Turtles shrimp and a ban

  • 14/06/1998

India, Pakistan, Thailand and Malaysia have won the shrimp-turtle case in the World Trade Organisation (wto) against the us government. The us had imposed a unilateral ban on the import of shrimp caught in a way that killed endangered turtles. The us government had taken the action under its own national Endangered Species Act. A wto dispute panel has judged that such a ban goes against the principles of free trade. It did not accept the us position that marine turtles are:
migratory animals;
a global resource and subject to stewardship by the international society; and
even though no multilateral body or resolution has authorised the us to take such action, the us has acted in a manner consistent with its obligations and has taken reasonable measures to reflect the will of the international community.

Even as the us government has decided to ignore the wto verdict, there is overwhelming support in the country to appeal the judgement.

The Centre for Science and Environment (cse) has consistently opposed the use of trade sanctions to conserve the global environment because of the simple reason that only economically powerful nations can impose effective trade sanctions against less economically powerful nations. This tool for bringing environmentally-errant nations to task cannot be used by less economically powerful nations against the global economic powers, howsoever bad their environmental track record might be. There can be no doubt that there is today a need for a system of global environmental governance, but this system must be built on rules, regulations, tools and modalities that are fair, just and equally accessible to all.

Though the Indian government has won its case in the wto, it still comes out as an extremely hypocritical entity, saying one thing abroad and another at home. While the us government has no right to impose its domestic laws on any other nation, India, too, is bound by both its domestic laws and by its international legal commitments to protect its biodiversity. This means that even as India was opposing the us in wto, it should have taken serious steps to protect the Olive Ridley turtles along the Orissa Coast. And by all indications, the entire effort is a very simple one. The government just had to insist that all trawlers catching shrimp must use a turtle excluder device. us environmentalists have even argued that their government is prepared to provide these devices free. But trust the government of India and its arms like the ministry of environment and forests (mef) to sit idle while the turtle massacre goes on.

In fact this should not surprise us at all. The government of India is probably the most hypocritical government of the Earth. Despite all the rhetoric of its politicians and its laws in favour of nature or of the poor, it has shown no respect for either.

This issue of Down To Earth (DTE) carries a shocking report on the state of the Gahirmatha turtle rookery on the Orissa coast, which is reputed to be the most important nesting site for the endangered Olive Ridley turtle in the world. Reporter Richard Mahapatra says that there is nothing in his report that is not well-known in Orissa. Yet one cannot hear any alarm bells ringing within the "Indian system". Almost as if the government has no interest even in implementing its own laws. The report says that no mass nesting has taken place for two years now in Gahirmatha, where half-a-million turtles used to nest till recently. Surely, the government has the capacity to foresee such disasters and take advance action. The key principle of environmental management is prevention and precaution.

On May 23, The Indian Express carried an item saying that Orissa's chief minister J B Patnaik has decided to set up a "high-level committee" with the state's chief bureaucrat as its chair to protect sea turtles. God bless the man! Why did he not wait for a few more years? And who knows if the man even today has the conviction to do something about it apart from setting up a committee of government busybodies? The government of India has rarely ever woken up until an ecological crisis begins to stare in its face.

When the us had imposed its ban on the import of turtle-unfriendly shrimp from India, the cse had been involved in a small spat with the Earth Island Institute (eii), a us non-governmental organisation that had played an important role in pushing the us government to impose the trade sanctions. While arguing that the eii had overstepped its role as a member of the civil society by asking its government to take unilateral action against India, cse had suggested that the honourable thing for it would have been to work with India's civil society to force its government to take appropriate action. Such an approach would have been best for two democratic societies working together in a globalised world. And indeed this very approach will save the endangered Olive Ridley turtles. It is time for the Indian civil society to force the Indian political system to re

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