The magnificent and majestic but endangered species – Tigers (Panthera tigris) had a significant improvement in their population in last 10 years in India. After dwindling to a low of 1,411 in 2006, latest tiger census of 2014 estimates tiger population in India to be around 2,226, thanks to the massive efforts taken by governmental agencies, wildlife conservationists, biologists, NGOs, activists and enthusiasts. However, all these stupendous work may go down the drain if Rio Tinto’s plan to start diamond mining in India’s Bunder region materializes.
Rio Tinto’s proposed Bunder diamond mining project is located in Chhatarpur forests in Central India’s Madhya Pradesh (M.P.) state and will be spread over 971.595 hectares of protected forest area. Protected Areas (PA) are demarcated and guarded for purposes of wildlife and nature conservation, animal movements, indigenous communities conservation etc. and are categorized into Tiger Reserves, National Parks, Wildlife Sanctuaries etc. Entry and activities in such PA are strictly restricted and monitored by the forest authorities. According to Forest Survey of India, as on 9th Feb 2016 only 4.88 % of geographical area of India was PA.
Bunder diamond mining project is located very close to the Panna Tiger Reserve and Navardehi Wildlife Sanctuary. These protected forests are home to various species of animals, most of whom are endangered, including tigers, leopards, sloth bears, vultures, blue bulls, rusty spotted cats, crocodiles, porcupines, deers etc. In addition, more than 300 species of birds habitat the area. Panna Tiger Reserve had a very tumultuous history when in 2009 the forest was declared as devoid of all its erstwhile tigers. A major tiger reintroduction program, prepared with scientific inputs from Wildlife Institute of India (WII) was implemented and 2 tigresses from Bhadhavgarh National Park and Kanha National Park were translocated. With dedicated efforts, Panna Tiger Reserve had a turnaround story with a tigress (T6) giving birth to 3 cubs in Panna Tiger Reserve in March last year and according to Field Director RS Murthy,
the tiger population of Panna Tiger Reserve in 2015 stood at 26.
Similarly, Navardehi Wildlife Sanctuary also has a rich biodiversity.
The location where Bunder diamond mining is proposed is an important tiger corridor. M.P. government in its report to India’s Central government had confirmed that “… It is also indicated that the area is used by tigers as their migratory corridor.” However, Rio Tinto spokeperson, according to a news article, mentioned “… there have been no known tiger sightings in the last seven years in and around the applied lease area.” This however could not be confirmed. Nevertheless, what Rio Tinto fails to understand is tigers are not predictable animals, they require vast expanse of land to survive and they also roam and migrate great distances – hundreds of kilometers.
In 2013, the celebrated tiger ‘Jai’ travelled 130 km from Nagzira Wildlife Sanctuary to reach Umred-Karhandla Wildlife Sanctuary. Last year, a young tigress travelled around 150 km from Bor Tiger Reserve to Pohra-Malkhed reserve forest. In February 2016, a tiger from the famous Tadoba-Andhari Tiger Reserve (TATR) travelled more than 140 km to reach Navegaon-Nagzira Tiger Reserve (NNTR). Several similar tiger migrations occur frequently and to enable that, tigers need migratory corridors. Cutting off forest area near to national parks, sanctuaries or tiger reserves poses a great threat to tigers’ survival.
Besides, Bunder diamond mining project plans to cut an astonishing 492,000 trees.
With loss of green cover of almost half a million trees, many animal species will be forced to displace. Moreover, because of crucial species of tree felling, water scarcity in the surrounding areas will further aggravate as pointed out by London-based Nostromo Research in its 2013 report. Apart from land and green cover, all animal species require ample water to survive.
The Nostromo Research report also challenged the professed developmental works carried out by Rio Tinto in Bunder region, highlighting the gaps in educational initiatives, worker rights policies and local job creation initiatives. Many villages and wildlife department have opposed the project, sighting tiger spotting at the zone. At least 1 village in Bunder area has rejected the proposal to mine their traditional forestlands falling under the Forest Rights Act.
Bunder diamond mining project will be an open cast mine, and like any diamond mine, will put an enormous burden on the area’s flora and fauna and will have a huge detrimental impact on the environment. While home of 26 tigers gets destroyed, Rio Tinto claims that the project will catapult India to Top 10 diamond producers in the world. Rio Tinto itself exited from its Zimbabwe diamond business last year by selling its Murowa diamond mine. Its other 2 mines – Argyle in Australia and Diavik in Canada have only 7 years of life left. With its 1 mine sold, 2 getting exhausted in less than a decade, Bunder project, if materialized, will be the only diamond project left in Rio Tinto’s portfolio. From a company who is gradually getting out of the game, claims about taking a country, whose diamond mining is virtually non-existent, to the top league seems clearly misleading.
Bunder diamond mining project is currently pending clearance with India’s Forest Advisory Committee (FAC), which is contemplating to award the final clearance. If cleared, the Environment Ministry generally does not reject such recommendations.
Recently when a diamond mine in South Africa hit upon an ancient archaeological site, the government swiftly took action and halted mining. When such examples are presented, it seems completely absurd that the Indian government is even considering the Bunder diamond project, which will uproot a live, dense and valuable protected forest area.
What needs to be seen is whether the Indian government will act prudently considering its own extensive efforts to save tigers during the past decade, or whether Rio Tinto will get to destroy a rich wildlife habitat, home to at least 26 big cats and oppress tigers too.