Scientific group worries about future of Cambodian and S.E. Asian environments

The largest-ever gathering of tropical biologists and environmental scientists to meet in Cambodia has expressed strong concerns about several development trends in the country, and in Southeast Asia generally. 

Perils ahead for leopards and lots of other Asian wildlife

Perils ahead for leopards and lots of other Asian wildlife

Over 300 scientists from 29 nations met in Phnom Penh this week, representing the Asia-Pacific Chapter of the Association for Tropical Biology and Conservation (ATBC). 

The scientists expressed their concerns in a document entitled the "Phnom Penh Declaration" (which you can download here).

“We have a number of worries, but our most immediate concern is a proposed road that would slice through vitally important forest in Mondulkuri Province in eastern Cambodia, from Srea Ampos to Kbal Damrei,” said Seng Teak, Conservation Director, WWF Greater Mekong.

“This road would clearly imperil one of the biologically richest forests in Indochina, an area that provides critical habitat for rare wildlife such as Elephants, Leopards, and Banteng, as well as over 230 bird species,” said Mr Teak.

“Unfortunately, roads that cut into wilderness areas like that in Mondulkuri almost always open a Pandora’s box of environmental problems, such as illegal logging, poaching, and land clearing,” said William Laurance, a former ATBC president and director of ALERT.  Laurance has studied the environmental impacts of roads and infrastructure across the tropics.

“This is a critical time for decisions impacting wildlife and natural resources in Cambodia and throughout Southeast Asia,” said Teak.  “There are huge plans ahead for new roads, dams, mining projects, and other infrastructure that could have severe environmental impacts.”

“It’s absolutely vital that there be rigorous environmental impact assessments done before any major project is undertaken,” said Teak.  “And we need a precautionary approach to projects—to look at them very carefully to ensure that they really are essential.”

“If we don’t, we could lose a lot of the wildlife and natural ecosystems that make Cambodia unique, and that form the basis of our thriving and highly profitable tourism industry,” said Teak.

Australia's shame: World Heritage sites in peril

The world is struggling to protect its most crucial natural areas.  Poorer countries are faring the worst, but even a wealthy nation like Australia isn't doing very well.

Iconic species in trouble... the white lemuroid possum, found only in the Queensland Wet Tropics, was driven to the edge of extinction by a 2005 heat wave  (photo (c) Jonathan Munro)

Iconic species in trouble... the white lemuroid possum, found only in the Queensland Wet Tropics, was driven to the edge of extinction by a 2005 heat wave (photo (c) Jonathan Munro)

In total, 156 sites on the World Heritage List are recognized for their outstanding biodiversity values -- they protect parts of 31 of the world's 35 biodiversity hotspots, and a portion of all of its high-biodiversity wilderness areas.

But the first World Heritage Outlook Report -- released last week at the World Parks Congress in Sydney, Australia -- found that many of these sites are struggling.  Nearly a tenth (8%) are in critical condition, and nearly a third (29%) of 'significant concern'.

Unfortunately for global biodiversity, many of the critical sites are tropical forests.  These include Virunga National Park in the Democratic Republic of Congo -- home to the iconic mountain gorilla -- and the Tropical Rainforests Heritage of Sumatra, Indonesia, the last place on Earth where orangutans, tigers, elephants, and rhinos still coexist.

Also in critical condition is Salonga National Park in the Democratic Republic of Congo, a key refuge for bonobos, the smaller and remarkably placid cousins of chimpanzees.

Developing nations face many governance, economic, and social disadvantages that are creating profound challenges for nature conservation.

But even in wealthy, stable Australia, the picture is not good.  For example, the World Heritage Committee has repeatedly threatened to declare the Great Barrier Reef a World Heritage Site in Danger.

And the Wet Tropics of Queensland World Heritage Area is in the 'significant concern' category.  The site -- renowned for its unique biodiversity and cultural values -- faces a battery of threats, including its extreme vulnerability to climate change, scores of invasive species, growing threats from infrastructure and urbanization, and other perils.

Remarkably, research published last year in the leading journal Science rated the Queensland Wet Tropics the second most irreplaceable World Heritage site globally for its outstanding biodiversity values. 

