• Ecological connectivity can guide countries to select which areas to protect and conserve, to halt and reverse nature loss by 2030, as codified in the text of the Kunming-Montreal Global Biodiversity Framework.
  • According to a UN report, large-scale transport infrastructure projects currently underway or planned in 137 countries cut through approximately 60,000 km of the world’s protected areas or Key Biodiversity Areas.
  • A successful mitigation example to maintain landscape connectivity in India in recent years includes the elevated stretch of National Highway-44 near Pench Tiger Reserve in central India, where infrastructure is sited to circumvent critical areas for wildlife.

Reflected in key goals and targets, ecological connectivity will be decisive, as countries move to implement the freshly minted Kunming-Montreal Global Biodiversity Framework, which, among its key targets, calls for a minimum of 30% of the earth’s lands, freshwater, and oceans to be protected or conserved in some form by the year 2030, amid rapid infrastructural changes.

“As countries now move to implement this target, connectivity must be a litmus test – with the choice of which areas to protect and conserve, guided by whether they contribute to connectivity. Likewise, urban growth, infrastructure development and other human activities must be planned in ways that achieve social and economic needs while preserving connectivity,” Amy Fraenkel, Executive Secretary of the Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals (CMS), told Mongabay-India at the UN Biodiversity Conference or COP15.

After multiple delays due to COVID-19, nearly 200 countries at COP15 in Montreal sealed a landmark deal to halt and reverse biodiversity loss by 2030. The Kunming-Montreal Global Biodiversity Framework (GBF), with four goals and 23 action-oriented targets, was adopted after two weeks of intense negotiations. It replaces the Aichi Biodiversity Targets set in 2010.

The CMS defines ecological connectivity as the “unimpeded movement of species and the flow of natural processes that sustain life on Earth.” Infrastructure, which often erodes connectivity, impacts biodiversity through deforestation, human-wildlife conflicts, habitat fragmentation, and loss.

Nilgiri tahr herd along a road in the Anamalai hills in south India. Photo by T. R. Shankar Raman/Wikimedia Commons.

“The new Global Biodiversity Framework only makes a general reference to infrastructure in target 14 with a call to integrate biodiversity in all sectors. However, target 1, on spatial planning, is directly relevant to ensuring that infrastructure is planned in a manner that avoids or minimizes negative impacts on biodiversity, and target 12 on urban planning includes strong language on connectivity,” adds Fraenkel.

While ecological connectivity was codified in the framework in two targets, infrastructure wasn’t at the core of negotiations although several side events spotlighted the issue, such as the launch of ALIGN project – Asia’s Linear Infrastructure safeGuarding Nature – created in response to Asia’s rapid expansion of linear infrastructure, especially roads, railways, and power lines.

Climate and biodiversity talks recognise connectivity

Connectivity conservation was also recognised at the 27th Conference of the Parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) or the Egypt climate talks (COP27), just weeks ahead of the Montreal talks. The climate summit saw the launch of the Wildlife Connect initiative by WWF, the Center for Large Landscape Conservation and the IUCN World Commission on Protected Areas’ Connectivity Conservation Specialist Group, to secure ecological connectivity.

Conservation scientist Amrita Neelakantan, who spoke virtually at the launch of Wildlife Connect at COP27, said codifying infrastructure into the GBF was “always going to be hard” because the GBF will always be seen as something that’s coming from the biodiversity community. “And so for many of us, that is still wildlife trade, that is still illegal poaching, and so many other things that are direct wildlife measurements; infrastructure becomes reaching out across the aisle, across siloed systems,” Neelakantan told Mongabay-India.

Neelakantan, coordinator for the Network for Conserving Central India, works on human-dominated landscapes in central India, home to over 20% of global tiger populations. In a recent study available in pre-print, Neelakantan and co-authors call for a landscape-level conservation planning in India through a “judicious mix of land-sharing and land-sparing approaches, and co-production of ecosystem services” to achieve the global 30by30 target.

They find that “only a fraction” (∼15%) of high-priority biodiversity and conservational potential areas are included in India’s extant protected area network that covers 5% of the country’s area. Consequently, a large percentage of India’s wildlife live outside protected boundaries giving rise to situations spanning between coexistence and conflict.

Nilgiri tahr herd along a road in the Anamalai hills in south India. Photo by T. R. Shankar Raman/Wikimedia Commons.

Overlaying administrative (district) boundaries, the paper highlights 338 districts that play a key role in maintaining India’s biodiversity and ecosystem services; of these, 169 are ‘high priority’ districts, where the management focus needs to be on the retention of habitats, ecosystem services and biodiversity through both, state-driven and participatory approaches.

The next 169 are ‘potential priority’ districts, where the management focus, besides retention of important sites, should also aim for proactive rewilding and ecological restoration efforts. “In conjunction, we also refer to India’s aspirational districts, identified by the government of India’s NITI Aayog for economic development. Locations, where aspirational districts overlap with ‘high priority’ districts, will require deprioritizing mega-infrastructure projects while promoting sustainable models of nature protection besides demarcation of PAs,” Neelakantan and co-authors state in the paper.

“The fact that connectivity has made it into the text is brilliant because what it means is we can start to make 30 by 30 a milestone versus a goal. Connectivity allows you to consider not just putting forward more paper parks (protected areas are declared but then neglected). It allows you to say okay, how are you going to actually manage this land, and that is where infrastructure will sit,” she explained, referring to the study.

A screengrab from the Global Infrastructure Impacts Viewer, a tool for visualising the first global database of planned road and railway infrastructure, and the risks and benefits it may pose to people and the natural world. UNEP-WCMC. (2022). Global Infrastructure Impact Viewer. [On-line], [January/2023], Cambridge, UK: UNEP-WCMC. Available at: https://www.giiviewer.org/.

