Need to make conservation everybody’s business

Nilanjan Ghosh | 06 Nov 2015 08:51 AM
Last week, when I was lecturing management students of IIM Calcutta on a module in natural resource management in their optional course on CSR, a very common-sensical question came up: Why should businesses bother about biodiversity conservation? Does it affect their profitability? This is not merely the concern of some of the emerging bright minds of our next generation, but of many Indian businesses and policy-making. As such, a large component of policy making and businesses look at biological conservation as an “ethical”, “normative”, and a “value judgmental” concern.

That is precisely why even today, conservation is treated by a large component of the business as a “social responsibility”. So does the Ministries! Ministry of Environment and Forests, at one point, was hailed as an anti-developmental ministry causing problems for providing environmental clearance for many projects. Just as it started providing the clearances, it was started being hailed as “high performing” Ministry! Of course, this last sentence needs to be taken with a pinch of salt. But that does not negate the very fundamental question for businesses and the hoi polloi: Why should there be conservation?

Till a point in time, many big conservation NGOs felt that an ecological argument suffices to respond to this question. But in most cases, the ecological argument moved asymptotically with the human interface of the biological system. That is why the communications from the conservation NGOs have always been taken as something external to the fundamental human existence. Therefore, the societal approach is: as conscientious human beings, committed to value systems that teach us to respect life on earth, we should think of conservation! This implies that conservation is not thought of being the core of business.

A few decades ago, this was also the feeling in the developed world. But, the accrual of knowledge and scientific understanding at the interface of nature, economy, and society ever since the 80s and 90s started changing this perception in the developed world. The extensive development of science in this domain also made us understand that there is bidirectional causality between ecosystem and the economy. Ever since the Club of Rome’s prediction of “apocalypse” in their The Limits to Growth thesis, the human response to the “approaching doomsday” has been characterized by extensive research, gradual knowledge accrual through global assessments, and conventions.

The Earth Summit of 1992 adopted the Brundtland Commission Report’s definition of “sustainable development”,and opened the Convention of Biological Diversity (CBD) for signature. The CBD became effective from December 1993.

With CBD, for the first time, the framework of international law recognised conservation of biological diversity as an integral part of the development process. On the scientific front, the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (MA) of 2005 enhanced human understanding of the fact that the ecosystem functions in its own inimitable ways to provide ecosystem services (benefits) to the human society in the form of provisioning services (e.g., food, raw materials, genetic resources, water, minerals, medicinal resources, energy, etc), regulating services (e.g., carbon sequestration, climate regulation, pest and disease control, etc), cultural services (tourism, religion, etc), and above all, supporting services that are necessary for production of all other ecosystem services (e.g. nutrient recycling, gene-pool protection, primary production, soil formation, etc).

The proper delineation of “ecosystem services” helped in understanding the direct linkage between human society and biodiversity:for every bit of existence of human society, there is a critical need for the biodiversity as a “stock” to exist, to ensure the “flow” of these ecosystem services. Recent scientific assessments at this interactive interface like The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity (TEEB), published in 2010,recognised that these ecosystem services are “GDP of the poor”, as the poor’s incomes and survival are dependent on the ecosystem.

While recognising the importance of food-chain in the context of the ecological balance so as to ensure the integrity of the ecosystem structure and functions in order to ensure the flow of ecosystem services, conservation goals become important. For businesses to survive, the natural resources are needed.For sustainable management of the natural resources like forests, wetlands, rivers, etc. one needs to set the right conservation goals for flora and fauna, which through their natural functioning, support and sustain these resources, and provide ecosystem services. Businesses therefore inextricably depend on biodiversity through a well-defined supply-chain, whose recognition is obscure in the public domain, especially in India and the developing world.

The problem with conservation NGOs and MoEF in India has, so far, been with the communication component of this inextricable linkage. While it is the MoEF’s mandate to devise policies for conservation, and the conservation NGOs’ mandate to work for conservation goals, somehow there is a gap in planting the idea in the minds of business and hoi polloi that conservation is everybody’s business. Why doesn’t conservation feature in the priority list of Ministries of Finance, Commerce or Agriculture? Similar is the case with businesses! Despite the fact that it is fashionable for businesses these days to come up with Sustainability Reports, do they really feel that it is their bottom-line which is dependent on the conservation goals? This is where the communication has gone wrong for NGOs and the so-called “star-performer” MoEF. As such, from the age-old ecological messages of conservation, the communication has to change to “Conservation for Development” for the hoi polloi and the businesses to really think that conservation is core of their business.

Let me now reiterate the question that was posed to me by the bright new generation students of IIM Calcutta on “why conservation?”.  My response is simple: “You need the tiger to thrive in your business”.


(The writer is Senior Fellow, Observer Research Foundation, Kolkata and Senior Economic Advisor at WWF-India. Email:

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