There be dragons... a Boyd's forest dragon, another unique denizen of the Queensland Wet Tropics  (photo (c) Martin Cohen)

There be dragons... a Boyd's forest dragon, another unique denizen of the Queensland Wet Tropics (photo (c) Martin Cohen)

Notably, World Heritage magazine recently identified the Queensland Wet Tropics site as one of six 'Best Practice' examples globally.  So why is the site now perceived to be in so much danger?

In short, politics.  Both the federal government in Australia and the state government of Queensland are not considered conservation-friendly.  As a result, the Wet Tropics Management Authority, which is responsible for managing and protecting the Queensland rainforests, has been paralyzed.

The board currently has no budget, and only two of its six required non-Executive Board Members.  The federal and Queensland governments have decided not to make any new Board appointments until a Queensland government “review” of World Heritage management.

The news gets worse.  The federal government is now proposing to greatly weaken environmental impact assessments in Queensland.  One shudders to think about the potential implications.

If the Australian and Queensland governments continue down this path, one of the world's most important natural areas could face even greater perils. 

It’s time for the Australian and international communities to demand action from Australia's political leaders.  It's simply shameful to play political football with a site of such outstanding natural and cultural values -- a site that increasingly appears to be in imminent danger.

 

Will India slash environmental protections?

ALERT member Jean-Philippe Puyravaud tells us about worrying developments in his Indian homeland:

A recent news article in Nature reports that Indian ecologists are alarmed about the newly elected government approving big development projects without adequate environmental impact assessments (EIAs). 

They have good reasons to be afraid. 

At least the developers are happy...

At least the developers are happy...

The government is fast-tracking a wide range of approvals for major road, dam, mine, and infrastructure projects. 

In India and many other democracies today, environmental laws are considered by politicians to be a hurdle to development

Environmental laws are labeled red-tape, EIAs are deemed arbitrary, and environmentalists are slagged off as biased activists who act against the greater interest of the nation.

But is this really the case? 

In a corrupt society like India's, red-tape is really a euphemism for 'bargain'.  Favors are purchased from the government -- which then turns a blind eye to a project's real environmental impacts.

Are EIAs 'arbitrary'?  Most are not.  They are merely not up to an acceptable standard -- and the legal framework in any case is largely inadequate.

Environmentalists are delaying the nation's development?  Hardly. 

In reality, many problems are delaying national progress by reducing India's GDP, such as the inordinate number of traffic deaths on Indian roads, pollution, life-style-related epidemics, and widespread nepotism

In short, protecting biodiversity never sank a nation.

Can the newly elected government of India reduce red tape and economic hurdles while safeguarding its unique biological heritage? 

The signs are not promising.  With an avalanche of new development projects likely to be approved very quickly, the challenges for Indian biodiversity are likely to come hard and fast.   

 

Green groups in 'desperate' bid to halt Australian eco-calamity

DESPERATE.  That's about the only word that could describe the last-ditch efforts of Australian green groups to slow the Tony Abbott government's relentless march to push business and development interests, no matter the environmental cost.

Greenies are feeling blue Down Under...

Greenies are feeling blue Down Under...

Having had no luck at all in influencing the Abbott government, a coalition of Australian environmental groups are now imploring the Secretariat of the Convention on Biological Diversity -- a longstanding global accord to which Australia is a signatory --- to censure the government for its anti-environmental ways.

Specifically, the green groups want the CBD to slam the Abbott government's scheme for a so-called 'one-stop shop' -- a greatly simplified way to approve environmentally risky projects by devolving responsibility to the individual Australian states, where pro-development interests usually have more sway.

it's a formula for disaster, say conservationists, especially given the conservative nature of many Australian state governments right now.

Such measures are likely to lead to lower environmental standards, conflicted decision-making, and ultimately a loss of biodiversity -- all of which are contrary to Australia's commitments under the CBD, say conservationists.

Having exhausted virtually every possible avenue within Australia, conservationists are now being forced to look abroad for help.

It's a sign of the times and -- as summarized in this excellent essay by ALERT member Corey Bradshaw on his ConservationBytes site -- a telling indication of just how bad things have gotten for the Australian environment.