That business-as-usual stand

January 15, 2011

Saturday, 15th January 2011

That business-as-usual stand

Alfred E. Baldacchino

The conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity was first discussed at length at the Earth summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992 giving birth to the Convention on Biological Diversity, today having 193 parties. The European Union, a party to theConvention, in a 2001 summit initiated ambitious commitments agreed upon by heads of state and of government to halt the loss of biodiversity in the EU by the end of 2010. This became one of the main targets for managing and conservingnatural resources and was later endorsed by the United Nations World Summit on Sustainable Development in 2002.To achieve such targets and put biodiversity on course to recovery, the EU, in 2006, approved a detailed action plan, aiming primarily to clarify responsibilities concerning the implementation of legislation already in place. As a sign of further support, in 2007, the UN declared 2010 as the International Year for Biological Diversity. The UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon stressed that “business as usual is not an option” and that “new targets and a new vision is indeed urgentlyneeded”. Such concept was elaborated in September 2010 at a high-level meeting of the UN with the participation of heads of state and of government.

The IYB’s main aim is to raise awareness on the importance of biodiversity with a view of engaging all stakeholders for protecting life on earth, to influence decision-makers and to raise biological diversity to the top of the political agenda. Everyone has to do one’s part. It is unacceptable not to take immediate and effective action. There cannot be a new vision excluding stakeholders. Only such a broad-based partnership, commitment, cooperation, coordination andcommunication can ensure life can continue to flourish on this planet for the benefit of species, naturally including humankind. This is the only way a commitment can be acquired to reinforce the implementation of the Convention on Biological Diversity. An evaluation report has to be submitted to the UN General Assembly in 2011.

As a member state of the CBD, the UN and the EU, Malta is bound by all these commitments. What were Malta’scontributions towards halting biodiversity loss? Apart from the official periodic educational snippets, on the line of what environmental NGOs used to do more than 40 years ago, there is little one can highlight except for the occasional declaration of a protected area without any follow-up whatsoever. On the other hand, however, there is, unfortunately, quite a long list of decisions, actions or lack of them, which not only did not contribute to the prevention of biological loss but had a completely diametrically opposite effect. Considering the source of such negative impacts on biodiversity, this shows the importance of Mr Ban’s emphasis that “business asusual is not an option” and that “new targets and a new vision is indeed urgently needed”.

An off-the-cuff glance at some local “contributions” is a sine qua non. What comes to mind first is the number of alien invasive species that established themselves in the wild these last few years. Some have already managed to prove very costly not only economically but also ecologically and socially. Some of these introductions, albeit not all intentional but all due to lack of any foresight, include the red palm weevil, geranium bronze butterfly, the mulberry longhorn beetle, the tomato leaf miner, the Levantine water frog and about a dozen molluscs(snails) spreading from around some garden centres. Others might not have yet made an impact but when they do it will be too late for any action.

Climate change increases additional costs to control IAS. Britain spends £1.7 billion a year and EU costs amount to about €12 billion. No official figures are available for Malta despite the fact that IAS’s negative impacts are becoming more widespread. And the importation of flora and fauna, the main carriers of IAS,  goes on without any hindrance at all,  except, perhaps, for a phytosanitary/veterinary certificate on which some IAS have travelled.

More of a concern is the fact that the authority responsible to control and eliminate such IAS hinted at the possible intoxication of a fresh water pool to eliminate an alien frog in eco- Gozo. Much the same like advice from Josef Fritzl on how to protect children from sex abuse!

Still very unfortunate were development permits (none related to the management of the areas) issued inside EU Natura 2000 sites. A quick recollection reveals Mistra, Baħrija, and Dwejra – again in eco-Gozo. And, naturally, Buskett, another Natura 2000 site, saved by the skin of its teeth from becoming a public garden where, possibly, pansies and geraniums would have joined the numbers of IAS at this site.The business-as-usual stand adopted by Malta in international fora on the listing of the bluefin tuna in the Convention of International Trade in Endangered Species of  Wild Flora and Fauna and against adjusted quotas, both raised within the EU, is perhaps the cherry on the IYB’s cake.  Mr Ban’s emphasis that “business as usual is not an option” and that “new targets and a new vision is indeed urgently needed” seem specifically coined for the political fraternity.

