Conserving our Natural Capital:
The Underlying Principle across the SDGs

The SDGs process was seeded at the Rio+20 Conference held in 2012, where the need to focus global attention and effort on priority areas for achievement of sustainable development through a new set of goals for succeeding the MDGs was widely recognised. In moving from the MDGs to the SDGs, the most major shift in the scope of issues being covered has been the emphasis on concerns of environmental sustainability and equity in development. The ‘Future We Want’ outcome document of Rio+20 clearly underlined the connection between ecosystem sustenance and human wellbeing. The MDGs on the other hand may be said to have short-changed the concerns of environmental sustainability with only a standalone goal that was grossly inadequate when seen in the context of the critical role of environmental sustainability in ensuring food security, sustaining livelihoods and eradicating poverty. Perhaps the emergence and acknowledgement of climate change as one of the most critical challenges of the 21st century and its increasingly evident impacts over the last decade, as manifested in rising global temperatures, increasing frequency and intensity of natural disasters, rising sea levels and their downstream consequences such as loss of habitat and livelihoods, intensifying water stress, compromised agricultural outputs etc. has been the most important catalyst in delivering this transition in policy intentions across the globe. Another key driver for this transition has been the greatly enhanced understanding of the economic value of ecosystems as established by pioneering studies such as the TEEB (The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity) Report that have sensitised policy makers to the multiple benefits of conserving ecosystems in economic terms that they are more attuned to.

The MDGs dialogue failed to accord due importance to biodiversity conservation, with the development community often understanding biodiversity as merely a proxy indicator for environmental sustainability. However today, it is widely recognised that biodiversity underpins ecosystem functioning and the provisioning of ecosystem services are necessary for wellbeing and prosperity of current and future generations. It not only builds social and ecological resilience1 but forms the very foundation for sustainable development. This is especially true in the case of poor and indigenous people. In a country like India, where close to 275 million people directly depend upon the ecosystem for their subsistence and livelihoods, biodiversity conservation and sustainable management of natural resources gets inherently linked to people’s right to secure livelihoods and social safety nets. Simply put, biodiversity conservation strategies represent effective and sustainable poverty reduction strategies with multiple co-benefits.

The two goals directly related to ecosystems and biodiversity conservation as proposed by the Open Working Groups (OWG) are as follows:

Goal 14: Conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources for sustainable development.

Goal 15: Protect, restore and promote sustainable use of terrestrial ecosystems, sustainably manage forests, combat desertification, halt and reverse land degradation and halt biodiversity loss.

The proposed Goals 14 and 15 are critically important for India. The country has an extensive coastline of over 7000 kilometres along which large parts of the population are dependent on fisheries for their livelihoods and sustenance but many of whom are shifting to unsustainable fishing practices that are leading to decline in fish stocks and irreversible damage to marine ecosystems. Sustainable forest management too is of critical importance, not only because of the extensive range of ecosystem services forests provide but also as there are significant populations of forest dwelling tribes and other communities that are not only dependent on forests for their sustenance and livelihoods but also play critical role in maintaining the health of the forests.

India is one of the 12 mega biodiversity countries in the world and has four of the 34 biodiversity hotspots hosting a rich diversity of ecosystems and endemic species. Biodiversity loss is most significantly impacted by land-use change decisions. Forests across India are being threatened by increasing development pressures. Land degradation (estimated at 20% of the land area) has been the foremost contributor to the decline in agricultural yields, increase in wastelands and desertification. Unsustainable natural resource use patterns have left soils depleted and created deep distress in the agricultural sector, the criticality of which in ensuring food and livelihood security for a majority of the country’s population cannot be over-estimated.

