain forests are being destroyed by logging, mining and large-scale plantations, the problem has taken ominous proportions. A particularly horrifying case was that of Arbi Kusno, who was repeatedly stabbed and mutilated. Kusno was silenced because she had persistently fought and exposed the illegal timber trade.
In India too, environmentalists are facing the heat. One remembers only too well the shocking image of conservationist and RTI activist Amit Jethwa gunned down in broad daylight outside the High Court in Ahmedabad in July 2010. Jethwa was a fiery defender of the forests — even in the face of dire threats as he fought against the expansion of a cement factory bordering Barda Wildlife Sanctuary (earmarked as the second home of the endangered Asiatic lion), mining near Gir and encroachment on a wetland in Bhavnagar. Among his many battles were his efforts to bring to light the  suppressed evidence against actor Salman Khan and his colleagues in the alleged poaching of chinkaras in Banni, Gujarat during the shoot of a Hindi film, and his relentless campaign against illegal mining in Saurashtra. And possibly, he paid for this with his life.
Such wars in defence of the environment are typically fought by conservationists, journalists and communities whose livelihoods are affected by attacks on the environment — be it by Governments, corporates or mafias. Unfortunately, while the offensive over natural resources is being waged worldwide, there is little recognition of the gravity of the problem. The stakes in environment are very high, and in an unequal society the fight to control fast-depleting natural resources is getting edgier, throwing communities and big corporates into bitter battle. For long, the perpetrators got away. Now, when projects with grave ecological consequences are questioned either by those protecting the environment, or those protecting their land and livelihood, the people who uncover and expose the inconvenient truth put their lives at risk.
The victimisation of environmentalists is not always limited to obvious physical attacks. Intimidation in the form of foisted litigation, and threats by Governments and corporate cartels is a harassment that conservationists constantly face.
The gravity of environmental crime, be it illegal trade in wildlife and forest products or the more complex issue of assault on natural habitats, cannot be undermined. The racket in wildlife is linked not only to smuggling in arms and narcotics, but it has been well-established that wildlife crime is financing terrorism. The volumes are enormous running into billions of dollars.
What needs to be done is to address the systemic problem, rather than provide first aid solution. Globally, the script and the scenario is the same, just different characters playing it over and over again: The struggle to save our natural resources by a small band of committed environmentalists, up against powerful Governments and industrial cartels aiming to gain control over finite natural resources. We must realise that the battle is not of environmentalists alone, nor is it a matter of ‘merely saving pretty animals’. Our very survival is dependent on natural resources.
(The columnist is senior consultant, WCS India, and founder-director of ‘Bagh’. She is also a member of the National Board for Wildlife)