scorecardresearch

Eliminating cross-border smuggling and destruction of natural assets

Not all of this trade is legal. The illegal timber trade is estimated to be between $10 – $30 billion annually, with India as the third-largest destination for illegally logged wood.

Eliminating cross-border smuggling and destruction of natural assets
Not all of this trade is legal. The illegal timber trade is estimated to be between $10 – $30 billion annually, with India as the third-largest destination for illegally logged wood.

By — Ranjit Barthakur

While the climate crisis is gaining sustained global attention, the world is also facing a growing biodiversity crisis: the increasing result of a global economy that causes habitat loss and threatens fragile species. 30% of species today are threatened by international trade and demand for key commodities. Consumption patterns in G7 countries drive an average loss of 4 trees per person annually. Countries like India and China, which show a rise in green cover within their countries, have ever growing deforestation footprints in their imports. 

Not all of this trade is legal. The illegal timber trade is estimated to be between $10 – $30 billion annually, with India as the third-largest destination for illegally logged wood. Within India, this illicit trade has a few hotspots, with one of them being concentrated in the Indian Eastern Himalayan region: a biodiversity rich region with plenty of porous borders into nearby countries. India is the second largest destination for banned Burma teak wood, with much of it entering through the North East – i.e. the Indian Eastern Himalayan region. Meanwhile, timber logged in Bhutan finds its way across the border to sawmills in Assam. Even within the region, timber finds its way across states to sawmills, becoming one of the big contributing factors to forest loss and degradation in the region: as per the FSI 2021 report, the North East is the only region in India facing net deforestation. 

Finding a solution

Effectively mapping natural forest ecosystems and their health is the first step in creating effective strategies for their governance and management. Effective governance and management of forest ecosystems also has broader benefits for rural and indigenous communities who are largely employed in nature dependent occupations – 60% of India’s economy is nature dependent, as per analysis by PWC and the World Economic Forum. 

Within the regional capacity of the Eastern Himalayas, remote-sensing GPS based aerial technology can play a key role in monitoring deforestation in remote, hard to access areas. Although satellite imagery can be flawed, it can help to identify large tracts of forests cleared for illicit activities. But the technology as it exists has its limits. While existing open source information sources like Global Forest Watch can identify forest loss, its layers are less capable at identifying natural, biodiverse forests being replaced by monoculture timber plantations. Neither can pinpoint the exact causes behind deforestation. The Environmental Investigation Agency’s Global Environmental Crime Tracker maps verifiable instances of environmental crime around the world, but by definition, requires crimes to be reported in order to be tracked. 

Building new technology & better governance

Creating a full picture of the on-ground realities of forests & deforestation means innovatively combining multiple sources of data – remote sensing, but also radar, geolocation tracking, mobile data, digital measurements of resource use and ground intelligence in sensitive situations to create a holistic map of real time information that can be analyzed in depth by AI & ML software. This also means combining remote sensing data on illegal logging with remote sensing data on illegal structures (e.g. sawmills, or illegal mining infrastructure) and enforcement information on transport routes used by smugglers to map the flow of illegal businesses that contribute to deforestation in the region and finding a way to monitor the volume over time. 

Building such systems requires greater cooperation between governments across South Asia, especially of enforcement agencies. This greater cooperation needs to extend beyond the field and border areas to data-sharing and greater data transparency, including open source repositories to encourage all stakeholders in the region to participate in the monitoring process. Capacity building and investment is needed to ensure government enforcement agencies can both access and deploy these technologies effectively. 

There needs to be greater regulatory pressures for private firms to initiate actions whether through ESG based government policy regulations, climate regulations or through internal corporate policies and using technology to measure business impacts on nature. ESG regulations that reward firms for positive impacts on the environment, combined with transparent and accountable tracking systems for mapping negative impacts through the supply chain – e.g. using systems like TRASE – can be instrumental in encouraging businesses to transform their practices to not just minimize impacts on natural ecosystems, but restore them. 

Critically, the mindset that posits ecology and economy at odds with each other has to change. The last decade has seen an explosion of investment in green energy systems, which are now cheaper than traditional energy infrastructure. In this post-Glasgow Climate Pact world, where ecosystems – especially forest ecosystems – are explicitly recognized as a key tool in the climate fight, similar investment interest in forests are bound to follow. India is currently a climate tech investment hub, but could also be an investment hub for nature-based solutions with its rich diversity of ecosystems. Investments in our ecosystems are investments for our futures: we can’t not afford it. 

(The author is Founder, Balipara Foundation. The views expressed are the author’s own.)

Get live Share Market updates and latest India News and business news on Financial Express. Download Financial Express App for latest business news.

First published on: 18-04-2022 at 15:14 IST