Balancing human well-being with environmental sustainability: an ecologist’s story of Haiti

“Parc National La Visite is one of the few remaining refuges for Haiti’s once-remarkable biodiversity. It is also the only refuge for over 1,000 desperately poor families, the poorest people I have encountered anywhere on this planet. Naked children with bloated stomachs stood next to pine-bark lean-tos and waved shyly to me as I walked through the forest. Their parents eke out the meanest existence from small gardens and, if they are fortunate, a few chickens.” This is how ecologist Norm Christensen from Duke University began the story of his journey in Haiti. Christensen’s article, featured in the “Trails and Tribulations” column from the March issue of Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, touches on a sensitive but vital subject: What does “sustainable development” mean to those who are barely making it day-by-day? “In the context of places like Haiti and the other desperately poor areas, sustainable development—to think of it or define it—is in terms of improving the prosperity of some of the world’s very poorest people in ways that are not going to compromise opportunities for future generations and indeed are going to enhance those opportunities,” Christensen explained in a recent Beyond the Frontier podcast. Last year’s earthquake in Haiti caused severe widespread damage to the country’s already fragile infrastructure. A subsequent cholera outbreak added to the devastation. In times of such palpable human suffering, it can be difficult to imagine the role of the environment; however, Haiti’s history of deforestation is a strong example of the link between people and ecosystems—that is, the connection between infectious disease and a decline in biodiversity. As Ethan Budiansky explained in a Huffington Post article: “Over 98 percent of [Haiti] has been deforested by logging and improper environmental management. The resulting lack of biodiversity leads to impoverished soil, which is more susceptible to erosion. The eroded hillsides cause deadly mudslides during heavy rains and pollute drinking water. Farmers find it harder to grow nutritious food, and Haitians become malnourished, leaving them vulnerable to diseases such as malaria, tuberculosis and cholera. The chain of events moves forward with a cold logic; an unhealthy ecosystem results in unhealthy people. Fortunately, it can be reversed by planting trees through sustainable agro-forestry and following basic plant and soil management techniques.” While committing to sustainable development is certainly dependent upon those who choose to practice it, Christensen explained in the podcast and article, it is not solely their responsibility.  Everyone—whether they live in a developed or underdeveloped nation—is a steward of the planet. And our actions affect more than just our immediate environment. Read more in the Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment article “The...

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From the Community: Giant monitor lizard, seafloor scavengers and fruit fly aerodynamics

Climate change prompts migratory birds to stay home, Simpsons’ writer talks conservation and the U.K. announces newest and largest MPA. Here’s what is happening in ecology from the second week in April.

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“Green Pope” says Environmental Stewardship is a Moral Obligation

This post was contributed by Piper Corp, ESA Science Policy Analyst.  Pope Benedict XVI has received his share of criticism from the scientific community, most recently because of his statement that condoms increase the risk of HIV transmission.  But in his December 15 message for the Catholic Church’s annual World Day of Peace, he gave ecological scientists and environmentalists something to celebrate, presenting environmental stewardship as a moral duty and calling for an international effort to embrace a more environmentally sustainable way of life: The environment must be seen as God’s gift to all people, and the use we make of it entails a shared responsibility for all humanity, especially the poor and future generations. The theme of this year’s celebration “If You Want to Cultivate Peace, Protect Creation” speaks to the connection between ecological health and social justice, a matter of particular importance when, according to Benedict, “large numbers of people in different countries and areas of our planet are experiencing increased hardship because of the negligence or refusal of many others to exercise responsible stewardship over the environment.” Sustainable living was first positioned as a moral imperative by Pope John Paul II in the 1990s. Pope Benedict has been dubbed by some as “The Green Pope” by furthering this theme. In 2008, he named “polluting the environment” one of seven new sins now requiring repentance.  The Vatican recently outfitted its buildings with solar panels and is working to build Europe’s largest solar power plant. When the plant goes online in 2014, the Vatican will be the world’s first solar powered sovereign state (admittedly, its tiny size and population place it at something of an advantage). The country is already the first to go carbon-neutral-thanks to a donation from an eco-restoration firm, its emissions are offset by trees planted in a Hungarian national park.  In his World Day of Peace message, Benedict underscored the humanitarian aspects of current environmental problems, asking: Can we remain indifferent before the problems associated with such realities as climate change, desertification, the deterioration and loss of productivity in vast agricultural areas, the pollution of rivers and aquifers, the loss of biodiversity, the increase of natural catastrophes and the deforestation of equatorial and tropical regions? Can we disregard the growing phenomenon of “environmental refugees”, people who are forced by the degradation of their natural habitat to forsake it – and often their possessions as well – in order to face the dangers and uncertainties of forced displacement? Can we remain impassive in the face of actual and potential conflicts involving access to natural resources? All these are issues with a profound impact on the...

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ESA Position Statement on economic development

ESA released a position statement today on the proper place of ecological and environmental capital in the nation’s economy.  As the United States and much of the world try to recover from the current economic crisis, ESA recommends that long-term sustainability should be prioritized in the restructuring of business models and economic growth. A key to this task, the statement says, is to take natural capital into account. Natural assets and ecosystem services — such as water filtration, pollination and carbon sequestration — lack a formal market and are often overlooked in policy and business decisions. Yet, the statement asserts, healthy ecosystems are the foundation for sound economies, sustaining human life with services such as food, fuel, and clean air. The statement recommends that three things need to be recognized by policymakers and businesspeople in order to create an environmentally sustainable economy: (1)   The value and economic impacts of ecosystem services. The statement recommends that decision makers should take natural capital into account when making economic calculations, citing as an example the World Bank’s concept of adjusted net saving, which calculates an economy’s rate of savings after factoring in natural resource consumption, pollution-related damages, and other environmental impacts. This creation of markets that value natural capital would drive more environmentally and socially sustainable investments. (2)   Environmental externalities. Environmental impacts and resource shortages resulting from economic activity often impact people and communities far removed from the source; economists refer to these external effects as externalities. Agribusiness, for example, benefits from using nitrogen fertilizers but does not bear the costs associated with oxygen-depleted dead zones in aquatic ecosystems. Examples of internalizing these external affects include property rights for environmental assets, payments for ecosystem services and liabilities for environmental damage, including carbon tax or cap-and-trade systems. (3)   Improved predictive capacity. Currently, the statement says, the capacity to predict future environmental costs of public and private investments are weak at best. The statement recommends improving these abilities, and says that such measures already exist in many national regulations and international agreements concerning human, animal and plant health. A recent example is the World Trade Organization’s Sanitary and Phytosanitary Agreement. What are your opinions about environmental sustainability and economic development? Share your thoughts in the...

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