Environmental Concerns


Defending the Earth:
The Role of the Armed Forces in the Protection
of the Environment

(Part I)

Major General Eustace D’Souza

An excerpt from the Michael Harbottle Memorial Lecture to British parliamentarians and environmentalists in the Houses of Parliament, London, U.K., on 26 June, 2003.


am grateful to Sohrabji Godrej, one of India’s leading environ mentalists during the long association of 20 years when he was Trustee and later President of World Wide Fund for Nature ?India (WWF ?India), and a valued member of the Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS), two leading NGOs I was associated with, for helping me to foster this unique concept, dear to my heart: “Defending the Earth: The Role of the Armed Forces in the Protection of the Environment.?br>
For many years the world feared a nuclear holocaust as its greatest threat. Today it is religious fundamentalism and terrorism. But most of us do not realise that the greatest threat to us humanoids is the galloping consumption, the degradation of Nature and its natural resources. If we do not protect and restore Nature, the provider of all our life support systems, we are doomed. One shudders to think of the environmental degradation caused in Iraq with the massive air strikes, cruise missiles, smart bombs, daisy cutters and bombs, not forgetting the setting of some oil fields on fire. This abuse is not doing Planet Earth any good and this is evident in the unusual weather changes the world is experiencing, causing floods, droughts, temperature changes and damage to the ozone layer. Our greed is insatiable in this age of rampant consumerism. We do not seem to realise that without Nature’s bounties, our very life support systems, especially water, energy, forests and unpolluted air, will dwindle to the point of no return.

Many years ago, when Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, was the President of WWF ?nbsp; International, he asked me to make a 12-minute presentation to the international body, on how the Indian Army was contributing to protecting Nature. Since then there has been no looking back. It is encouraging to note that this movement is growing.

The acronym PER sums up what we need to remember.

“P?stands for PROBLEMS: viz. Population, not only of human beings but also of animals and livestock, all vying for the limited arable land available; Poaching, not only of wildlife but medicinal plants, marine life and other forestry products; and dreaded Pollution of air, water and land, so rampant in the world today.

“E?is for our ENVIRONMENTAL NEEDS: the need to ensure Equitable Distribution of Nature’s manifold bounties; Environmental Harmony by ensuring against the overuse of any one resource; and Efficiency, using effective scientific means to protect our natural wealth.

“R?is for REMEDIES: viz. Refuse; Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, Restore. Using this tool, it is easy to motivate men in uniform because, certainly in the case of India, they are deployed in every possible type of ecosystem: urban, rural, mountainous, desert, tropical rainforests and riverines.

The very thought of the Armed Forces of any country being deployed on environmental protection and restoration may seem incongruous, when for ages they have been thought of as wanton destroyers of Nature and wildlife. The recent air strikes in Iraq would appear to confirm this opinion. I believe it is not so.

The Role of the Armed Forces

hat is the role of the Armed Forces? The two traditional roles are of ensuring the integrity of a nation’s external borders and internal peace, including aid to the civil authorities in times of crisis. After World War II, two new dimensions were added: namely international peacekeeping/peacemaking on behalf of the United Nations and disaster relief. To this has now been added a fifth role of the protection and restoration of Nature based on the role model of the Indian Armed Forces and its Army in particular. This recommendation was submitted by the World Consultative Association of Retired Generals and Air Marshals (for Peace) to two successive Secretary Generals of the U.N., Boutros Boutros Ghali and Kofi Annan. Both agreed that they become universal tenets for the Armed Forces worldwide.

Many of us tend to forget that our Armed Forces are not always at war, on operations or ensuring internal peace. There will always be some formations and units in peacetime locations. They thus have the time to address themselves to environmental protection. Even when deployed operationally in pristine areas as the Indian Army is, they can contribute tangibly in protecting the environment. Thus the belief that the Armed Forces should not be involved in such roles is hogwash. They not only can but they must, as they too belong to the global community. It is important to remember that in today’s world, all societies live under the ominous global threat of environmental destruction, that frontiers are shrinking and that our Planet Earth has become a global village.

The question that now emerges is why the Military? There are a number of reasons in so far as the Indian Armed Forces are concerned. These are enumerated below.

  • Indian Army personnel are all volunteers and regulars and serve for a minimum of 15 years. This ensures continuity in any environmental tasks undertaken by them.

  • Personnel are recruited nationwide and are therefore au fait with the environmental problems of the subcontinent.

  • Recruits, especially those of the Army, generally come from rural backgrounds. They thus have a better understanding of Nature’s web of life and how each strand is interdependent on the other.

