Rights of Nature Alert: Great Nicobar Island Leatherback Turtles

One of the most important nesting sites of the Giant Leatherback turtle in the Indian Ocean is being gravely threatened by tourism and port development proposals in Great Nicobar Island in the Andaman and Nicobar (A&N) group of islands, in a clear violation of the international commitments under the Convention of Biological Diversity (CBD) of which India was a signatory since its inception in 1992.

The largest of the seven species of sea turtles on the planet and also the most long-ranging, Leatherbacks are found in all oceans except the Arctic and the Antarctic. Within the Indian Ocean, they nest only in Indonesia, Sri Lanka, and the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. They are also listed in Schedule I of India’s Wildlife Protection Act, 1972, according to it the highest legal protection.

Surveys conducted in the A&N Islands over the past three decades have shown that the populations here could be among the most important colonies of the Leatherback globally. Research in recent years has also shown that these turtles swim as far as Madagascar and Australia after having nested on the beaches of this island group – long intercontinental journeys of more than 10,000 kms.

There is concern now, however, that the Galathea Bay nesting site on Great Nicobar Island, which records the highest nesting activity, is under serious threat due to mega “development” plans announced in recent months. Of particular concern is the proposal for a mega-shipment port at Galathea Bay.

The scale of the project and the investment proposed could signal the end of a crucial Giant Leatherback nesting site.

Indigenous communities originally inhabited this island: Around 853 square km of the Great Nicobar is designated as a tribal reserve under the Andaman and Nicobar Protection of Aboriginal Tribes Regulation from 1956. This gives the communities exclusive rights over the land – any activity or access in that area requires prior permission.

The principles of Free Prior Informed consent (FPIC), and full and effective participation of indigenous peoples and local communities are a core part of the CBD and are explicitly required under the Akwe:Kon Guidelines. These have not been ensured in the proposed project.

As part of the United Nations, India has an obligation to abide by the UN General Assembly declaration passed in 2009, where Member States acknowledged that the Earth and its ecosystems are our common home, and expressed their conviction that it is necessary to promote Harmony with Nature in order to achieve a just balance among the economic, social and environmental needs of present and future generations.

India, as part of the UN General Assembly, acknowledges that the loss of biodiversity, desertification, climate change, and the disruption of a number of natural cycles are among the costs of our disregard for Nature.

The Indian Legal system has provisions that can ensure natural resources are not exploited indiscriminately. The Uttarakhand High Court has recognized the rights of rivers, and the Madras High Court has recognized Mother Nature as a living being with the status of a legal person.

These infrastructure projects in Great Nicobar threaten the right to ‘exist’ of the Giant Leatherback Turtles and island ecosystems.

This case clearly shows the need to replace the concept of ‘development’ with one of well-being in harmonious co-existence within Nature. Such developments are destructive of the relationships between humans and other beings and are a danger to the ecological integrity of the island system.

As the International Rights of Nature Tribunal we are putting out an alert for this imminent violation of the Rights of Nature – it is of the utmost importance to assert the rights of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands as self-regulating ecological entities.

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