29th April 2001
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The heat is on

By Ruth Sutton
"Only after the last tree has been cut down 
Only after the last river has been poisoned 
Only after the last fish has been caught 
Only then will we find that we cannot eat money" 

- Cree Prophecy

"We see a parade of cars in Colombo, each asserting its dominance, spewing out black fumes of poison," said American professor Dr. Robert Wei, describing the dangers of the fumes and carcinogens in Colombo's atmosphere. There was, he pointed out, worldwide "a high correlation between exposure to traffic fumes and particular cancers". 

Dr. Wei, who is attached to the Department of Chemistry at Cleveland University - Ohio, is researching air pollution in Sri Lanka, while also teaching and developing the M.Sc curriculum in Environmental and Industrial Chemistry at the University of Kelaniya. He was speaking at the Earth Day programme organised by the U.S Embassy in Colombo last week. 

A scientist dedicated to increasing knowledge and public awareness on pollution, Dr Wei warned of the high levels of carcinogenic chemicals in the air. Although the chemistry of the most hazardous particles from car fumes - polycydic aromatic hydrocarbons - (known as PAHs) is complex, and the exact nature of its interaction with humans is still being deciphered, what is clear, is that pollution from cars is a danger to humans. 

Expanding on Colombo's pollution problems, Dr. Wei said one of the most effective ways to minimize this risk is to keep vehicles properly maintained to reduce the amount of toxic waste released into the air. 

He stressed the need for further research and campaigning action in this area pointing to the success of anti-leaded fuel campaigns in the US and Europe, where people lobbied the authorities after it was proven that leaded fuel was harmful to children. 

Here in Sri Lanka, the Environmental Foundation Ltd. is mounting a campaign to end the use of harmful leaded fuel.

But pollution is only one of the many pressing issues facing us. The situation is certainly graver than it was when the first Earth Day was celebrated in 1970 with a spontaneous uprising of people of all ages and cultures across the U.S. Last week, the U.S Embassy in Colombo marked Earth Day (April 22) with the message that "every day should be an Earth Day".

Earth Day was the brainchild of dedicated environmentalist and conservationist Senator Nelson. His aim was to bring into the political limelight, what he regarded as an inexorable slide towards an impending environmental crisis. He called on the American people to demonstrate their concern about what was happening to their air, land, and water and spur the government and corporate America into action. 

The response was astonishing. He had hit the nerve of a generation. His idea was the spark that galvanized a highly politicized young America to put environmental responsibility on the political and corporate agenda. 

The truly remarkable feature about that first Earth Day was not just that 20 million demonstrators took to the streets: it was that the day organized itself. 

So great was the concern over the lack of importance attached to the environment that a dynamo force - fuelled by a multitude of concerned citizens -took hold at the grassroots level and swept the nation with an unforeseen intensity.

U.S. Ambassador to Sri Lanka, Ashley Wills opened last week's Earth Day session at the American Information Resource Center. Although he modestly described himself as "not an expert, but merely a keen observer of environmental matters", he revealed that he had been a correspondent to a leading U.S. environmental magazine and was inspired by the phenomenon that was the Earth Day. 

Concerns about the environment have increasingly been brought into the public arena over the past few decades. This is not only due to increasingly radical groups playing the media game or eco-warriors becoming more organized, but because of a groundswell of opinion among "ordinary" people across the world. This has produced a quiet "green revolution" that has brought environmental issues into the economic, political and humanitarian mainstream.

So what are the current global environmental concerns? What in practical terms are governments and multinational companies doing to ensure that all aspects of their businesses include an environmental dimension?

The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) was set out in 1992 in response to the problem of global warming due to an increase of " greenhouse gases" from industry and vehicles. 

The Convention sets out an ultimate objective of stabilizing greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system. It directs that 'such a level should be achieved within a time frame sufficient to allow ecosystems to adapt naturally to climatic change, to ensure that food production is not threatened and to enable economic development to proceed in a sustainable manner'.

The Convention's primary success lay in overcoming the fundamental hurdle - that the nations of the world put aside their differences to co-operate on a crisis of global proportions. By September 2000, it had over 186 countries as signatories - not just in acceding to the ethos of the convention, but in providing the instruments of ratification. 

The Kyoto Protocol - set out in 1997 by the world's industrialized nations - aims to assign a method, time-scale and monitoring procedures to the UNFCCC. Much has been made of the USA's current refusal to sign this protocol and subsequently bring it into force, but Ambassador Wills explains, "It is not that President Bush has rejected the idea of curbing emissions, it is the terms of the protocol, that are problematic. The economic and human impact must be considered, as well as questions of equity and justice." 
Good place to start

So what can an individual in Sri Lanka do to protect the environment?

Information, awareness raising and education are the keys. The Environmental Foundation Ltd, an organization of scientists, lawyers, campaigners, mediators and educators is an excellent starting place; likewise "Ruk Rakaganno" - a group of activists who inform and campaign on all aspects of the environment and ecological protection.

The work of the Environmental Foundation ranges from challenging multinational banks and companies on their environmental record, fighting actions on behalf of the public on ecological issues, to spearheading campaigns to get the government's attention, and creating education programmes for wildlife and forestry personnel, as well as schools and the general public. 

Those interested could contact the Environmental Foundation tel - Colombo 697226, e-mail to: HYPERLINK visit their website on www.elaw/partners/efl.html. 

The work of "Ruk Rakaganno" is based on the philosophy that we need the earth, and all its workings, and the earth needs us. More details could be had by writing to Ruk Rakaganno, 14 Araliya Gardens, Nawala Road, Rajagiriya.

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