One of the major criticisms of the MDGs has been that the goals and targets were standalone in design and the inter-linkages between them had not been addressed leading to trade-offs where gains in one goal area were negated by losses in another in the overall equation of triple bottom line development. It is crucial to ensure that efforts to achieve human wellbeing and prosperity do not become self-defeating by violating the limits of the environmental resource base. The SDGs process has been alive to this risk and has integrated the theme of environmental sustainability across multiple goal areas based on identified synergies whereby advances in one goal area will build the foundation for improvement in another. For example, the SDGs proposed for water and sanitation has targets for maintaining and restoring ecosystems to provide water services. The goals on hunger and poverty eradication identifies sustainable agriculture as a key strategy for food and livelihood security and the goal on sustainable production and consumption highlights the role of sustainable management of natural resources. However, many of the other goals too have direct and indirect linkages with environmental sustainability but these have not found explicit mention in the goal statement. These linkages exist in both patterns - where ecological conservation generates the foundation for progress on economic and social parameters and conversely where economic and social pressures imperil ecological sustainability. These patterns are not necessarily mutually exclusive, but form a delicate balance with sustainable use and management acting as the fulcrum. Improved understanding of these linkages and ecological limits will allow us to design and adopt policies that help maintain this balance by staying within the ecological limits. It would be up to and in the interest of national governments to further explore these inter-linkages in their specific context and address the same in their policies targeted at the achievement of these goals. An analysis of the inter-linkages between goals reveal that achieving the social and economic progress in some SDGs requires the simultaneous investment in natural capital envisaged in others. Pursuit of the former and delaying action on the latter will not work2.

In gearing up for the SDGs challenge, it is pertinent to review India’s performance against MDG 7 on environmental sustainability. Although India managed to slightly increase its aggregate forest cover between 1990-2013, this statistic conceals the fact that there were reverses in many states and that the nature of forests shifted from multi-product and multi-layer to timber oriented, limiting gathering of non-timber forest products by forest dependent communities3. Further, progress in granting community rights under the Forest Rights Act has been minimal. These point to a lack of appreciation for biodiversity, the ecosystem services it generates and its links for sustaining the livelihoods of the rural poor in the country’s afforestation and forest management policies. The country has however made major progress in biodiversity conservation and is expected to meet the MDG biodiversity targets. It may however be pertinent to mention that these statistics are not uncontested by independent experts who argue that a broadening of the definition of what constitutes a forest has resulted in the reported overall increase in forest cover while concealing the loss of ecologically rich natural forests. Similarly, it is claimed that the improvement in biodiversity conservation is largely inferred from the proxy indicator of the increase in protected area coverage without taking into account the lapses in protected area management and the fact that significant biodiversity lies outside the protected area network where threats to survival have mostly increased4.

It is time for countries to start defining the means and pathways for achieving the SDGs, and most importantly, committing the resources required for it. While the goals have largely acknowledged the inter-linkages between sectoral priorities, the same understanding will have to guide policy formulation at the national level if trade-offs are to be avoided and synergies are to be promoted. It will be necessary to reform the traditional approach of different ministries and departments working in a siloed manner for achieving their specific mandate and will instead require much greater collaboration in both policy and implementation. Moreover, this understanding of the complementarities will have to percolate down to the grassroots level implementer. Considerable investment in capacity building of stakeholders will have to be made for this. It will also be important to remember that ecosystems do not recognise political boundaries and thus states will have to collaborate in the management of shared ecosystems for coherence in planning and action that respect the natural flows of material, energy and life through these ecosystems. Stronger data collection and management systems will also have to be established for reliable and efficient tracking of progress towards achievement of the targets. Education for sustainable development, through formal, non-formal and mass communication channels, will also need to be promoted for sustainability considerations to be mainstreamed in public consciousness such that community action is complementary with the SDG prerogatives. Change in people’s perceptions and knowledge on sustainability issues are bound to also influence political entities to tune their manifestos along more sustainable lines resulting in an enabling environment where efforts of multiple stakeholders at multiple levels for sustainable development are not just additive but integrative.  q

Mayukh Hajra
and Mandira Thakur

2 Policy Coherence of The Sustainable Development Goals (UNEP, 2015)
3 the_MDGs_small_web.pdf
4 Development and Ecological Sustainability in India (2013)

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