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Use Earth’s ecosystems more sustainably

by Cesar Chelala

The findings of a new report sponsored by the U.N. Development Program, the U.N. Environmental Program and the World Bank, titled “World Resources 2000-2001: People and Ecosystems: The Fraying Web of Life,” underscore the fact that the growing worldwide demand for resources is threatening the world’s environmental health to an unprecedented extent. Unless new policies are put in place, this situation could have “devastating implications” for human development.

Essential among the possible options are massive campaigns, both at the government and private levels, to educate people about how critical the situation is for human survival and for everyone’s quality of life.

I personally became more keenly aware of how we mistreat the environment during a recent trip to Honduras, where I was able to see the tremendous negative impact of Hurricane Mitch on that country, brought about to a certain extent by the decimation of the forests. Trees are frequently cut down as a source of fuel and forests are set on fire without concern for the serious environmental consequences of such actions. As a result, Honduras is still reeling from the effects of Mitch, its infrastructure — including bridges, roads, schools, hospitals and health centers — all but destroyed. Fortunately, international help (notably from Japan) is allowing Honduras to begin to pull itself out of the situation.

The U.N.-sponsored report indicates that half the world’s forests have disappeared, while tropical deforestation continues at an alarming rate. As a result, almost 10 percent of all tree species are at risk of disappearing. The report estimates that tropical deforestation may exceed 130,000 sq. km a year. One consequence is the loss of natural resistance to floods provided by the trees.

Mark Malloch Brown, the UNDP’s administrator, recently stated, “For too long, in both rich and poor nations, development priorities have focused on how much humanity can take from our ecosystems, with little attention to the impact of our actions.” Ecosystems (the planet’s biological engines) are communities of interacting organisms and the physical environment in which they live.

In that regard, according to the UNDP’s executive director, Klaus Topfer, “We can continue blindly altering Earth’s ecosystems, or we can learn to use them more sustainably.”

Other conclusions in the report are equally troublesome: Fishing fleets are 40 percent larger than the world’s oceans can sustain; dams and other water diversions have fragmented 60 percent of the world’s largest rivers; some 20 percent of the planet’s freshwater fish have disappeared or are in danger of vanishing; close to 70 percent of the world’s major marine fish stocks are overfished or are being exploited at their biological limit; approximately 30 percent of the world’s original forests have been converted to agriculture; soil degradation has affected two-thirds of the world’s agricultural lands in the last 50 years; and, since 1980, the global economy has tripled in size, and population has grown by 30 percent to 6 billion people.

This situation presents obvious challenges for the survival of our planet. There is a growing tendency to include the public in the management of ecosystems, particularly local communities, which will suffer most from a destruction of the ecosystems. A critical component should be the participation of children in actions to protect the environment. In that regard, there is a growing awareness of the need to make children participate in the identification of problems as well as in the planning of activities geared toward the sustainable development of their communities.

In Latin America, several countries have had children participate in actions to protect the environment. In Colombia, a movement called “New Schools” allows children to help with community projects geared to the defense of the environment. In Peru, children aged 6 and up are given a piece of land to learn how to use it. And children from several other countries participate in a project called Ecoclubs, that includes education on the environment, elimination of toxic waste and development of new technologies for the protection of the environment.

These actions confirm the fact that care of the environment depends to a large extent on today’s children, who are the leaders of tomorrow.