Environment protection: Catalyst to spur economic growth, political stability

- Estela Banzon-De La Paz () - January 15, 2007 - 12:00am
Can a national policy protecting the environment be a catalyst for economic growth and political stability?

Peter Seligmann, chairman and CEO of one of the world’s biggest conservation organization – Conservation International (CI) who recently visited the Philippines, firmly believes so.

Citing Madagascar in South Africa as an example, Seligmann said CI’s experience in working directly with its government proved to be very fruitful as its economy grew dramatically compared to previous years. The economic growth resulted in more jobs and with this, created a more stable political environment. In fact, according to Seligmann, surveys for Madagascar’s upcoming elections show that it will be a landslide win for the incumbent- president Marc Ravalomanana. Likewise, Madagascar’s move to market itself as the home of biodiversity in Africa resulted in the making of the hit animation movie Madagascar.

"What made the difference was that the head of state of Madagascar embraced the idea of conservation so much so that everybody got involved, from government agencies to non-government organizations operating in Madagascar," he said.

In the Philippines, Seligmann noted that conservation is now gaining some awareness with President Arroyo signing Executive Order (EO) 578 last Nov. 8, 2006.

EO 578 called for the "Establishing of a National Policy on Biological Diversity Prescribing Its Implementation throughout the Country, Particularly in the Sulu-Sulawesi Marine Ecosystem and the Verde Island Passage Marine Corridor."

This EO, according to Seligmann is a good step towards preserving one of the world’s marine hotspots – the Verde Passage located along the coasts of Batangas,Mindoro, Marinduque and Romblon. The Verde Passage is also part of the Sulu-Sulawesi area. The Verde Passage Marine Corridor has been touted as the "center of the center" for marine shore fish bio-diversity.

However, Seligmann said more commitment is needed to ensure the success of any conservation effort "…it’s really important from the government’s perspective that it’s not just one section of the government like the environment department that’s involved, but that everybody – the justice, finance, planning, local governments realize that a destroyed environment creates a crisis situation for a country. It affects wealth, increases poverty and affects health," he said.

Seligmann said the Philippines is one of the world’s "hottest of the hotspots." A hotspot is an area which is considered to be biologically very rich both in marine and land species but is sadly, also very threatened.

"The reason why we’re working in the Philippines is that it is one of the ‘hottest of the hotspots’…the Philippines is now considered extraordinary in terms of biodiversity. But the pressure on what’s left is enormous…What happens to the Philippines is of great international significance," Seligmann said.

According to CI Philippines executive director Romeo Trono, there are 17 countries that are extremely high in biodiversity such that they comprise two-thirds of the world’s biodiversity. The Philippines is one of the world’s 17 "mega-diversity" countries with more than 20,000 endemic species of plants and animals.

However, the Philippines has also been identified as a "hotspot" or one of the most threatened in terms of losing its biodiversity. Much of these are due to unplanned industrial, agricultural and urban development, destructive practices such as dynamite fishing and "kaingin" or slash-burn of forest areas. To stop this trend and preserve what is left of our bio-diversity, CI has mapped out priority sites for conservation tagged as the "Key Bio-diversity Area" or KBAs.

There are about 128 identified KBAs in the Philippines. Among these KBAs are the Verde Passage Marine Corridor, the Sierra Madre Mountains where various new species of flora have been identified like the "vaccinium oscarlopezianum" named after the Lopez family’s patriarch Oscar M. Lopez. Unknown to many, this flowering vine was even recorded in the Edinburgh Journal of Botany in 2002.

For several years now, the Lopez Group through its First Phil. Conservation International (FPCI) has worked closely with CI International and CI Philippines on a lot of its environmental projects in the country. First Gen president Federico R. Lopez currently sits as a member of the board of CI. First Gen Corp., one of the Lopez companies, is supporting the efforts of FPCI and CI Philippines in protecting the Verde Passage Marine Corridor.

CI’s board of directors includes actor Harrison Ford who sits as vice-chairman, Wal-Mart chairman Rob Walton, DreamWorks CEO Jeffrey Katzenberg Starbuck’s CEO Orin Smith, Queen Noor of Jordan, SC Johnson & Sons chairman Dr. H. Fisk Johnson, Gap, Inc chairman Robert Fisher, United Airlines director Emeritus Michael Glawe, BP plc’s chief executive The Lord Browne of Madingley among others. Its annual fund raising dinners attract supporters like media mogul Ted Turner, Sigourney Weaver, Calista Flockhart and comedian David Lettermenn.

Seligmann believes that once the international community sees the seriousness of the government in protecting the environment, more support, financial and technical will be pouring in to protect the country’s hotspots.

After the onslaught of super typhoons "Reming" and "Milenyo"last year, the urgency to protect and preserve the environment cannot be underestimated. Hopefully, with the private sector and government joining hands in preserving what is left of the Earth’s treasures, such catastrophes can still be averted in the future.
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