The Guest Column

24th September 1996

Four years after the Earth Summit

by Stanley Kalpage

One of the largest gatherings of political leaders in the earth’s history met in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil in June 1992. They endorsed Agenda 21, a blueprint pointing the way for countries to put into action their own plans for sustainable development. Sri Lanka too prepared a ‘National Environmental Action Plan 1992-1996’, based on national priorities and an assessment of resources available.

Concepts regarding development strategy have changed. Development which merely increases the national wealth of a country is no longer the prime objective. As the UN’s first development decade was drawing to a close, towards the end of the 1960s, it became evident that the development model adopted by the industrialised west was causing serious damage to the environment. The conscience of the world was sufficiently aroused for the United Nations to convene an international conference on the environment in Stockholm, Sweden in 1972.

The Stockholm conference on the environment reviewed the prevailing situation and made a number of recommendations for governments to implement. Several countries set up ministries in charge of environmental concerns and enacted legislation to reduce environmental pollution by reducing toxic materials released from factories, oil refineries and manufacturing sites.

Global warming

Two factors emerged as being the consequence of global environmental degradation making planet earth increasingly dangerous for human habitation. These were global warming and the depletion of the ozone layer resulting from the rapid and explosive industrial growth in the west and in Japan. Global warming is the rise in average atmospheric temperatures caused by an increase in carbon dioxide and other ‘greenhouse gases’ as a result of the earth’s ecosystems, like forests, being unable to absorb them.

Global warming, if not arrested, could cause polar ice-caps to melt and result in a rise in the level of the oceans. Small island countries such as the Maldives in the Indian Ocean or Vanuatu in the Pacific could be submerged if the ocean levels rise by only a few centimetres.

Equally alarming is the depletion of the ozone layer which prevents harmful radiation from the sun reaching the earth’s surface. This has been attributed to the release of excessive amounts of chlorofluorhydrocarbons (CFCs) from refrigeration cooling substances, aerosols, hair sprays and similar products. Harmful radiation reaching the earth’s surface cause cancers occurring with increasing frequency in temperate countries. Gaps in the ozone layer, called ozone holes, were responsible for the increase in prevalence of skin cancers.

Sustainable development

In 1972, the World Commission on Environment and Development chaired by Gro Harlem Brundtland, Prime Minister of Norway, published a report, ‘Our Common Future’, which identified the real cause of rapid environmental degradation, as un-sustainable patterns of development. The remedy, the report said, was to substitute ‘sustainable development’ in all parts of the globe.

As a follow-up to the warnings sounded in ‘Our Common Future’, the UN General Assembly in 1990, decided to hold an Earth Summit in Rio De Janeiro in June 1992. To prepare for this event, four preparatory committees (‘prepcomms’) met in Nairobi, Geneva and New York, during the intervening period.

These ‘prepcomms’ drafted the Rio Declaration, a statement of environment principles for national behaviour, an agreement on forest principles, and an ambitious document called Agenda 21, a detailed blueprint, containing programmes and outlining plans, together with an estimate of the funding needed, for sustainable development. Detailed treaties, or conventions, were also prepared separately by intergovernmental groups to combat global warming and to conserve animal and plant life (the earth’s biodiversity) which maintain the complex eco-systems responsible for keeping the environment clean. Agenda 21 is a detailed work plan or an agenda for action.

Sri Lanka’s plans

In 1992, Sri Lanka prepared a National Environmental Action Plan 1992-1996, based on national priorities and on an assessment of resources available. Sri Lanka is still predominantly rural and agrarian. Nearly 80 percent of the population live in rural areas and over 45 percent depend on agriculture for a living. Within a total land area of 25,000 square miles and a population of 18.4 million, Sri Lanka is one of the most densely populated countries in Asia with over 700 persons per square mile.

Soil erosion is still widely prevalent in most agricultural areas in Sri Lanka and is worst in the mid-country at elevations of 900 to 3000 feet. Steep slopes on which tobacco is grown, have a particularly high soil erosion rate. Soil erosion also occurs on land subject to shifting cultivation. Appropriate soil conservation measures are needed.

Agenda 21 states that, ‘’fresh water resources are an essential component of the earth’s hydrosphere and an indispensable part of all terrestrial eco-systems. Sri Lanka is well-known for its early ‘hydraulic civilization’. The extensive irrigation network which flourished during the hydraulic civilization for more than 1700 years collapsed during the 17th century. Today irrigation absorbs about 10 percent of public sector investment and covers 22 percent of agricultural lands under irrigation. Water needs to be conserved and used efficiently . As the quality of water deteriorates, health issues become serious.

Agenda 21 highlights the sustainable use and the conservation of marine living resources under national jurisdiction where nearly 95 percent of all marine fishing is done. Sri Lanka’s coastal region along its nearly 1600 km of coastline supports fisheries that supply the population with most of its animal protein. Tourism, one of the country’s main industries, depends to a large extent on the beaches, recreation resorts and national parks found in the coastal region. The degradation of mangroves and coastal reefs, coastal erosion and pollution and the possibility of sea-level rise are environmental issues of concern to Sri Lanka.

Forest cover

Forest play an important role in the preservation of the biological diversity of plant and animal life on planet earth. Forests are regarded as ‘sinks’ which absorb carbon dioxide, a main source of global warming. In the international negotiations to formulate a legally-binding forestry convention, developed countries focused on reducing the cutting of tropical rain forests where much of the world’s current deforestation is occurring.

At the Earth Summit, Malaysia and Brazil, on the other hand, wanted conservation of all forests, including those in temperate and Arctic latitudes. Ultimately, a non-legally binding statement of principles for a global consensus on the management, conservation and sustainable development of all types of forest was all that the Earth Summit could achieve.

From very early times, the natural forests of Sri Lanka were carefully managed and preserved. A close relationship existed between human beings and forests. Under foreign colonial rule from the 16th to 18th centuries, forest resources were increasingly exploited. Deforestation was particularly rapid from 1881 to 1900 when the forest cover had dropped to 70 percent.

By 1989, only an estimated 24 percent of the land remained under natural forest. Deforestation and forest degradation are important environmental issues in Sri Lanka. Forests are cut for timber and for fuelwood. Illegal felling of forest trees and illicit gemstone mining cause forest degradation. Forestry development programmes need to be implemented by the government in association with foreign agencies and NGOs.

Urban pollution

Sri Lanka has not witnessed the large scale migration into urban areas so prevalent in other parts of the world. Only 21 percent of Sri Lankans live in urban areas, where the principal urban environmental issues are inadequate domestic and solid waste disposal and the loss of urban storm water basins due to the filling of low-lying marshland areas for urban development, including housing.

Manufacturing industry accounts for less than 20 percent of Sri Lanka’s GDP. Most of the few heavy large-scale industries including petroleum and paper are publicly owned. With the implementation of new industrialisation policies, including privatisation, more industrial pollution is likely to become problematical.

Industrial pollution has to be addressed through measures such as an environmental protection licensing schemes and mandatory environmental impact assessments of all proposed industrial ventures likely to involve pollution.

There are ways in which the abundance of the earth can be used for the benefit of all human beings if population growth is controlled and sustainable development is practised everywhere. Agenda 21 shows the way. It is for the nations of the world severally and together in a global partnership to practise what their leaders endorsed at the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro four years ago.

Sri Lanka needs to review the implementation of its own National Environment Action Plan 1992-96 and continue with action to implement Agenda 21.

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