The year 2010 has come and gone and with it a number of species of wild flora and fauna, which either gave up the ghost in the year of deliverance or else have been pushed to the brink of doing so. The target date has now been extended to 2020. By that time, today’s actors’ names will be engraved in stone – as a reminder of who was accountable for preventing biodiversity loss by 2010.


Mother Earth, Brother Sun, Sister Moon: some spiritual teachings

August 14, 2010

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Mother Earth, Brother Sun, Sister Moon:

some spiritual teachings
Alfred E. Baldacchino

In the name of the Father, man has committed a number of atrocities – in the political arena, in the religious realm, and also in the same ecosystem which sustains him. The holy books of all religions are as old as man himself, and they still teach what they originally were meant to teach. But the different interpretations given to them down the years were very often meant to accommodate man’s relentless greed rather than to get him
closer to the deity he worshipped.
Leafing through the main religious books, be they Christian, Islamic, Jewish, Buddhist, or Hindu, the writings give the same clear and identical message. For instance, in the Bible we read that after creating man, God saw
everything that He had made was very good. And the Lord took man and put him in the Garden of Eden, to tend it and to guard it. God also said to Adam and Eve, “be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth” (Genesis).
The Western world, which mainly professes Christian beliefs, has not only interpreted ‘subdue’ and ‘dominate’ ad litteram but also implemented it to the fullest ad nauseam. I remember reading teachings that man is unique
and not part of the ecosystem which God has created only for man to ‘exploit’.
Fortunately, following spiritual revival, these teachings have been dumped, though there are still many of their followers around. The Bible and other sacred writings all lead us to better understand their teaching, as some
of the following references clearly show.

A delicate balance
In the Jewish Talmud we read: “When the Holy Blessed-Be-He created the first man, he took him aside and warned him: See my works, see their beauty, their perfection; everything I have created I have created for you.
Take care not to spoil or destroy my work, because there will be no-one to mend it after you
As regards creation, the Qur’an, the Muslims’ holy book, teaches: “To Him belongs whatsoever is in the heaven and the earth; All obey His will. And it is He who originates creation” (30:25). Creation was designed to
function as a whole, a dynamic delicate ecological balance. “Transgress not in the balance, and weigh with justice, and skip not in the balance. It is He who has appointed you viceroys in the earth” (6:165).
The Old Testament teaches that the land belongs to God. People are “only strangers and guests”. The land shall not be sold in perpetuity for the land is Mine (Leviticus 25:23). The earth is God’s and all its fullness, the world and all who dwell in it. (Psalm 21:1). Man must rule the world in holiness and righteousness (Wisdom 9, 3). “God took Adam and placed him in a garden… to work it and to preserve it.” (Genesis 2:15.).
The Dalai Lama, in line with Buddhist belief, teaches: “We only have one earth and any damage which we do to it will rebound upon us.” A. Tyiradhammo, from the Dhammapala Buddhist monastery referring to the
delicate ecological dynamic balance explains: “The illusion of separate, independent subjects and objects is merely due to the influence of self-centered ignorance.” The founder-director of the Islamic Foundation for Ecology and Environment Sciences, F. Khalid, emphatically declares: “Dominion over Creation remains with the Creator Himself and there is no evidence there of Him having abdicated His responsibilities to one of his
creatures no matter how intelligent.”

