Sharing nature's riches

Change language
Article Published 27 Jun 2011 Last modified 21 Mar 2023
8 min read
Photo: © EEA/ John McConnico
This page was archived on 17 Mar 2023 with reason: Content is outdated
Of the 8.2 billion tonnes of materials consumed in EU-27 Member States in 2007, minerals accounted for 52 %, fossil fuels for 23 %, biomass for 21 % and metals for 4 % (SOER 2010)

Thousands of kilometres from Europe in the state of Orissa nestled up against the Bay of Bengal, trucks trundle past in their thousands. This is east India, the legendary spring of India's mineral wealth and a major source of materials for global industrial growth in the past. The mineral wealth in this part of India is still among the most valuable in the world and its industrial revolution may only be starting.

The tribal people living in the forest here have a lot to lose and little to gain. The forest tribes are not well protected — their rights have never been set down or properly recognised. In a small tribal village deep in the forests covering the district of Gajapati, married couple Gangi Bhuyan and her husband Sukru Bhuyan live with their young family in and around the forest.

For about five months of the year they feed their family from the less than half acre plot of land they cultivate on the verge of the forest that surrounds Raibada, their village. During this time they also harvest vegetables, seeds, fruit, medicine and building materials (such as grass) from the forest. For a further four months, this is their main supply of food. Without the forest they would starve. For the remaining three months they are forced to migrate to large urban areas such as Bangalore or Mumbai where they work as labourers.

Wealth below the ground — poverty above it

Orissa, located in peninsular east India on the Bay of Bengal, is richly endowed with a variety of minerals. Indeed the state is regarded as one of the most resource-rich states in the country. In terms of quality, the minerals found in Orissa are considered among the best in the world.

With its abundance of largely unexplored reserves of coal, iron ore, bauxite, chromite, limestone, dolomite, manganese, granite, tin, nickel, vanadium and gemstones, the state is experiencing a huge leap in industrialisation. For a few minerals Orissa also constitutes a significant share of world reserves, not just in terms of quantity but also quality. That is why international companies are queuing up to gain access.

Some of the minerals are used in India but a sizeable amount go elsewhere: China, Japan, South Africa, Russia, Korea, Korea, Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, Ukraine, Nepal, USA and of course, the European Union (Ota, A.B., 2006).

Fault lines of our global world

Orissa, with its combination of wealth in the ground and poverty above it, illustrates several fault lines of our global world. Here inequality, the relentless drive for natural resources and forced migrations come together. While mining in Orissa does bring economic benefits to the area, these returns are not shared equally. For the forest tribes the cost is high because their homes are in jeopardy as mining companies increasingly seek to gain access to their land.

Sixty per cent of Orissa's tribal populations live on land below which mineral wealth is buried. Traditionally, however, they have no record of rights over this land. Displacement of tribal people to enable economic development projects, including mining activities, has happened for some time. But the scale of the displacement has changed in recent decades, with economic developments since 1991 increasing the number and spread of displacements (Ota, A.B., 2006).

Growing impacts of Europe's resource use

In Europe, we rely heavily on natural resources to fuel our economic development and wealth. Our use of resources now exceeds local availability and we increasingly depend on resources from elsewhere in the world.

In fact more than 20 % of the raw materials we use in Europe are imported. And we use significantly more raw materials indirectly as we also import finished goods made elsewhere.

Our reliance on imports is particularly serious with regard to fuels and mining products. But Europe is also a net importer of fodder and cereals for European meat and dairy production. And more than half of EU fish supplies are imported; having depleted our own fish stocks, we are now doing the same elsewhere.

The environmental pressures related to extracting resources and producing traded goods — such as the waste generated, or water and energy used — affect the countries of origin. The resource impacts can be significant — in the case of computers or mobile phones they may be on a scale several orders of magnitude greater than the product itself. Yet, despite their importance, such pressures are seldom reflected in prices or other signals that guide consumer decision-making.

Another example of the natural resources embedded in traded products is the water required in growing regions for many exported food and fibre products. Such production results in an indirect and often implicit export of water resources. For example, 84 % of the EU's cotton-related water use lies outside the EU, mostly in water-scarce regions with intensive irrigation.

