Highlights from Peer Review of WII Etalin Report

First published in Sanctuary Asia, Vol. 40 No. 5, May 2020

The recently released peer review of the Wildlife Institute of India’s (WII) Wildlife Conservation Plan for the proposed Etalin Hydro Project in the Dibang Valley has raised uncomfortable questions for the hallowed institute. 

The 26 scientists, ranging from mammalogists to botanists, who collaborated on the peer review highlighted a worrisome number of discrepancies in the WII Report, and concluded that “studies that inform high-level decision-making on historically significant projects, such as the Etalin Hydro Electric Project… must go through a transparent and scientifically recognised peer-reviewed process given the pitfalls, numerous discrepancies and gaps highlighted in this review. Such decisions have irreversible impacts on lives, livelihoods and the environment”.

Here are some points from the peer review that caught our eye, and that reveal the true species richness of the threatened Dibang Valley:

  • WII identified only 35 species of wild orchids in the region, but other studies have identified 117 species in the Dibang Valley, with up to 200 reported in recent surveys.
  • Over 80 species of medicinal plants have been found in the two Dibang districts. However, in its assessment, the WII recorded only nine species. The reviewers say this is difficult to believe as prior research has established that the Idu Mishmi have vast knowledge of medicinal plants and use them regularly for a variety of ailments.
  • Arunachal Pradesh supports a rich diversity of bees with 49 species recorded to date in limited surveys. WII report does not mention any of the numerous bee or ant species that provide essential ecosystem services. 
  • The Brahmaputra river basin has been a barrier to the dispersal of many butterfly species resulting in high rates of endemism and speciation in Dibang Valley. An astounding 354 species of butterflies have been reported from Dibang Valley in the last 10 years, while up to 500 species are believed to exist in the region. However, the Report mentions a mere 159 species from the project site. The riparian habitat within the project’s ‘Zone of Influence’ is likely to have around 290-300 butterfly species according to the reviewers.
  • Benthic macro-invertebrates are considered one of the most important bio-indicator groups for freshwater ecosystems. The Report poorly studies these key taxa, identifying them up to the family level only. This is a gross underrepresentation of the actual diversity as each family contains several species. 
  • Four hundred and forty three bird species have been reported from the Dibang Valley. The WII's report of just 230 species from the study area is likely an underestimate resulting from the lack of multi-season surveys and poor detectability of many rare and migratory species.
  • The WII Report claims evidence of 21 mammal species within the project’s ‘Zone of Influence’. The peer review states that “overall, flawed methodologies have been adopted to create an inadequate and incomplete assessment of the area’s mammals and the HEP’s impacts on them”. In compiling data on mammals, the Report ignored key publications on the mammals of the region. It instead opted for the EIA report (2015) that the FAC (2017) deemed “completely inadequate”, and which led to the commissioning of their Report. 
  • The Report does not provide the GPS coordinates of camera trap locations. However, a map included in the document makes it clear that most of the cameras were clustered close to the river, roads and settlements. The Report provides no rationale for purposefully selecting sampling grids and camera locations within areas known to be anthropogenically impacted, while leaving a significant majority of the project’s Zone of Influence unsurveyed.
  • Despite serious methodological flaws, the Report recorded 21 species of mammals, including the ‘critically endangered’ Chinese pangolin, and seven other rare, endangered or threatened species, which points to the area’s importance for diverse, rare and threatened mammals. 
  • The claim of absence of ‘critical habitat’ contradicts both the FAC’s observations that “The type of forests appears to be predominantly subtropical evergreen broad-leaved forest and subtropical rain…. The vegetation is of multi-strata and can truly be said to be irreplaceable”, and the fact that the Dibang Valley is part of a Global Biodiversity Hotspot – one of just 36 places that constitute 2.4 per cent of the earth’s surface but host 60 per cent of all biodiversity on earth!
  • The Report ignores the outcome of another long-term study, conducted by the same WII scientists who compiled the Report, which found camera trap evidence of tigers within a 10 km. radius of the HEP site.
  • The Report documented evidence of 14 amphibian and 31 reptile species, which is significantly lower than the 95 species reported in previous studies in Dibang Valley, conducted in habitats and elevation gradients comparable to that of the ‘Zone of Influence’ of the Etalin Project.
  • A sizable population of the endangered keeled box turtle Cuora mouhotii locally called Ichimbo, was recorded from forest patches between 200-1000 m. elevation range downstream of the project site in earlier studies. Modelling has indicated a very high likelihood of this species being present around Etalin, which has similar habitat type and elevation range. Due to large-scale habitat change, this little-studied, extremely rare turtle may be driven to local extinction.
  • The Report states that since providing jobs to members of all affected families is not possible, they will support various income generating programmes to reduce local dependency on natural resources. Some of these jobs listed and described as 'decent' such as welder, fitter, plumber, electrician etc. are largely alien to most highland farmers and rests on the assumption that people can make an effortless transition to new livelihoods immediately after the shock of resettlement. Studies on dam-induced displacement have found that it has negative impacts on employment rate, income level, income resource, and overall well-being.
  • The Report suffers from several technical shortcomings. Not all grids within the project’s Zone of Influence were sampled, and within the sampled grid not all elevations were surveyed despite ample evidence that changes in elevation result in higher biodiversity in the Eastern Himalayas. These ignore the potentially disastrous impact of the HEP on yet undiscovered and endemic taxa. 
  • Several groups of taxa were not surveyed at all, including numerous insect orders such as Hymenoptera (bees, wasps and ants), Diptera (flies), Orthoptera (grasshoppers, locusts and crickets), and arthropod species such as scorpions, and pseudo-scorpions, and other taxa such as crustaceans (crabs), molluscs (snails), and protozoans. Excluding highly diverse taxa such as insects and arthropods heavily underestimates the biodiversity value.
  • The Report also examined the dependence of the local communities on forests. The reported figure of 38.2 per cent of Project Affected Families being dependent upon forests and forest resources is an underestimate, and does not consider the entire range of services that are utilised by forest-dependent communities.
  • The Report recommends large-scale agriculture and a shift to cash crops, without considering the impact of such large-scale (possibly monoculture) cultivation on biodiversity, and the well-being and food security of the local people.

Read the full peer review here. To read a summary of the peer review, click here. To learn more about the movement to save the Dibang Valley from the Etalin Hydro Project, check out our Campaign Tool Kit.

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