Much to answer for

The Tablet, a British Catholic weekly, of October 4, 1986, points out that many who embrace the Christian faith have much to answer for. Quoting Max Nicholson, a well known authority on ecology, The Tablet says that it
has been a tragedy that the most influential religion in the world should have been “one of the very few which preached man’s unqualified right of dominance over nature”. Aboriginal spirituality in Australia teaches that ‘the land is our mother“, “we do not own the earth and the land owns us”. Chief Seattle, of the North American Indians explains: “This we know: the earth does not belong to man; man belongs to the earth. This we know: all things are connected like the blood which unites one family. All things are connected. Whatever befalls the earth befalls the sons of the earth. Man did not weave the web of life; he is merely a strand in it. Whatever he does to the web, he does to himself.”
Quite a different perspective from the interpretation of “dominion” and “exploitation” we Christians have been taught, and on which teaching many an empire has been built, many a life taken, and many a resource plundered. But before any of your readers pulls out his red card, not to accuse me of being an ecofundamentalist, but to show me the way back to the fold following my readings of ‘other’ biblical books and writings, I will now dwell more deeply on the teachings of the spiritual leaders of the Catholic Church. This will be amplified in the next part.
According to Genesis, the first book of the Bible, man is the final and supreme creation, the only being made in God’s image. Nature has been handed over to his dominion. He is commanded to “fill the earth and subdue it” and “rule” over the animals. Man is not only the “master” but also the “guardian” of the ecosystem. But a guardian is one entrusted with property that does not belong to him. His role is to take charge of it and
eventually return it to its owner intact. It has also been explained that the world is not ours. “The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof” (Psalms 21:1). It has been handed into our safekeeping only on condition that
we maintain it unspoiled. This approach to creation is also supported by the teachings of other main religions of the world.

Sustainable development
Pope John Paul II, addressing the United Nations Environment Programme in Nairobi, quoted from the Genesis to direct and lead the faithful towards the responsibility of the Lord’s creation. The Pope dwelt on the Church’s commitment to the conservation and improvement of our environment being linked to a command of God. God created all things and then entrusted them to the care of human beings who were themselves
created in His image as we find in the very first pages of the Bible.
The Pope explained that it is a requirement of our human dignity, and therefore a serious responsibility to exercise dominion over creation in such a way that it truly serves the human family. Exploitation of the riches of nature must take place according to criteria that take into account not only the immediate need of the people but also the needs of future generations. In this way, the stewardship entrusted by God to man will not be guided by short-sightedness or selfish pursuit, rather it will take into account the fact that all created goods are directed to the good of all humanity.
In a way one can undoubtedly say that Pope John Paul was laying the foundations for national strategies for sustainable development, a concept arising out of Agenda 21 which is a comprehensive plan of action to be
taken globally, nationally and locally by organisations of the United Nations system, governments, and major groups in every area in which human impacts on the environment. (see my article in The Sunday Times of
September 9).
Pope John Paul II continued with his teachings on man’s role and responsibility for the environment in his famous speech on the celebration of the World Day of Peace on January 1, 1990. The Holy Father emphasised that states should jointly implement internationally accepted standards and make or facilitate necessary socio-economic adjustments within their society.
In his keynote address, the Pope touched upon respect for nature, collective selfishness, disregard for others, dishonesty, the ecological crisis which reveals man’s lack of moral character and ethical values, interference in the ecosystem, uncontrolled destruction of animal and plant life and reckless exploitation of natural resources, emphasising the need for a sound economic, industrial and scientific progress.
John Paul II stressed that world peace is threatened not only by the arms race, by regional conflicts, by the never ending injustices among people and nations, but also by a lack of due respect for nature, by the plundering of natural resources and by a progressive decline in the quality of life. Such a lifestyle harbours a sense of precariousness and insecurity and “is a seedbed for collective selfishness, disregard for others and dishonesty”, he said.
Furthermore, certain motivating forces contributing to today’s ecological crisis reveal its moral character. We have now realised, at a painful cost, that “we cannot interfere in one area of the ecosystem without paying due
attention both to the consequences of such interference in other areas and to the well-being of future generations.”

