The 1992 United Nations Convention on Biodiversity stated that biodiversity is about sustaining life on earth, and recognizing that all life is woven into a single web of life, that "biological diversity is about more than plants, animals and micro-organisms and their ecosystems — it is about people and our need for food security, medicines, fresh air and water, shelter, and a clean and healthy environment in which to live."
In 2010, the United Nations General Assembly adopted a resolution on coral reefs and marine biodiversity, for the protection of these fragile eco-systems that are critical to millions for "sustainable livelihoods and development as they are a primary source of food and income, add to communities' aesthetic and cultural dimensions and also provide for protection from storms, tsunamis and coastal erosion…."
Mangroves along the Gujarat coast
On World Environment Day (June 5) in 2008, Essar announced its commitment to the marine ecosystem of Gujarat by undertaking to step up mangrove afforestation. The project has, since, covered about 100 hectares in Surat District, where Essar's major facilities are located, including its Hazira steel plant and power plant. While an approximate 2,500 mangrove saplings were planted in 2008, the heart of the afforestation project has been the creation of a nursery to nurture 250,000 saplings needed to completely cover the 100 hectares.
With the project being executed in collaboration with the Gujarat Ecology Commission (GEC) of the Government of Gujarat, the maintenance of the mangrove plantation has been undertaken by GEC.
In recent years, Essar Steel has been developing a green belt around its plant and adjacent coastal areas, setting itself a target of greening over 1,000 hectares with mangrove plantations across the mudflats over a period of ten years.
Mangroves support an extensive eco-system. The vegetation provides a nurturing habitat to a range of wildlife species, maintains coastal water quality by removing and filtering pollutants and particulate matter from land based sources before they reach the sea, by retention of nutrients, carbon sequestration and preventing land erosion. Moreover, by safeguarding the ecological security of the coastal areas, mangroves help provide livelihood opportunities to the fishing and pastoral families living in coastal areas.
Thus, degradation of mangroves would not only result in ecological imbalance, it would adversely impact local communities severely. This was highlighted by the Swaminathan Committee in its recommendations for effective coastal zone management in India.
Conserving the mangrove ecosystem
To increase the mangrove cover in the district, GEC evolved a public-private partnership model, involving corporate organizations such as Essar, non-profit organisations such as Dandi Tavar Kantha Vikas Samiti, in addition to other government bodies.
The unique Public Private Partnership (PPP) model led to mobilization of corporate funds and corporate houses were also made responsible for the conservation of this fragile ecosystem. Under this partnership, more than 8,000 hectares across the Gujarat coastline have been planted with native as well as introduced species of mangroves with the active participation of the local coastal communities.
The fragile coastal ecosystem of Gujarat comprises mangroves, corals, algal beds, sandy beaches, mud flats and the seabed — together supporting a variety of marine flora and fauna. Gujarat's coastal flora and fauna include three species of endangered sea turtles. Gujarat has the longest coastline of all states in western India, measuring more than 1650 km long.
The fragile coral reefs off Gujarat
The coral reefs off the coast of Gujarat have 37 unique species of coral.
Damaged over the centuries, today the remaining coral reef has been designated for protection by creating a Marine Sanctuary around the reefs off the coast of Jamnagar district. The reef size has declined particularly in the last one decade and some species of coral are disappearing from the area. At present, the coral reef area off the Gujarat coast is estimated to be about 460 sq. km.
Coral reefs constitute a unique marine ecosystem. Apart from the reef's significant role as a carbon sink, coral reefs also provide habitat and food for fishes and other marine life, including algae. Reefs are also recognized as breeding grounds for marine life.
Protecting the coral reefs
Essar companies situated along the coast, carefully monitor effluents to ensure that there is no further damage to the coral reef. The reefs are also monitored regularly with the same objective.
Much of the coral reefs off the Gujarat coast are already buried under mud and sand due to degradation of mangroves and coastal vegetation. To protect the reef, GEC is working with the GEER Foundation and corporate organizations such as Essar, undertaking the innovative conservation step of transplanting corals and coral reefs.
Through all these conservation measures, Essar companies attempt to protect the ecosystem, to preserve the biodiversity that mangroves and coral reefs support. As these measures also contribute to carbon sequestration, Essar as a whole hopes to be able to set a benchmark as a carbon neutral entity.