Why The Tide Is Shifting Toward Marine Conservation

Until recently, conservation focused mostly on land. But Industrial-scale fishing and massive pollution are spurring interest in protecting the seas.

All's whale that ends whale?
All's whale that ends whale?
Claudio Campagna*


BUENOS AIRES — The core goal of the conservation movement, in all its currents, is to protect the autonomy of natural forms of life. Because without conservation, human engineering could soon replace natural selection.

In its early days, conservationism concentrated its efforts on land species and environments. The concept of the national park prospered and spread. Today, 10-15% of all land surfaces are, to some degree or other, designated as protected areas. But what about the sea? The sea is a recent arrival at the conservational forum. For centuries, nobody thought of the ocean as needing protection. It seemed so vast, infinite and inexhaustible.

Little by little, the sea is being drained of life and filled instead with trash and pollutants.

Thus the zeal with which whales were hunted in the 19th and 20th centuries. Within a short time, this pursuit showed how with a bit of enterprise and technology, people could bring such spectacular forms of life as the blue whale to the brink of extinction. And yet, even as fantasy of the limitless oceans began to dissipate, large-scale exploitation — with the industrial fishing fleets of the 20th and 21st centuries — continued. Little by little, the sea is being drained of life and filled instead with trash and pollutants. Our filth is there today in the waters and on coastlines, and our poisons in the flesh of sea creatures.

Marine conservatism in progress

The scale and pace of destruction in the seas have had an unexpected result, namely an about-face on the need to protect marine species and environments. Nowadays the sea is the star of conservationism. Congratulations! The objective today is to reserve 10% of all seas as protected zones (from insane fishing and activities degrading environments and destroying life forms).

In Argentina, marine conservation growth began, halfheartedly, with coastal protection. But it has progressed faster in recent years, reaching a milestone in 2013 with the declaration of the underwater Burdwood Bank as a marine protected area. Since then, the Argentine government has announced plans to create more Marine National Parks.

Eight such areas were created worldwide between 2009 and 2016, raising the total protected marine surface area in the world from 0.8% to 2.8%. That's still a ways off the 10% mark. But for those of us involved in marine conservation, it's also a reason to feel both satisfied and optimistic, especially considering that until very recently, people were skeptical about any talk of marine conservation.

This optimism, however, raises the question of whether our growing interest in safeguarding the seas is because we've given up on protecting land areas. The answer is no. An emphatic no. At least let's hope so, because across the globe, big farming is eating into forests and plains; desertification follows the bulldozers; and populations are even exerting unceasing pressure on certain, exceptionally important national parks. Could these indicate a crisis in land conservation?

15 minutes of fame

The oceans are the last frontier, with areas that are still relatively unexplored and untouched. Those place provide us with creative opportunities such as the creation of seasonal national parks to protect species at crucial points in their lives, or mobile marine parks focused on productive areas like the "frontal zones," where marine animals and intensive fishing meet.

The sea is currently living its 15 minutes of fame. In Argentina, there has been an upsurge in recent years of awareness, with numerous seminars being organized by organizations like the Wildlife Conservation Society, the Ecocentro observatory in Puerto Madryn, and CONICET, the state research institute. As the Science Ministry argues, Argentina's sea areas are its "blue pampas."

All these initiatives are welcome. Indeed, in this era of significant human impact on the environment — what some call the Anthropocene epoch — species and spaces need all the help they can get to retain their autonomy. Conservation, in other words, is crucial. For all the intensive fishing and pollution they've had to endure, the seas still have some autonomy. It's our job to make sure it stays that way.

*The author is an Argentine physician and biologist

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Ecological Angst In India, A Mining Dumpsite As Neighbor

Local villagers in western India have been forced to live with a mining waste site on the edge of town. What happens when you wake up one day and the giant mound of industrial waste has imploded?

The mining dumpsite is situated just outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat

Sukanya Shantha

BADI — Last week, when the men and women from the Bharwad community in this small village in western India stepped out for their daily work to herd livestock, they were greeted with a strange sight.

The 20-meter-high small hill that had formed at the open-cast mining dumpsite had suddenly sunk. Unsure of the reason behind the sudden caving-in, they immediately informed other villagers. In no time, word had traveled far, even drawing the attention of environment specialists and activists from outside town.

This mining dumpsite situated less than 500 meters outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat has been a matter of serious concern ever since the Gujarat Power Corporation Limited began lignite mining work here in early 2017. The power plant is run by the Power Gujarat State Electricity Corporation Limited, which was previously known as the Bhavnagar Energy Company Ltd.

Vasudev Gohil, a 43-year-old resident of Badi village says that though the dumping site is technically situated outside the village, locals must pass the area on a daily basis.

"We are constantly on tenterhooks and looking for danger signs," he says. Indeed, their state of alert is how the sudden change in the shape of the dumpsite was noticed in the first place.

