Merging conservation with development. Environmental jamboree brings nations together to preserve world's rich wilderness areas - `sustainable development' is key

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Down the hill, they're mapping out strategies to preserve the tropical rain forests. Closer by, workshop participants are grappling with everything from the relatively mundane (acid rain) to the esoteric (human potential in the wilderness).

Welcome to the Fourth World Wilderness Congress, a sort of international environmentalist jamboree being held for the first time in North America. The week-long meeting, which ends today, attracted people from as far away as Botswana and China.

Their common goal: to preserve the world's rapidly dwindling wilderness areas.

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It's a daunting task. According to a new study by the Sierra Club, human activity now dominates two-thirds of the earth's landmass. Of the remaining one-third, more than half is in the high Arctic or Antarctic and warm deserts.

Only 12 percent of the world's wilderness is in the tropics. And yet, countries in this region have some of the highest birth rates in the world, adding pressure to expand human settlements even more rapidly.

At an opening session in Denver, William Ruckelshaus, a member of the World Commission on Environment and Development, told the environmentalists gathered here ``that environmental protection, far from hindering economic progress, is its irreplaceable partner and that it is growth, not poverty, that will save the environment.''

Comments such as this would have been considered near-heresy among environmentalists little more than a decade ago. But times have changed.

More than ever before, the issue of the hour is economic development.

Environmentalists are trying to figure out some way to marry the often conflicting goals of economic growth and wilderness preservation.

It isn't easy.

In many countries, particularly in the developing world, wilderness regions are viewed as an economic resource waiting to be exploited.

At the same time, some of the most biologically rich wilderness areas, such as the tropical rain forests, are located almost entirely in developing regions.

```Conservation' makes people on the development side think of locking everything away,'' says Robert Prescott-Allen, an environmental consultant who has worked extensively in developing countries.

In an effort to change this perception, environmentalists now refer to development and conservation as ``two sides to the same coin.''

There's even a catch phrase to describe environmentally sound projects - sustainable development.

On the most basic level, this might mean teaching a farmer techniques which minimize damage to the land. But since all new developments lead to some degree of environmental change, trade-offs must be made.

``You can't deny people the ability to feed themselves,'' says Seiso Liphuko, director of town and regional planning for Botswana. Otherwise, he says, a conservation strategy becomes meaningless.

In April, the World Commission on Environment and Development, organized by the United Nations, issued a major report on the global situation. The commission, headed by Norway's Prime Minister Gro Harlem Brundtland, emphasized the need to balance economic opportunity with environmental protection.

Still, many environmentalists have reservations about dealing with economic incentives and trade-offs. Some worry that too many concessions will be made to satisfy the needs of development.

``Sustainable development is a sincerely offered carrot,'' says David Brower, chairman of Earth Island Institute in San Francisco. ``It's trying to get the [developing nations] to see the advantages of conservation.''

At this week's meetings, international bankers in neat jackets mingled easily with jeans-clad activists. Featured speakers included United States Treasury Secretary James Baker III and David Rockefeller.

Meanwhile, a growing number of environmental groups are already integrating economics into their projects. The World Wildlife Fund, for example, is financing a kerosene fuel business in the Anapurna Conservation Area in Nepal. The objective is to provide local inhabitants a steady income - from selling kerosene to trekkers - while preserving fragile forests that might otherwise be used for fuel wood.

In Mexico, a similar project is helping to establish a commercial timber industry. Lumber from the project will give local people an alternative to cutting down trees where the Monarch butterflies spend the winter.

World Wildlife Fund president William Reilly calls such efforts ``a glimpse into our future. The program is global, yet locally based.'' The theory behind them is that preservation must be integrated into the local economy, not insulated from it.

``Natural ecosystems mean not only the preservation of biological diversity, but also firewood, food, water, and medicinal plants.''

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