SMALL is vulnerable

David Bellamy

Last year’s International Year of the Oceans was marked by a catastrophic epidemic of dying coral and celebrated by the media laying the blame for this and much more on a pair of little rascals called El Niño and La Niña.

There is no getting away from the fact that the terrible twins have been somewhat hyperactive during the last 36 months. But this is far from the whole story. When Hurricane Mitch hit Central America the floods were made much worse by the absence of trees holding soil and mud on the hillsides.

The sad fact is that the smaller the islands the more vulnerable both their unique biodiversity and their people are to disasters, whether environmental or man-made. The highest points of countless atolls are measured in decimetres: so what will happen to them as global warming causes the seas to rise?

The people of most small islands entirely depend on their fisheries for protein. There are excellent examples of the way they manage them sustainably. But the voracity of international fishing fleets is destroying their hopes of survival.

Timely reminder
In your privileged position as a reader of this flagship journal you should not need reminding of the fact that around 70,000 kilometres of shoreline of ‘Our Planet’ (including that of some of its most densely populated islands) owe their very existence to coral reefs and mangrove forests.

These species-rich and productive living systems protect the coasts from erosion and inundation. If left intact, they would help buffer even the worst effects of global warming. They are also key habitats for 90 per cent of all the fish caught by local artisanal fishing families and around 70 per cent of regional commercial fish catches. And all this at no cost to local communities.

The cost of replacing these solar-powered, self-repairing natural sea defences and fish nurseries with engineered structures is impossible to estimate: indeed costs are inflating almost as fast as great sections of the reefs and mangroves are being destroyed.

This may be good news for the shareholders of civil engineering companies, but for countries who are already finding it difficult to service their debts, let alone solve their environmental problems, it spells catastrophe.

Sadly mariculture, especially prawn farming, exacerbates the problem of mangrove and reef decline. Likewise the industrial fishing needed to feed the prawns exploits the base of the marine food chain and adds to fishery depletion.

Little wonder then that more and more local fishers are forced to use ever more destructive methods to try to keep their families fed, and their boats afloat. The forest fires in Southeast Asia and the collapse of local economies and stock markets show that the litany of environmental and economic mismanagement does not stop at the shore line.

Words of warning
The following statement taken from the 1 February 1996 edition of the Herald Tribune indicates that such issues are burning on a much wider scale. ‘Economic globalization is causing severe economic dislocation and social instability; the technological changes of the past few years have eliminated many more jobs than they have created; the competition that is part and parcel of globalization leads to winner-take-all situations, those who come out on top win big and the losers lose even bigger; higher profits no longer mean more job security and better wages, but rather globalization tends to de-link the fate of the corporation from the fate of the employees.’

It ends with a warning that ‘unless serious corrective action is taken soon, the backlash could turn into open political revolt and destabilize the western societies’.

If these words had been written by an ageing environmental campaigner, like me – who has spent 40 years diving around the shores of this ill-named planet – then perhaps you could be forgiven for taking little notice. They were however from the pens of Klaus Schwab and Claude Smadja of the World Economic Forum with a membership of the 1,000 largest global corporations.

Even those at the top of the pile are worried about the state of the world they have helped to create. Like me, they probably like spending their vacations on coral islands!

Professor David Bellamy, the broadcaster, is President of the Conservation Foundation and Coral Cay Conservation, United Kingdom. He is a UNEP Global 500 Laureate.

PHOTOGRAPH: Yves Lefevre/Still Pictures

This issue:
Contents | Editorial K. Toepfer | Editorial M. T. El-Ashry | Let action... | The size of the problem | Looking good... | Vanishing islands | Whispers and waste | At a glance | Competition | Preserving paradise | Coral grief | ...biodiversity and beauty | Grassroots | GEF - helping small islands | Making a difference | UNEP - new books | Small is vulnerable | Measuring vulnerability | Exporting solutions | New friends in...

Complementary articles in other issues:
Bernard Martin: A fisherman’s tale (Oceans) 1998