A moral issue
Many patterns of environmental pollution, and the uncontrolled destruction of animal and plant life, and the reckless exploitation of natural resources underlie a most profound and serious indication of the moral
implication evident in the lack of respect for life.
The Pope warns that “even if this is carried out in the name of progress and well-being, it is ultimately to mankind’s disadvantage” because the “respect for life, and above all the dignity of the human person, is the ultimate guiding norm for any sound economic, industrial or scientific progress.”
A lesson to be learnt by the leaders of any social entity from this dramatic threat of ecological breakdown is the extent to which greed and selfishness – both individual and collective “…are contrary to the order of creation,
an order which is characterised by mutual interdependence.”
Our planet is administered, governed, ruled or dictated by politicians, who if guided by such teachings would definitely make our world a better place to live in. Unfortunately, politicians, worldwide, are more concerned
with their short-term delivery during the term with which they have been entrusted. The long-term vision is left for the electorate, if there is one, and for future generations to solve, if they are still around.
This is what has fuelled the environmental crisis worldwide, because of the expected quick results at the expense of hidden costs of long-term damage. No wonder Paul John II lamented that “…the seriousness of the
ecological issue lays bare the depth of man’s moral crisis” and “the air and its atmosphere are telling us that there is an order in the universe which must be respected, and that the human person, endowed with the capability of choosing freely, has a grave responsibility to preserve this order for the well-being of future generations. I wish to repeat that the ecological crisis is a moral issue.” (my italics).
Man, the most intelligent being created by God, is the only creation who can rebel against his Creator and who can destroy himself. Adam and Eve were the first to immediately oblige and rebel, and they were followed by
their subsequent progenies, when they crucified the Son of the Creator. It is not surprising then that man, the climax of intelligence on this planet, wipes out other “inferior” living species over which he has been given
dominance. It is also not surprising at all that man is the only creation who again through his ‘intelligence’, can sabotage his own existence – something he is very close to achieving.

Pope’s warning
Christians who still believe, by conviction or through convenience, that as the most intelligent being on earth, man has unqualified rights of dominance over nature, should do well to take heed of Pope John II’s
admonishment that “Christians, in particular, realise that their responsibility within creation and their duty toward nature and the Creator are an essential part of their faith” and that “modern society will find no solution to the ecological problem unless it takes a serious look at its lifestyle” whether they prefer to emphasise the quality of life enriched by spiritual values rather than the quality of life swamped with material possessions, but empty of joy.
At a conference on man and the environment on December 1971, Cardinal Villot, then Vatican Secretary of State, declared that “every attack on creation is an insult to the Creator”. As far back as 1986, a lone voice
boldly took a first step in this insular fast-desiccating intellectual desert, within the enclave of his social institution.
The late Mgr Professor Carmel Sant, on December 20 of that year, in his oration entitled Natural Environment: the biblical perspective, at the graduation ceremony at the Seminary at Tal-Virtù, courageously wrote: “It is man’s moral responsibility to care for God’s creatures around him, on whom his own physical existence and spiritual uplift depend. Hence it is not only within the competence of the Church and her ministers to intervene and take a definite stand for the defence of the environment, but their duty to take such a step”.
One needs to explain that the graduation ceremony was held at Tal-Virtù because the Faculty of Theology was booted out of the University at Tal-Qroqq, on the pretext that such teachings and studies should not be
subsidised by public funds. Now, almost 21 years later, the first ripples of that address have reached our shores. If only these directions can be taken in hand, in the name of the Father.
(To be concluded)

International Day for Biological Diversity

February 8, 2010

             12 July 2009

International Day for Biological Diversity

Alfred E. Baldacchino

Every year, the International Day for Biological Diversity is celebrated (internationally, but not in Malta) on 22 May, as declared by the United Nations for the promotion of biodiversity issues. This year, the International Day for Biological Diversity appropriately chose as its theme the issue of the introduction of invasive alien species (IAS). The International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN) defines invasive alien species “as an alien species which becomes established in natural or semi natural ecosystems or habitat, an agent of change, and threatens native biological diversity. These invasive are widely distributed in all kinds of ecosystems throughout the world, and include all categories of living organisms.” Plants, mammals and insects are the most common types of invasive alien species in terrestrial environments. The threat to biodiversity due to IAS is considered second only to that of destruction of natural habitats.

