World Bank Vs. Sea Turtles – Trauma In Tamil Nadu
April 2008: The proposed port in Dhamra, the Sethu-Samudram Ship Canal Project in the Gulf of Mannar, unsustainable fishing practices and ocean pollution – the cup of woes for endangered olive ridley sea turtles has already been overflowing. Now adding to their troubles is the large-scale planting of Casuarinas along prime nesting beaches on the Tamil Nadu coast.
Since ancient times, the wide, sandy beaches of Tamil Nadu have been used for nesting by olive ridley sea turtles Lepidochelys olivacea. In the nesting season (December to March), the coast sees a density of about 10 nests per kilometre. The turtles prefer to nest well away from the high tide line, on the open beaches, where there is plenty of warmth during the day and a lesser chance of inundation of their eggs. Their simple needs are being undermined by one deft stroke.
After the tsunami in December 2004, the World Bank funded an Emergency Tsunami Reconstruction Project (ETRP) in Tamil Nadu. One of the steps initiated was the raising of ‘bio-shield’ shelterbeds on beaches by planting the exotic, fast-growing Casuarina. The implementation agency was the Tamil Nadu Forest Department (TNFD). The Casuarina plantations are now in place along more than 400 km. of the coastline and in many places, right up to the high tide line.
The decision to plant Casuarina along the coast came in spite of a negative assessment of the impact of shelterbelts on the high tide line by the M.S. Swaminathan Research Foundation (MSSRF). Interestingly, the assessment was also supported by the Tamil Nadu Forest Department. The study stated that “starting of Casuarina plantations right from the high tide line is one of the serious concerns relating to shelterbelt plantation along the coastal areas.” The study specifically mentioned that there could be serious implications for coastal ecology and wildlife such as sea turtles. It had recommended that shelterbelt plantations be started at least 50 to 75 m. away from the high tide line. However, the forest department chose to flout the very recommendations it had supported.
The plantations affect not only turtles but also the many species of crabs that live in different vertical zones near the high tide line. They also have an impact on the coastal ecology. The littoral current that runs parallel to the shoreline, along with wind-induced waves, removes sand from one area and deposits it in another. Due to their sand-binding property, shelterbelt plantations at the high tide line reduce or even stop the supply of sand to the littoral current. To compensate for this, large amounts of sand are removed from elsewhere by the littoral current, which causes sand erosion in those areas.
The Casuarina plantations are meant to protect fishing communities and others living on the coast in the event of tsunamis or cyclones. According to the Students Sea Turtle Conservation Network (SSTCN), while vast stretches of empty beaches have been needlessly planted with Casuarina, fishing hamlets like Devaniri Kuppam, south of Chennai, that really need some protection, are devoid of shelterbelts. Most fishing communities, in fact, feel that no trees should be planted on the beachfront as it hampers their activities.
The forest department is in charge of protecting the olive ridley, a Schedule I species. It is believed that the forest department did not realise until it was too late that the actual acreage available for planting was overestimated. Faced with an impossible target, the field officers planted wherever they could. In December 2007, the Chief Wildlife Warden ordered an inspection but no further action has been initiated. According to sources, the TNFD lacks the resources to undo the project now that it has been completed. In response to a strong letter from the SSTCN, representatives from World Bank’s Delhi office met up with coordinators to discuss and understand the problem. However, no concrete action has been taken so far.
Projects such as these, however, raise important questions that must be asked of funding agencies such as the World Bank. How was the Casuarina project approved without any full-scale ecological impact assessment and how were plantations permitted up to the high tide line despite a rapid assessment that this would be damaging to the local ecology? Why weren’t independent experts consulted? Shouldn’t public hearings have been a part of the process?
The project holds serious repercussions for the Eastern coast, including severe erosion that will affect wildlife, fishing communities, harbours, ports and beach resorts. The World Bank must use its resources to ensure that all Casuarina plantations at least up to 50 m. from the high-tide line are removed immediately. A committee that includes credible non-governmental organisations must be appointed to oversee that this is carried out efficiently. Unless these steps are taken, the olive ridley’s annual sojourn to Tamil Nadu’s coast will be lost in the annals of time.
With inputs from the Students’ Sea Turtle Conservation Network.
Sanctuary readers can protest against the World Bank project by asking that:
1. Funding be provided so that all Casuarina plantations up to 50 m. from the high tide line are removed immediately.
2. All such shelterbelt projects should be thoroughly assessed before receiving funding and any implementation must be carefully monitored.
Robert B. Zoellick,
President and Chief Executive,
The World Bank,
1818 H Street, NW,
Washington, DC 20433, USA.
World Bank, Delhi representative:
Dr. Kalaignar M. Karunanidhi
Honourable Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu
Chief Minister’s Office Secretariat
Chennai 600 009. India.