Ecology vs. EconomicsMarch 31, 16
It is always a good thing when one is really forced to think; and a decision or to be more exact, a dilemma, facing the Indian government has given me cause to do just that.
In December, The Economic Times wrote an article about Rio Tinto’s proposed $3 billion diamond project in the Chhatapur forests in the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh. According to a subsequent report on Quartz India, the nation’s forestry advisory committee – a statutory body with responsibility for environmental clearance – is currently deliberating whether to grant a mining license for Rio Tinto’s project.
If it is endorsed, estimates suggest that it will spread over nearly 1,000 hectares, and activists say that it could destroy a designated tiger corridor, which allows the big cat to move from one forest to another. It is also reputed that approximately 500,000 trees will need to be felled to make room for the project, possibly endangering other animal species and displacing native tribal communities. However, when there is a projected 34.2 million carat diamond deposit at stake, other financial factors will surely come into play.
Rio Tinto has already invested around $90 million in the project, and according to the Quartz interview a spokesperson said, “Bunder [the name of the region in Madhya Pradesh] is positive proof of India’s prospectivity and can showcase a new era of investment friendly governance.” The company also claims that by being allowed to mine in the area, India will become one of the world’s top 10 diamond producers – a significant rise from its current position.
This worries me, and I’ll admit that to use a slightly inelegant colloquialism, I have a dog or in this case tiger, in the fight. As a big cat lover, with tigers falling only very slightly behind leopards in my scale of preference, the possibility that one of the few remaining natural habitats for these magnificent felines may be removed is deeply troubling.
We could look at this in a very philosophical way and ask about the limits of human expansion and whether there is a duty to provide shelter and food and jobs for all mankind. However, there is also an emotional aspect to this question too – and perhaps we need to ask at what price this “progress” will come. Is the further denuding of nature, the likely irreparable harm to ecology and wildlife, and the disruption to the lives of indigenous tribes, a sacrifice that should be made for the sake not so much of progress, but of economics?
Situations such as these put those of us writing about the diamond and jewelry industry in a difficult position. And in a wicked irony, it often seems that countries that could utilize the economic benefits resulting from investment and infrastructure development the most also possess the most varied and stunning wildlife and nature.
It is not an empty argument either. Mining companies and other businesses throughout the diamond pipeline are at pains to point out their good deeds, their ethical sourcing of products and their commitment to corporate social responsibility. The jewelry industry is one among several that have taken a zero tolerance policy concerning the use of ivory and any potential ivory trafficking for example. Shouldn’t we as an industry be just as bold and brave in thinking differently, and asking challenging questions about whether choosing to mine in this particular area is the correct decision? Just because we can do something, is it in fact, a reason to do it?
Should we perform a simple cost benefit analysis to determine the Indian government’s course of action? Or perhaps we should take a utilitarian approach – the most benefit for the most number of people. Much of politics is about short-termism, making decisions that will seem to benefit a particular politician or political party in the relatively near future. And often, laws and other actions are subject to the rules of unintended consequences – what seemed like a reasonable idea or well-intentioned project at one stage can turn into something very different at its conclusion.
Habitat erosion and animal extinction are pressing problems, as are the attempts to alleviate poverty and create fairer societies – and perhaps one of those difficult questions we need to ask ourselves is whether a project that fundamentally alters the geographical and social landscape solves enough of the latter issues to justify the former ones.