World Bank vs. Tigers in India

Green mining threatens precious habitat

By Bittu Sahgal, editor of Sanctuary Asia, India's largest circulation wildlife magazine and Daphne Wysham, research fellow of the Washington-based Institute for Policy Studies.

While the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) met in Washington behind closed doors and police barricaded this week, citizen protesters pressed environmental social justice priorities from without. World Bank and IMF officials assured the public they have these issues at heart in their internal decision-making. But skeptics counter that their lack of transparency is symptomatic of a deeper top-down elitism that promotes unsustainable development for the well to do at the cost of environmental destruction and social upheaval for the poorest.

Who is right? Who is in a position to judge? Do ordinary citizens even have a legitimate role in policing international financial institutions? U.S. taxpayers, who contribute the largest portion of World Bank funds, deserve concrete information for themselves. So here is one illustrative case study: a World Bank coal mining expansion scheme in India.

U.S. companies see a hot prospective market in India, where $250 billion will be spent on power-generating equipment in coming years. Coal is India's cheapens and most abundant power source, and until recently India's coal sector was the top recipient of World Bank development dollars.

The World Bank justifies expended coal mining in India as not only good for the economy but also for then environment. Some planned mines it is backing are even touted as "environmental showcases." But these would-be "green" mines are sited in ultrasensitive habitats India's tigers and other endangered wildlife can't live without.

In the Indian stats of Bihar, Grissa, Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra, some 400 new open-cast coal mines are planned. The World Bank in collaboration with Coal India, and with the tactic acceptance of the Indian Ministry of Environment and Forests (MOEF), is financing 25 such mines in ecologically sensitive areas as models of what it calls "good environmental practice." But the label is Orwellian; environmental devastation in the vicinity of open cast coal mines is total.

These regions of India contain many of the last remaining wild tigers on Earth, as well as other endangered species including the Asiatic elephant. Its forests contain areas identified by the World Wildlife Fund and the Wildlife Conservation Society as Level One Tiger Conservation Unit warranting the highest level of environmental protection. The forests are unique because they are still connected by fragile but working corridors that allow large mammals the range they need. The planned mines will cut off the corridors, reducing the forests to islands surrounded by human activity. Stranded tiger populations inside these "forest islands" become inbred and die out.

After initially calling the mine sites "degraded" forest unimportant to wildlife, the World Bank was joined by MOEF in eventually admitting the vital function of the corridors and that the matter "merited serious consideration." It promised local groups that it would send experts to assess the situation, but never followed through. The Environmental Impact Assessments prepared by the World Bank and the MOEF gloss over the impact of the mines on the corridors and the wildlife they host.

Nor do they official assessments include an analysis of the atmospheric impact of mining and burning more coal, impacts whose brunt is inevitably borne by developing countries as climate change accelerates. Coal is the dirtiest and more carbon-intensive of fossil fuels, releasing more greenhouse gases into the earth's atmosphere than any other source. The World Bank admits the poorest will suffer the most in a warming world.

The mines' impacts on local residents have also gone unheeded. The project sites are home to tribal communities and Neolithic art now marked for eradication. To make way for the mines, entire villages have been forcibly evicted and resettled under conditions that ensure their pauperization. Those who do benefit from the mines will do so temporarily. When the coal and the money run out, vast areas of the region will be laid waste, devoid of the indigenous communities and wildlife, and all too soon, the short-lived mining economy. Coal expansion also effectively preempts development of affordable, clean, renewable forms of energy which are desperately needed and would be of sustainable economic benefit to the region.

During his March trip to India, President Clinton visited Ranthambhore Tiger Reserve where he discussed the threats to the tiger's survival and spotted two tigers in the wild. In subsequent speeches he called on business leaders to help preserve the tiger populations as part of India's heritage. But it is U.S. eagerness for Indian economic development which encourages such perverse effects as extinguishing India's tigers and pre-empting sustainable energy development.

Whether Mr. Clinton's enthusiasm for the tiger or development bankers' professed environmentalism are sincere or not is known only to themselves. But the actual track records of the institutions involved suggest a global pattern of perverse effects, like the ones that loom in India.

Nothing about globalization is simple, but it doesn't take a policy sophisticate like Mr. Clinton or World Bank President James Wolfensohn to know that devastating forests, extinguishing wildlife and dislocating and denying sustainable livelihoods to local populations are bad things. More than one million Indian children who signed an immense "Save the Tiger" scroll know it, and have a perfect right to demand the World Bank adopt an environmentally and socially responsible energy investment strategy in India. If they can do it, U.S. taxpayers can do it, too, and hopefully, make world leaders and development bankers listen.

© 2000 News World Communications, Inc.

Reprinted with permission of The Washington Times


Photo, World Bank-sponsored mining projects in India could destroy thousands of acres of essential wildlife habitat and wipe out endangered species such as tigers, a symbol of India's robust ecological heritage.  This tiger was photographed in Kanha National park in Madhya Pradesh in Central India. (Vivek R. Sinha/Sanctuary Photo Library)