Coral reefs and Sustainable Development
Anyone who has had the fortune of visiting a coral reef will appreciate their magnificence. In one sense they possess tranquility, beauty, uniqueness and fragility, yet on the other they team with the hustle and bustle of amazing endemic lifeforms. It is undoubtedly a natural phenomenon to nurture and ensure that future generations can enjoy.
However with humans present existence, can we sustain the coral reefs? Can they coexist with development? This article explores this theme; sustainable development and the coral reefs.
Sustainable development became a buzz word in the 1980s as a possible way forward for all countries. It was defined in 1987 as
'Development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.'
Source: World Commission on Environment and Development's report, Our Common Future (Brundtland Report)
The United Nations Summit in Johannesburg on Sustainable Development took place from Aug 26th to Sept 4th 2002 aiming to cement the proposals highlighted in Agenda 21 at the Earth Summit in Rio in 1992.
Agenda 21 created 4 major categories for sustainable development to address
- Social and Economic Dimensions -
such as combating poverty, promoting sustainable human settlement, changing consumption patterns
- Conservation and Management of Resources for Development -
such as conservation of biological diversity, protecting the atmosphere, environmentally sound management of toxic wastes, combating deforestation
- Strenghtening the Role of Major Groups -
such as the role of women, children and youth, businesses, technological community in sustainable development
- Means of Implementation -
such as finances, education, institutions
In theory, the agenda provides a superb outline for future development to follow. It suggests a responsible pathway forward which tides the present destructive forces of human development but does not suggest a halt or an about turn to humans inevitable progression.
Hence the questions lie not in the content of the agenda but in the potential for commitment to adhere to such guidelines and the feasibility of such a way of life. The Johannesburg Summit aims to persuade governments to become accountable for future development by making quantifiable goals of sustainable development.
This article examines how these ideals can be applied to coral reefs. But first what exactly is a coral reef?
Coral reefs are massive structures made of limestone that is deposited by living things. Although thousands of species inhabit coral reefs, only a fraction produce the limestone that builds the reef. The most important reef building organisms are corals.
Coral reefs support over twenty five percent of all known marine species. As one of the most complex ecosystems on the planet, coral reefs are home to over 4,000 different species of fish, 700 species of coral and thousands of other plants and animals.
A good way to imagine a coral reef is to think of it as a bustling city or community, with the buildings made of coral, and thousands of inhabitants coming and going, carrying out their business. In this sense, a coral reef is like a metropolis under the sea.
Source: International Coral Reef Information Network
According to a study in 2001 by the United Nations Environment Programme's World Conservation Monitoring Centre, the coral reefs make up an area of 284,300 sq km. This equates to less than 1/10 of 1% of the oceans. The top 3 countries with coral reefs are
Out of these top 3, both Indonesian and Philippine reefs are thought to be under serious threat from human activity.
Humans create pressure on the reefs through a number of activities including
- Farming - fertilizer & sediment runoff
- Fishing - overfishing, dynamite fishing, dropping sea anchors on the reef
- Deforestation - increased nutrient runoff
- Pollution - sewage
No doubt these human activities are inevitable and often essential for survival and growth of societies in these areas, however their results can be devastating if not managed properly.
Around the world it is estimated that 58% of reefs are under threat from humans.
In addition to human activity, all coral reefs are thought to be under threat from a rise in sea temperatures, as they are extremely sensitive to fluctuations and die with as small an increase as 1 degrees. El Nino was responsible for such a change in 1998 leading to the bleaching and devastation of corals around the world.
Why is it important to sustain coral reefs for future generations? Besides their spectacular beauty and the unique habitat they provide for flora and fauna, scientists have recently discovered chemicals and compounds in reef organisms which have been utilized to create drugs to treat human illnesses such as skin cancer and leukemia and the more well-known AZT treatment for those suffering from AIDs.
Coral reefs thus provide are a good microexample of some of the issues of sustainable development and the balance needed to achieve between development and the environment if the environment is to survive.
Australia has perhaps one of the better known reefs, the Great Barrier Reef. Unlike other large reefs however, it is being managed under the philosophy of sustainable development by the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority (GBRFPA). The GBRFPA are responsible for ensuring a balance is met between human activity and conservation of the environment. That is, human activities such as tourism are encouraged but in a controlled fashion under strict guidelines which prevent the reef being put under threat. Farming and fishing also occur in the regions of Queensland where the reef exists but again these activities are not undertaken to an extent where the reef is compromised.
The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority have achieved this balance by bringing together all of the stakeholders of the reef and creating a 25 year strategic plan which was endorsed by almost 70 organizations from reef industries to governments to conservationists. They have emphasized that all stakeholders are responsible for the management of the reef so that in 25 years time the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area will be or have,
Source: Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority 25 yr Strategic Plan
- A healthy environment: an Area which maintains its diversity of species and habitats, and its ecological integrity and resilience, parts of which are in pristine condition.
- Sustainable multiple use
- Maintenance and enhancement of values
- Integrated management
- Knowledge-based but cautious decision making in the absence of information
- An informed, involved, committed community
On a local level at the Great Barrier Reef, Australia is demonstrating to the world that sustainable development is possible. There are many other similar examples of sustainable development around the world and in all cases one of the keys to success is cooperation, involvement and ownership by all of those affected by the area. Without this, the likelihood of successful sustainable development is slim.
The Johannesburg Summit too has attempted to get a multitude of organizations to take responsibility as well as be involved in the decision making for sustainable development. On a large scale it clearly becomes more difficult to achieve commitment from all the needed parties. But remaining optimistic, on a local level concerned groups of people continue to form alliances and partnerships through which they establish a balance for development and conservation. On a local level they continue to make a difference.
Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority
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