Can you trust environmental officials?

For someone visiting the place for the first time, the changes may not stand out. "But we have lived all our lives here, we know every little detail of this village. And when a 150-meter-long stretch cave-in by over 25-30 feet, the change can't be overlooked," Gohil adds.

This is not the first time that the dumpsite has worried local residents. Last November, a large part of the flattened part of the dumpsite had developed deep cracks and several flat areas had suddenly got elevated. While the officials had attributed this significant elevation to the high pressure of water in the upper strata of soil in the region, environment experts had pointed to seismic activities. The change is evident even today, nearly a year since it happened.

It could have sunk because of the rain.

After the recent incident, when the villagers raised an alarm and sent a written complaint to the regional Gujarat Pollution Control Board, an official visit to the site was arranged, along with the district administration and the mining department.

The regional pollution board officer Bhavnagar, A.G. Oza, insists the changes "aren't worrisome" and attributes it to the weather.

"The area received heavy rain this time. It is possible that the soil could have sunk in because of the rain," he tells The Wire. The Board, he says, along with the mining department, is now trying to assess if the caving-in had any impact on the ground surface.

"We visited the site as soon as a complaint was made. Samples have already been sent to the laboratory and we will have a clear idea only once the reports are made available," Oza adds.

Women from the Surkha village have to travel several kilometers to find potable water

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

A questionable claim

That the dumpsite had sunk in was noticeable for at least three days between October 1 and 3, but Rohit Prajapati of an environmental watchdog group Paryavaran Suraksha Samiti, noted that it was not the first time.

"This is the third time in four years that something so strange is happening. It is a disaster in the making and the authorities ought to examine the root cause of the problem," Prajapati says, adding that the department has repeatedly failed to properly address the issue.

He also contests the GPCB's claim that excess rain could lead to something so drastic. "Then why was similar impact not seen on other dumping sites in the region? One cannot arrive at conclusions for geological changes without a deeper study of them," he says. "It can have deadly implications."

Living in pollution

The villagers have also accused the GPCB of overlooking their complaint of water pollution which has rendered a large part of the land, most importantly, the gauchar or grazing land, useless.

"In the absence of a wall or a barrier, the pollutant has freely mixed with the water bodies here and has slowly started polluting both our soil and water," complains 23- year-old Nikul Kantharia.

He says ever since the mining project took off in the region, he, like most other villagers has been forced to take his livestock farther away to graze. "Nothing grows on the grazing land anymore and the grass closer to the dumpsite makes our cattle ill," Kantharia claims.

The mining work should have been stopped long ago

Prajapati and Bharat Jambucha, a well-known environmental activist and proponent of organic farming from the region, both point to blatant violations of environmental laws in the execution of mining work, with at least 12 violations cited by local officials. "But nothing happened after that. Mining work has continued without any hassles," Jambucha says. Among some glaring violations include the absence of a boundary wall around the dumping site and proper disposal of mining effluents.

The mining work has also continued without a most basic requirement – effluent treatment plant and sewage treatment plant at the mining site, Prajapati points out. "The mining work should have been stopped long ago. And the company should have been levied a heavy fine. But no such thing happened," he adds.

In some villages, the groundwater level has depleted over the past few years and villagers attribute it to the mining project. Women from Surkha village travel several kilometers outside for potable water. "This is new. Until five years ago, we had some water in the village and did not have to lug water every day," says Shilaben Kantharia.

The mine has affected the landscape around the villages

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

Resisting lignite mining

The lignite mining project has a long history of resistance. Agricultural land, along with grazing land were acquired from the cluster of 12 adjoining villages in the coastal Ghogha taluka between 1994 and 1997. The locals estimate that villagers here lost anything between 40-100% of their land to the project. "We were paid a standard Rs 40,000 per bigha," Narendra, a local photographer, says.

The money, Narendra says, felt decent in 1994 but for those who had been dependent on this land, the years to come proved very challenging. "Several villagers have now taken a small patch of land in the neighboring villages on lease and are cultivating cotton and groundnut there," Narendra says.

They were dependent on others' land for work.

Bharat Jambucha says things get further complicated for the communities which were historically landless. "Most families belonging to the Dalit or other marginalized populations in the region never owned any land. They were dependent on others' land for work. Once villagers lost their land to the project, the landless were pushed out of the village," he adds. His organization, Prakrutik Kheti Juth, has been at the forefront, fighting for the rights of the villages affected in the lignite mining project.

In 2017, when the mining project finally took off, villagers from across 12 villages protested. The demonstration was disrupted after police used force and beat many protesters. More than 350 of them were booked for rioting.

The villagers, however, did not give up. Protests and hunger strikes have continued from time to time. A few villagers even sent a letter to the President of India threatening that they would commit suicide if the government did not return their land.

"We let them have our land for over 20 years," says Gohil.

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