Environment: Eco-politics —Saleem H Ali
Nature will easily defy political boundaries whether through storms, salinity or fish extinction, and it is high time countries consider environmental security more seriously
The mangroves of the Indus Delta have been on my mind since the full scale of devastation caused by Cyclone Nargis became apparent. These botanical protectors of coastlines worldwide were the subject of much discussion this week at the biannual meeting of the signatory countries to the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity in Bonn, Germany.
My role at the meeting was to explore ways by which environmental factors can be used for conflict resolution and to make some presentations to delegates on possible mechanisms to achieve such aims.
I was pleased to see that delegates from India and Pakistan seemed to be on a good wavelength with each other, even on the rather contentious matter of trans-boundary conservation.
Of particular interest in this regard is the Sir Creek dispute between the two countries, which is very close to the mangrove forests of the Indus Delta. Indeed, this is a place of unique biodiversity which has commercial value for fishing as well as the potential for ecological tourism development.
The late ornithologist, Salim Ali recorded more than 30,000 flamingos in this region in 1973, while doing a survey for the Bombay Natural History Society. The numbers of these birds has rapidly declined since conservation has taken a back seat to the higher politics of territorial conflict. There is no mechanism for coordinating pollution management, fishing, deforestation or any other conservation effort at present between the two sides in this region.
The dispute concerns a 38-square kilometre estuary in the Indus delta area south of the Rann of Kutch territory, which was the subject of a dispute resolution process with the International Court of Justice in 1968. The area of dispute is just 6-7 square miles of land, but involves 250-300 square miles of ocean territory. The demarcation of the land border has a direct impact on the maritime boundaries of both countries, so there are both territorial and maritime dimensions to this dispute.
Negotiations had been stalled for 20 years, but gained momentum in 2000, when both Pakistan and India signed and ratified the Law of the Seas Convention. This Convention requires both sides to resolve their maritime disputes by submitting their claims over maritime territories by May 2009. The failure of the signatories to reach any understanding would invoke Part XV of the convention, which provides a comprehensive mechanism for dispute settlement or may also declare the unresolved maritime zones international waterways.
President Pervez Musharraf and Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh met in Havana, Cuba, in September 2006 and agreed that neutral experts should meet to plan a coordinated effort for a joint survey of Sir Creek and the adjoining area. The two heads of state agreed on two points: a joint survey of the area based on modern technical information, and a joint survey team comprising both Indian and Pakistani experts.
Perhaps an additional connection that may help in resolving this dispute is that both countries are also signatories to the UN Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) as well as the Ramsar Convention on the Protection of Wetlands. Under the programme of activities that was approved by the signatories to the CBD in 2004, India and Pakistan should: “establish and strengthen by 2010/2012 transboundary protected areas, other forms of collaboration between neighbouring protected areas across national boundaries and regional networks, to enhance the conservation and sustainable use of biological diversity.”
India has thus far rejected Pakistan’s attempt to internationalise the issue, either through arbitration or the involvement of any third party, on the grounds that the issue must be resolved bilaterally, in accordance with the Simla Agreement. Nevertheless, recent research conducted by Dr Shaista Tabassum of Karachi University has revealed that Indian officials have on several occasions made statements willing to consider environmental cooperation in this region and resolving the maritime dispute.
Indian Admiral JG Nadkarni wrote in an article back in 2001 that: “The Arabian sea offers considerable scope of cooperation between the two countries. The will and determination to stop the spread of land problems on the sea agreement could easily be reached in demarcating the maritime boundaries, a more pragmatic and human method of dealing with fishermen (who keep getting arrested by either side).”
Regional organisations like the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) currently have a limited mandate to help with such political disputes, but their role could potentially be expanded. Indeed, the environment is being used as a critical point of linkage by SAARC to galvanise such change. The SAARC 14 summit meeting in April 2007 resolved to develop cross-border regional projects pertaining to four issues that affect their people’s daily lives — water, energy, food, and the environment. If international environmental law is to have any credibility left in South Asia, the joint impetus of all these various agreements and the targets they have set should be used by both governments to resolve the Sir Creek dispute.
Let us hope that when both the Indian and Pakistani environment ministers meet in Bonn next week for the ministerial segment of the conference, this prospect will be on their mind.
Even more consequentially, the armed forces on both sides should consider this as an opportunity to show true leadership and allow their governments to foster environmental cooperation and synchronous dispute resolution.
For too long both sides have made ecological factors subservient to some larger dispute resolution process. However, the demographic decline of the mangroves and flamingos will not wait for any protracted political process.
These environmental systems are not just an aesthetic matter: they are a fundamental issue of human security and ecological balance. Nature will easily defy political boundaries whether through storms, salinity or fish extinction, and it is high time countries consider environmental security more seriously. In the words of Robert Redford: “Defence of our resources is just as important as defence abroad. Otherwise, what is there to defend?”
Dr Saleem H Ali is associate dean for graduate education at the University of Vermont’s Rubenstein School of Environment and the Editor of the book Peace Parks: Conservation and Conflict Resolution (MIT Press, 2007). Email: firstname.lastname@example.org