  • The Military has the leadership, motivation, dedication/commitment to tasks, training and discipline to perform this fifth role effectively.

  • It has the inbuilt infrastructure, namely mobility, intercommunications, medical and engineering skills necessary for such tasks.

  • An important point that has been raised in the past is that the use of the Army in such roles is likely to cause friction with the civil populace. In India the Armed Forces are looked upon with respect and such initiatives are in fact welcomed.

  • The Armed Forces are the managers of vast tracts of defence lands such as depots, training areas, ranges, naval bases, airfields and other installations and to that extent can hone their ecological skills at home as it were.

  • The Armed Forces, especially the Army, are so structured and organised as to enable task forces of various sizes to be deployed on such tasks in self-contained groups.

  • The Military by virtue of its training, mobility and deployment is capable of operating in all types of terrain and weather conditions.

  • Finally, every year a large number of personnel retire from the Service. They form a valuable resource pool of trained, disciplined and motivated manpower for environmental duties in organisations like the Eco Territorial Battalions.

The belief
that the Armed
Forces should
not be involved
in such roles is
hogwash. They
not only can but
they must, as
they too belong
to the global


The Tasks Ahead

et us now address ourselves to what the Armed Forces can do in this fifth role. Some of these tasks are:

  • Prevent degradation.

  • If charity begins at home, provide Green residences, unit living areas, cantonments, training areas and rifle ranges.

  • Control pollution through sound management procedures by insisting on the highest standards of hygiene and sanitation.

  • Be exemplars in the use and tapping of non-conventional sources of energy like solar, wind, geothermal and biogas.

  • Create awareness among all ranks, their families and locals through Nature camps and trails, films/audio visual presentations, at sainik sammelans (open house meetings) and so on.

  • Use religious teachers and the weekly visits to places of worship like the Unit Mandir, Gurdwara, Masjid and Church to promote the need to protect the environment. It is of interest to remember that the Gita, written ages ago, enjoins all peoples to protect the panch mahabutas (five essential elements) viz. water (Jal), light (Prakash), earth (Dharti), the atmosphere (Vayu) and fire (Agni).

  • Restore areas degraded or damaged during training exercises and like activities.

  • Introduce efficient methods of garbage collection and disposal for recycling and/or production of biogas, organic manure and vermiculture. The swill from cookhouses forms a good diet for unit-run piggeries, especially in cold areas.

  • Ban the use of non-biodegradable material like polythene bags.

  • Encourage planned parenthood among the rank and file through counselling.

  • Acquire pertinent inputs contributing to the environment such as pollution and sighting of endangered species through observation in remote areas.

  • Conserve water and electricity.

  • Manage wastelands.

  • Be exemplars not only in unit areas, but through personnel who go on leave.

  • Liaise with local bodies, NGOs and Forest and Environmental Departments.

  • Provide infrastructural and medical cover to scientists working in remote areas and the more inaccessible areas of the country where the Army is deployed.

  • Above all, BE EXEMPLARS.

Organisational Set-Up

hat then is the organisational set-up in the Indian Army to fulfil its environmental role? At the apex level at Army Headquarters (HQs), the task of overseeing all eco activities has been entrusted to the Quarter Master General under whose aegis all defence lands are placed. He has under him an Assistant Director General, Land Works and Environment, a Deputy Director General, PPE, a Director, Eco Cell, and an Assistant Quarter Master General, Eco Cell.

Annual meetings are normally convened in Delhi to discuss eco problems in the Army to which representatives from the other two Services, the Border Roads, Forestry Department and the Environmental Ministry are invited. NGOs like WWF and the BNHS may also be invited.

At Army Command level there is an Officer in Charge, Eco Cell, and at Formation levels Officers in Charge of Eco Cells are appointed by the local commander. The Chief of the Army Staff takes a personal interest in these activities. He is often invited to make presentations on the working of the Army Eco Cells.

Such meetings enable the Army to seek inputs in areas where they may lack know-ledge. Army HQ interacts with the Department of Wasteland Development, the Ministry of Environment and Forests (the funding agency for the unique Eco Territorial Army Units) and WWF ?India among others. At Command and Formation HQs, liaison is established with State Governments, the Forest Department and recognised NGOs. It is therefore evident that the Army takes this productive role seriously.

The second part of this article will deal with the creation of Ecological Territorial Army Battalions and the achievement of the Indian and overseas Armed Forces in this productive venture.


The Gita,
written ages ago,
enjoins all
peoples to pro-
tect the panch
mahabutas (five essential-
 elements) viz. water
(Jal), light
(Prakash), earth
(Dharti), the
(Vayu) and fire