Invasive alien species

Invasive alien species have fearsome negative impacts. They:

• are one of the greatest threats to biodiversity, and to the ecological and economic well-being of society and the planet;

• are capable of establishing, invading and outcompeting native species leading some to extinction;

• can cause changes which can be irreversible; • can act as vectors for new diseases, alter ecosystem processes, change biodiversity, disrupt cultural landscapes;

• decimate crops;

• take lifts in ballast water and on ships’ hulls, possibly upsetting ocean food chains;

• worsen human health problems, like hay fever;

• some newly introduced plant pests even cause famines, claiming the lives of millions of people and displacing millions of others;

• feed on, hybridise with, parasites and outcompete native species.

Invasive alien species are active on a global scale. With the everincreasing global markets and the rise in global trade, travel and tourism and the concept of the free movement of goods, as in the European Union, IAS have every chance of further extending their range and numbers in this century.  

Economic costs

The economical damage and control costs of introduced IAS are indeed fearsome. On a global level, the yearly costs are estimated at $1.4 trillion. In Britain, combating IAS amounts to £2 billion a year; 60 per cent of invasive plants in the UK are garden escapees. Preliminary estimates indicate that the monetary cost of IAS in Europe amounts to at least e10 billion per year, and yet almost nothing is known of the impacts, as yet, for 90 per cent of the IAS. The marine environment is not spared either, and it is estimated that overall annual European expenditure to combat IAS amounts to e8.18 million. One of the greatest problems with regard to the control of IAS is that too many governments ignore such alien species, or procrastinate sine die until the effects are visible and can no longer be swept under the carpet.

The European Union

The European Commission recently became more concerned about the impact of IAS, many of which have bene-fited from the free movement of goods concept. These are having such a negative impact on the Community and threatening European biodiversity, that a number of policy options for developing a strategy to deal with IAS have been drafted. These are aimed at a coordinated approach and measures to be put in place immediately, and include a Europe-wide early warning system for reporting IAS. Such a harmonised approach is conspicuous by its absence. European Environment Commissioner Stavros Dimas said: “Invasive species are a major threat to biodiversity. Halting the loss of biodiversity in the EU will not be possible without tackling the problem of these unwelcome visitors. Given the way that these quickly become established and spread, measures taken by one member state can have no effect if neighbouring countries fail to take action or respond in an uncoordinated manner. The ecological, economic and social consequences of the spread of invasive species for EU countries are serious and need a harmonised response.” The journal Science1 recently published a paper that suggests that legislation is not enough to tackle IAS. It also points out that Europe lacks appropriate governance and institutional coordination across member states to tackle the IAS invasion effectively.

The Maltese scenario

In recent years, the number of IAS in the Maltese Islands has been increasing alarmingly. The most popular seems to be the red palm weevil, which, since its introduction, has devastated at least 300 mature adult palm trees. How did Malta commemorate International Day for Biological Diversity on 22 May, with the present theme of controlling Invasive Alien Species? The only reference to the subject was a press release from the Department of Information dated 25 May, in which the ministry responsible for agriculture informed the public that another introduced alien species – the tomato leaf miner – had, since April 2009, set up house in the Maltese Islands. It also informed the general public about the insecticides to use to eliminate this IAS. But worse still is the fact that when some species are declared as IAS locally, or on a European scale, these are still locally traded. To add insult to injury, invasive alien plants are planted by a government contractor, who is paid out of public funds. A case in point is the Hottentot Fig, a flat evergreen South African succulent plant with large magenta or yellow flowers, which spreads along cliffs, and spreads aggressively once it becomes established in the environment. All one has to do is take a look at the planted specimens on the roundabout leading to Malta International Airport, and at those established invasive specimens along the cliff faces on the southern coasts of the island. The Hottentot Fig is one of the IAS on the elimination target list of some EU member states, and is also declared as such by Mepa.

Besides a strong pair of hands and a virtual environmental column, a clear official vision, an iron will and a Minister for the Environment are urgently needed to give the environment the much needed boost on the lines of the obligations outlined in the EU environmental acquis. The aliens are here, there and everywhere, and in strong numbers.