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First published in Sanctuary Asia,
Conservation scientists Nandini Velho and Umesh Srinivasan pen an open letter to India's Forest Advisory Committee (FAC). The FAC is slated to deliberate on 12 agenda items, including the diversion of 1165.56 ha of prime forest in Arunachal Pradesh for the Etalin Hydro-Electric Project, in a virtual meeting on the morning of April 23, 2020.
Velho and Srinivasan put on record the large-scale, irreversible impacts of this project if forest clearance for it is approved. Their concerns have been mirrored by hundreds of nature lovers who have also called for the FAC meeting to be postponed until such a time that the meeting can take place in person.
The Director-General of Forests,
Chairperson, Forest Advisory Committee,
Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change,
Government of India.
April 23, 2020
Subject: Concerns about forest diversion from the Etalin Hydro-Electric Project (3097 MW)
We write to you as wildlife scientists, conservationists and concerned citizens about the potential diversion of highly biodiverse forest land in Arunachal Pradesh for the Etalin Hydro-Electric Project. As you are no doubt aware, Arunachal Pradesh has the highest biodiversity of any Indian state, and is a global hotspot for biodiversity. Even within Arunachal Pradesh, Dibang Valley is a particular example of high species richness and ecological value.
With your kind consideration, we would like to put on record our concerns to the Forest Advisory Committee for deliberation on File No. 8-20/2014-FC on the Etalin Hydro Electric Project (3097 MW) in Dibang Valley District of Arunachal Pradesh:
1. PRESENCE OF TIGERS IN THE COMMUNITY FORESTS OF DIBANG VALLEY
Studies in the Dibang Valley (including areas which will see impacts of the proposed hydro-project) show that community forests in the region are important habitats for Schedule I endangered species, including tigers. These studies have in fact been cited by a previous meeting of the Forest Advisory Committee (F. No. 8-20/2014-FC dated 28th February 2017). The fact sheet states that “A long term monitoring study on mammalian fauna in Dibang WLS has recorded presence of few tigers outside sanctuary” (52.3.iii in F. No. 8-20/2014-FC). This statement appears to be at odds with the results of a previous camera trap-based study that has found tigers to be widespread in Dibang Valley, both in Dibang WLS and in community forest. Under this study, 283 camera traps were placed throughout Dibang Valley, half in Dibang WLS, and half in community forest. Data obtained by these camera traps yielded photographs of 12 individual tigers, eight of which were found in community-managed lands outside Dibang WLS. The same study found tiger density in community forest to be 4.5 times as high as the density of tigers within parts of Dibang WLS. This research was in fact cited by the minutes of the FAC meeting dated 28th February 2017, based on which the FAC recommended “conducting multiple seasonal replicate studies on biodiversity assessment … as the current study (EIA) is completely inadequate in this regard” (31.vii in F. No. 8-20/2014-FC).
2. SAMPLING AND INFERENTIAL DISCREPANCIES
Second, to scientifically infer that tiger presence differed significantly within and outside Dibang WLS would require comparable sampling effort in protected area and community forest, both in terms of area covered and number of camera traps deployed. This, however, does not appear to be the case. Maps 6.5, 6.6 and 6.7 in WII’s report seem to show that sampling effort outside Dibang WLS was far less than the effort within it. Despite this, tigers were photographed in a large majority of the few camera traps placed outside the sanctuary in community forest. Indeed, and hearteningly, in November 2018, WII scientists published an article in the Journal of Threatened Taxa in which they recorded India’s “highest tigers” outside Dibang WLS in the community forests.
3. TIGER DISPERSAL IN THE DIBANG LANDSCAPE
The report goes on to say, “The linear distance measured for three nearest records (location) of tiger outside DWLS and between boundary of proposed project site ranged from 10.2 km to 14.00 km from north (till end of submergence)”. Even discounting the fact that community forests in Dibang Valley harbour a much higher density of tigers than within DWLS, these distances are very small for a tiger; individual tigers have been known to travel distances in excess of 400 km. Furthermore, the dispersal of young tigers in search of new territories is at least several-fold higher than on the order of tens of kilometres.
Glimpses of the Dibang valley landscape.
4. OTHER IMPORTANT SPECIES
Beside the tiger, neither the report published by the WII nor the one issued by the sub-committee that visited the project site between 10th and 14th February 2020, mentions published peer-reviewed studies showing that Dibang Valley (both the wildlife sanctuary and community forests) support outstandingly rich biological diversity. The most notable are the six different colour variations of the Asian golden cat (Schedule I) which are found throughout the district. Dibang Valley hosts the highest colour variation of any wild cat species in the world, making it a globally significant area both for conservation, and to study ecological adaptability and evolution. The FAC also noted in its minutes that “8 individual clouded leopards [were recorded] at various locations in Dibang Valley”. The clouded leopard is a Schedule I species, classified as vulnerable by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature.
5. CUMULATIVE IMPACTS
Finally, a critical issue is the cumulative impact of multiple hydropower projects on habitat of tiger and other wildlife, in particular the cumulative impacts of the two biggest projects - 3097 MW Etalin and 2880 MW Dibang Multipurpose project. The Dibang basin study approved by MoEFCC has no analysis of cumulative impacts on tiger habitat. The 2880 MW Dibang Multipurpose project was given final forest clearance last month in March 2020. Along with the Etalin project, this will result in the destruction of a major chunk of the Dibang Valley.
6. OTHER CONCERNS
The FAC, following its meeting on 28th February 2017, rejected the first EIA as “completely inadequate” (31.vii in F. No. 8-20/2014-FC), and recommended a multiple seasonal replicate study on biodiversity assessment spanning 2 years, to more comprehensively assess the environmental impact of the proposed project. This multi-season EIA, however, appears not to have been conducted, but instead converted into an “impact mitigation plan”, as reported by the Indian Express (19th December 2018). Further, there is no record in the factsheet (F. No. 8-20/2014-FC) of how the requirement of a fresh Environment Impact Assessment to decide the ecological viability of the project as mandated by the FAC was waived by conversion into a Wildlife Conservation Plan.
With your kind consideration, we would like to place these points on record for the committee to deliberate upon, such that large-scale irreversible impacts on the region’s biodiversity-rich primary forests can be avoided.
Umesh Srinivasan, MBBS, PhD
Indian Institute of Science
Nandini Velho, PhD
Earth Institute Fellow Alumna, Columbia University.