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City’s great ‘green’ potential

Date: 18 May 2006

I was reminded at the national government-hosted forest and woodlands conference in Port Elizabeth this week of what a pleasure it is having foreign environmental scientists here and what potential there is to encourage more of these visitors. Both Alexandre Mariot, of the University Federal de Santa Catalina in Brazil, and Belgian Claire Dalvaux are experts in the traditional harvesting of bark, which can be used for a variety of medicinal purposes.

Mariot is studying the forest system on his country‘s Atlantic seaboard which 500 years ago covered 133 million hectares but is now reduced to just eight per cent of that former glory. This is the home of the golden lion tamerin, the woolly spider monkey, and the maned three-toed sloth as well as 20000 different species of plants.

The main agents of transformation in the forest are small-scale farmers who regard the forest as a hindrance in the expansion of pasture and creation of exotic plantations. The challenge is to make them aware of the value of the forest in terms of traditional medicines, fuel-wood and food for humans and livestock, says Mariot. Once this is done then a management strategy can be devised around sustainable harvesting.

Delvaux is working in Benin in west Africa in terms of a partnership between a Beninian university and her University of Ghent. Benin has lost 29 per cent of its forest cover since 1990 and this de-forestation is silting the waterways and hindering boat traffic, further damaging the shaky economy. The population is growing at an average 3,3% and the main problem in the 18000ha woodland system where she is stationed is logging to build houses.

Her research is aimed at producing data which can be translated into practical alternatives for revenue and jobs, to give to the timber harvesters, who argue that they have no other means available. About 200 delegates are attending the PE forestry conference and about 10 times that number, including a large overseas contingent, are due to attend the conference in July next year of the Society for Conservation Biology.

Environment is growing more important each year, and in line with these events and following on the successful 2003 staging in PE of the Seventh World Wilderness Congress, the Friendly City has the potential to become the green conference hub of Africa and a leading world destination for these events.

Delegates bring their spending power and their service, accommodation and hospitality requirements. They bring something more than the average tourist, however, in terms of their interest in helping people to help themselves and the planet at the same time – this alongside their expertise in a specific plant, animal or practice in some far-flung corner of the world. Our society is enriched when they join us.

So we absolutely need this International Conference Centre ([ICC). But let‘s capitalise on the green event potential and make it a green building, with solar electricity, natural lighting and temperature control, rain harvesting, and taps and toilets to minimise water wastage. These and many more cutting-edge features have been tested and documented. If we could use this approach to guide the construction of our ICC, we would give it an important extra dimension and help to secure and grow that green conference market share.

Also, let‘s forget about this nonsense of putting the ICC on the beachfront. As our new sports stadium begins to grow at the North End Lake ([hopefully well in time for 2010) and we turn our attention to what to do with the old EP Rugby Football Union Stadium, let‘s think seriously about putting the ICC there. There is always a need at environmental conferences to communicate beyond the boardroom to ordinary people. Our ICC could include a unique mega-space where exactly this could happen.

In keeping with South Africa‘s pride in making people part of the conservation solution, the setting aside of a day to do this – to communicate the nature of the debate and to really open up the issues – could become one of the proud brands of the PE green conference.

Many of the creatures discussed at these conferences appear on the World Conservation‘s searing 2006 Red List report. Of some 1, 7 million species of plants and animals known to man, some 16000 are now threatened with extinction, the report says. Biodiversity loss is increasing, not slowing down.

Climate change is increasingly being felt in Polar Regions, where summer sea ice is expected to decrease by 50%-100% over the next 50-100 years. Polar bears will probably suffer a 30% population decline in the next 45 years. The hippo, one of the great icons of Africa, has been classified as vulnerable for the first time following the collapse of the population in the Democratic Republic of Congo. In 1994 the DRC boasted 30000 animals – the second most after Zambia of any African country. Now, due to unregulated hunting for its meat and teeth ivory, the DRC hippo population has plummeted by 95%.

Twenty per cent of sharks and rays are threatened with extinction. You can learn more about them at the excellent exhibition at Bayworld to celebrate National Science Week.

Why does the loss of these creatures matter? Because this is the circle of life. Economically, socially, environmentally, spiritually, morally – it matters.

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