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Heal the Planet, Heal Ourselves
Published on Thursday, August 25, 2005 by Inter Press Service
Heal the Planet, Heal Ourselves
By Katherine Stapp

NEW YORK - Ten years ago, Costa Rica received a modest 25,000-dollar United Nations grant to expand the use of biomass technology, which transforms the energy from organic matter into fuel.

Today, the Biomass Users Network of Central America operates in seven countries and administers multi-million-dollar projects, with the ambitious goals of spurring rural development, preserving natural resources and reducing the greenhouse gas emissions that contribute to global warming.

It is this kind of success story -- merging sustainable development with environmental protection -- that must be replicated around the world if humanity hopes to ease the shocking poverty afflicting billions of people around the world, experts say.

"It is becoming clearer every day that the degradation of ecosystems and the spectre of abrupt, unpredictable, and possibly irreversible global environmental change threaten decades of development effort," says Olav Kjørven, director of the Energy and Environment Practice of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP).

"Dramatic rises in consumption of ecosystem services -- including fresh water, capture fisheries, air and water purification, and climate-regulating services -- have brought greater prosperity to many people around the world," he notes in the foreword to a new report, "The Sustainable Difference: Energy and Environment to Achieve the MDGs".

"But they have also brought about greater poverty and marginalisation as a result of depletion and even destruction of such key services," Kjørven adds.

Released Wednesday, the publication details the UNDP's efforts in 140 countries to incorporate energy and environmental issues into national development plans, and spells out the agency's strategic vision of what remains be done in these sectors in order to meet the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs).

The eight MDGs include a 50 percent reduction in poverty and hunger; universal primary education; reduction of child mortality by two-thirds; cutbacks in maternal mortality by three-quarters; the promotion of gender equality; the reversal of the spread of HIV/AIDS, malaria and other diseases; environmental sustainability, including access to safe drinking water; and a North-South global partnership for development.

A summit meeting of 189 world leaders in September 2000 pledged to meet all of these goals by the year 2015. In a few weeks, heads of state will again gather at the United Nations headquarters in New York to assess progress toward the goals thus far.

"Everybody is still thinking of energy and environment as not related to sustainable development," Iyad Abumoghli, a manager in the Energy and Environment Practice and a lead author of the report, told IPS.

"What we're trying to demonstrate in this book is that the protection and management of environmental resources is essential to achieving all of the MDGs," he said. "We must engage local communities in managing their own natural resources, which also provide them with sustainable livelihoods."

Some two billion people lack electricity, while another one billion have no access to safe, clean drinking water, Abumoghli noted.

"In terms of the MDG progress reports, the most important message is that most of the countries have not yet integrated energy and environment into their development plans and poverty reduction strategies," he said, "and the cost of environmental protection measures is a very important factor."

In South America, the Rio de la Plata, home to globally significant biodiversity and an engine for commercial fisheries, tourism and transportation, is struggling with growing pollution from hydrocarbons, heavy metals and other industrial waste, as well as sedimentation and habitat degradation.

Although Argentina and Uruguay, the two countries through which the river flows, had separately taken steps to address these problems, they had failed to target the causes of cross-border pollution because there was only limited understanding of how the whole ecosystem functioned.

With funding from the UNDP unit of the Global Environment Facility (GEF), the two countries are now conducting a "transboundary diagnostic analysis" that will lay the basis for an action plan to improve water quality and cut pollution.

East Africa is another area of high global priority for biodiversity conservation, the report notes. Despite well-intentioned efforts to set aside lands for parks and protected areas, the region is still losing much of its natural biodiversity as a result of population pressures and over-exploitation of land resources.

Because governments simply do not have the economic or institutional capacity to reach all remote villages, engaging a wide range of civil society groups is viewed as critical in solving the problem.

Three countries -- Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania -- have been collaborating on an initiative called the East African Cross-Border Biodiversity Project, which seeks to reconcile the socioeconomic interests of local stakeholders with the sustainable use of biodiversity.

The World Conservation Union also developed a project that empowers East African community-based organisations to participate in forest planning and natural resource management processes.

One such group, VI-Uganda, focused on training people in the skills needed to improve banana cultivation, make compost manure, protect the soil, adopt the practices of zero grazing and agroforestry, and produce crafts. It also helped set up tree nurseries and teach schoolchildren to plant trees in the Sango Bay Forest reserve.

And in Asia, the UNDP continues to focus on conservation of the Western Pacific marine ecosystem, which covers 38.5 million square kilometres and is home to 14 "small island developing states."

The region hosts the most extensive and biologically diverse reefs in the world, the world's largest tuna fishery, and an array of globally threatened species.

A two-part project involving oceanic fisheries management and integrated coastal and watershed management saw a major success in June 2004, with the ratification of the Convention on the Conservation and Management of Highly Migratory Fish Stocks in the Western and Central Pacific, the first regional treaty based on the 1994 U.N. Fish Stocks Agreement.

The second component of the project, set to conclude in December 2006, is addressing the root causes underlying the unsustainable use of coastal resources, the ongoing degradation of freshwater resources and poor waste management.

While UNDP has dedicated some seven billion dollars to these and a wide variety of other national programmes, Abumoghli says that there is still a huge funding shortfall. "It's time to scale up our operations. Environment must be included seriously in the anti-poverty equation."

He also noted that investments in environment and energy promote gender equality at a number of levels.

"More than 70 percent of our projects involving small grants of up to 50,000 dollars -- to rehabilitate grazing land, drill wells, etc -- are with women," Abumoghli said.

"In most countries, women are the managers of environmental resources, whether it is taking care of a farm or collecting energy sources like firewood. So gender issues are very important."

"If we provide better energy and water resources, we provide women with other opportunities, saving time for them to enhance their own capacities in terms of health and education," he said. "It's a holistic approach that we want the world to listen to."

© 2005 IPS - Inter Press Service


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