Read more and find a full list of references in the SOER 2010:

Where nature's benefits flow

Natural resource use links to a range of environmental and socio-economic issues. The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity (TEEB process) — a major analysis of the global economic significance of biodiversity — sheds light on the links between biodiversity loss and poverty.

TEEB researchers sought to identify the immediate beneficiaries of many of the services of ecosystems and biodiversity. 'The answer', writes Pavan Sukhdev, Head of the UNEP Green Economy Initiative, 'is that it is mostly the poor. The livelihoods most affected are subsistence farming, animal husbandry, fishing and informal forestry — most of the world's poor are dependent on them (EC, 2008).

The impact of the loss of biodiversity in India also has serious implications for women as it severely affects their role as forest gatherers. Studies in the tribal regions of Orissa and Chattisgarh, have recorded how deforestation has resulted in loss of livelihoods, in women having to walk four times the distance to collect forest produce and in their inability to access medicinal herbs which have been depleted. This loss reduces income, increases drudgery and affects physical health. There is also evidence to show that the relative status of women within the family is higher in well-forested villages, where their contribution to the household income is greater than in villages that lack natural resources (Sarojini Thakur, 2008).

In Europe, we are often insulated from the direct impacts of environmental degradation — at least in the short term. But for poor people directly reliant on the environment for food and shelter, the effects can be severe. The weakest in society are often bear the greatest burden from the destruction of natural systems, while deriving few, if any, of the benefits.

Annual natural capital losses are typically estimated at an unimpressive few percentage points of GDP. If, however, we re-express these in human terms, based on the principle of equity and our knowledge of where nature's benefits flow — i.e. to the poor — then the argument for reducing such losses gains considerable strength.

This point applies around the globe. It is about the right of the world's poor to livelihood flows from nature which comprise half of their welfare or more, and which they would find it impossible to replace (EC, 2008).

ForestNatural capital and ecosystem services

The concepts of 'natural capital' and 'ecosystem services' are at the heart of discussions about humankind's relationship with the environment. To understand them, it's useful to consider what natural systems actually do for us.

Take forests, for example. Forests can provide all sorts of food: fruit, honey, mushrooms, meat and so on. If properly managed, they can also deliver a sustainable flow of resources such as wood to the economy. But forests do a lot more too. For example, trees and vegetation help ensure a healthy climate locally and globally by absorbing pollutants and greenhouse gases. Forest soils decompose wastes and purify water. And people often travel far to enjoy the beauty and tranquillity of forests, or to engage in pastimes such as hunting.

All of these services — providing food and fibre, regulating the climate and so on — are valuable. We would pay a lot for machines that could do the same thing. For that reason, we should think of ecosystems as a form of capital, which provides services to the owner but often also to other people nearby and far off (as in the case of climate regulation). Crucially, we need to maintain our natural capital — not overexploiting the ecosystem and not over-polluting — if it is to continue providing these hugely valuable services.

The value of biodiversity in our forests

The primary reason for losing forest biodiversity is that its value is not well understood. For example the decision to convert one hectare of forest rich in biodiversity for agriculture or construction is usually based on the immediate benefits. Little attention is paid to the many non-measurable ecological services provided by these ecosystems.

Medicine in India's forests

In addition to rich flora and fauna, India also has one of the world's richest medicinal plant heritages. As many as 8 000 species of plants are regularly used as medicine by the people of India with 90–95 % coming from forests. Less than 2 000 of these plants are officially documented in the Indian system of medicine. Information on the rest is undocumented and transmitted by word of mouth and as traditional knowledge. Only 49 species are used in modern medicine.

Biodiversity is a form of insurance against human disease — a bank of knowledge holding potential cures for diseases such as cancer or AIDS. For example, the bark of the cinchona tree contains a drug used to fight malaria. Critically, we are often ignorant of society's loss when a species becomes extinct.

This section is based on the report Green accounting for Indian states project: the value of biodiversity in India's forests (Gundimeda et al., 2006)

The power to stay still

Globalisation is often characterised by movement — of people, goods, wealth and knowledge, for example. Standing still or staying put is not generally counted among the human rights we prioritise. But the forest people of Orissa and many others often crave just that: to be able to stay where they are, where they have food and shelter and contacts with their family and tribal relations. Where generations have felt safe and secure.

Indeed, as a tide of peoples moves towards cities and urban areas we should be thinking about empowering people to stay where they are.