Environmental risks from infrastructure and economic benefits

According to a UN report, large-scale transport infrastructure projects currently underway or planned, in 137 countries cut through approximately 60,000 km of the world’s protected areas or Key Biodiversity Areas. Launched at COP15, the report weighs potential environmental impacts against anticipated economic benefits for such linear infrastructure projects.

Drawing from a database of 57 sources, the analysis finds that planned or ongoing road and railway projects impact the habitats of nearly 2,500 bird, amphibian and mammal species of conservation concern, with an especially high risk of accelerating the decline of species in the global tropics, especially in Indonesia, Papua New Guinea, and South America.

The projects will trigger the release of 883 million tonnes of carbon from removed trees and vegetation. The loss of vegetation related to the works will also imperil the retention of 1.17 million tonnes of nitrogen – without the plants, that additional nitrogen could be toxic to downstream water supplies, the report warns. China, the COP15 President, has the most road and rail infrastructure planned, followed by Russia and Brazil. The assessment places South Asia in the low-risk-high benefit category with regards to low risk to nature from infrastructure.

“For India, the impact of infrastructure on wildlife comes from severing connectivity between protected areas which is essential for genetic health of wildlife populations. The issue is generally not that new areas are being opened up for clearing as in countries with high deforestation, such as Indonesia. In terms of roads leading to new clearing, India is low risk compared with high deforestation countries, but in terms of risks to landscape connectivity, the risk is not low,” environmental geographer Ruth DeFries at the University of Columbia told Mongabay-India. She is not associated with the UN report but is a co-author with Neelakantan on the landscape-level conservation paper.

Road cutting through the scrub forest in Nilgiris. Photo by PJeganathan/Wikimedia Commons.

Opportunity for avoidance in Asia to enhance connectivity

A successful mitigation example to maintain landscape connectivity in India in recent years includes the elevated stretch of National Highway-44 near Pench Tiger Reserve in central India. “The best strategy is that infrastructure is sited to circumvent critical areas for wildlife. If these considerations are taken into account in the early planning stages, then the risks can be reduced,” DeFries adds.

The opportunity in Asia is avoidance, road ecologist Rob Ament said, at a COP15 side event discussing Asia’s Linear Infrastructure safeGuarding Nature (ALIGN) Project.

“You can avoid the most important biological locales because the location hasn’t been set yet. And so there’s a great opportunity again in the pre-planning and the early planning to really think about route selection. That’s very unusual compared to some of the other continents.”

Flyover in Kanha-Pench corridor. Photo by A. J. T. Johnsingh, WWF-India and NCF/Wikimedia Commons.

“If you look at the rest of the world, particularly North America and Europe, they’re just adding another lane to a current highway or another rail line next to a current one or another power line where they already have the power corridor,” Ament said, discussing findings from LISA (Linear Infrastructure Safeguards in Asia), a 14-month predecessor project set in 28 Asian countries that mapped 81,000 kms of new planned projects, mainly multilateral development projects. LISA informed project ALIGN.

“What we found in Asia are all new footprints. Two-thirds of these new linear infrastructure projects have new footprints. These LI could impact 350 protected areas,” Ament said. Project ALIGN will be implemented throughout Asia, by WWF in partnership with the Center for Large Landscape Conservation, with three focal countries: India, Mongolia, and Nepal.

Need for a shift in the linear infrastructure sector

“There needs to be a shift by the linear infrastructure (LI) sector, really to start taking, incorporating the needs of nature, more on a regular basis or standard approach; that hasn’t been done yet,” Ament notes.

At the side event, Megh Nath Kafle, Joint Secretary, Ministry of Forest and Environment, Nepal, shared that about 20% of mega species loss in Nepal is due to (vehicular) collision. “And right now in our country, we have started to discuss it with engineers and biodiversity conservationists… they have started to sit side by side,” Kafle said at the event.

Amrita Neelakantan, who’s researching safeguards for nature in the Belt and Road Initiative, says there is a need for more coordination between ministries, translation of documents into the language of official work on either side (country-funder-contractor), especially on accessing and linking databases on PAs and conservation areas into funder-driven safeguards. “Spatial planning would become real,” she said.

“A lot of developing countries rely on top-down safeguarding, whether it’s from their government or from the funder of infrastructure, those are the mechanisms to safeguard biodiversity. Almost all developing countries also sign on to multiple agreements on the environment. So our systems view of this problem was that countries will need to have different ways of coordinating (on safeguarding nature) to meet multiple goals,” elaborated Neelakantan about the unpublished research.

Roadkill of the leopard cat. Photo by Kalyan Varma/Wikimedia Commons.

Additionally, the perception of a successful politician also needs to change. “What that means is politicians’ one job is to get reelected – if you’re in a developing country, if you can build a large six-lane flyover, you have shown visible progress as a politician. We need to change the metrics of what makes a successful politician because that’s who’s making these decisions (infrastructure).”

“Even if we’re in a five-year cycle (with the politician’s official term), could we look at linking progress on Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to a politician’s success? For example, putting SDG dashboards at the district level online so that when you vote for your MLA you can check if public health or other parameters did get better,” Neelakantan elaborated.

CMS’s Amy Fraenkel observes that text in the GBF and related decisions adopted at COP15 reflect the importance for governments to work together on the actual implementation of the GBF, where action by a single government will not be sufficient.

“Existing global agreements, including the Convention on Migratory Species, will play a key role in delivering on various aspects of the GBF, including on this aspect of ensuring collaboration across national borders.  The 2019 IPBES Global Assessment found that governments had not adequately addressed connectivity under the framework of the Aichi Targets. But the Aichi Targets omitted another key point which is transboundary and international cooperation for implementing the framework,” Fraenkel said.

Source: India Mongabay