The Environment Matters -- A Guest Commentary
Many of us in the conservation world are concerned that the natural environment ”“ as the fundamental provider of life on this planet ”“ seems to have dropped off the international community’s radar screen in the lead up to the UN-hosted World Summit.
This is an alarming realization as natural resources and the environment are being degraded and destroyed at record pace. Most environmental indicators ”“ from climate change to freshwater and forest habitat loss ”“ have become markedly worse. Despite the multiplicity of international environmental agreements, many have become paralyzed by politics, bogged down in the process or even worse, ignored.
The UN’s Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) ”“ a set of internationally-agreed upon targets to eradicate poverty and hunger, improve health, and ensure environmental sustainability by 2015 ”“ led us to believe that they could correct a weakened multilateral system. But after years of touting the goals as a panacea for many of the world’s social and economic ills, most countries are now unlikely to meet their targets as promised.
Recognizing these shortcomings, world leaders attending the World Summit will meet to set a massive multi-billion policy direction and aid package for developing countries over the coming years.
Described as a once-in-a-generation opportunity to take bold decisions in the areas of development, security, human rights and UN reform, this summit should also be an opportunity to include environmental concerns, particularly as they are inextricably linked to sustainable development and poverty reduction.
A healthy environment warrants substantial attention and investments because it is fundamentally linked to how people in some of the poorest countries make a living ”“ providing a range of goods and services including food, timber, fodder, shelter and water. Nowhere is this more apparent than in Africa, where millions of the poor rely on subsistence agriculture and artisanal fisheries.
However, unsustainable development has in many cases created immediate and problematic realities such as water scarcity and pollution, deforestation, soil degradation, as well as such global effects as climate change. A polluted river may seem like a small price to pay for jobs and economic growth, but what if people can no longer use its water to drink, wash or irrigate their crops?
Likewise, dam and irrigation projects are often built in the name of development, but if poorly designed and without environmental considerations, they can lead to loss of productive land and fish stock. A forest or wetland that makes way for large-scale plantations for the export of, say pine apples or soy beans may also be done in the name of development. Large-scale land clearing means that poor, rural people, particularly women, need to walk for hours to gather firewood and can not spend that time for more productive activities. Children are less likely to go to school.
As the list goes on, we are left with one conclusion: poverty reduction in Africa and elsewhere can only succeed if we consider the links between human livelihoods and natural ecosystems, and consequently invest in conservation and environmental care.
The World Summit is set to repeat the mistakes of the past unless world leaders recognize the accumulated evidence showing how a healthy environment is fundamental to achieving development goals. Countries must recognize, valuate and account for the services that the environment provides, including clean water and air, climate stabilization, and prevention of land degradation. Their response can only be concrete actions and investments to conserve nature and to give local communities the ability to manage their natural resources.
Natural resource management and environmental restoration are now holding out the hope of improved quality of life, income and security to poor communities in what is emerging as a key mechanism for the delivery of the MDGs or whatever new goals are set.
Conservation and environmental protection will not solve all our problems, but they have to be part of any solution.
Dr. Claude Martin is Director-General of WWF International, based in Gland, Switzerland.