In Tune With Nature
of hope shine through the gloom of environmental neglect
The fishermen of Guilin, China, have long made a living
Humans have long made their imprint on Earth. China's ancient irrigation
works, for instance, and the rice terraces of the Igorot in the
Philippines are evidence. But it has only been in the past century
that human activity has threatened to extinguish the ecosystems
that sustain us.
Consider the sweep of China. Its billion or so people now live better
than ever before. This is highly lopsided progress, however. A recent
official survey of more than 700 mainland rivers found that close
to half were significantly polluted, with one in 10 considered undrinkable.
The culprit: industrial waste. Now, toxins such as DDT are being
detected in fish and other marine life in the South China Sea.
Across Asia, deforestation has wiped out some 95% of its frontier
forests. In the two decades up to 1980, a third of the region's
tropical forests fell to unbridled exploitation. News crews recorded
more vivid examples in 1997-98, when more than 5 million hectares
of Indonesian forest were set alight, mainly by plantation interests.
TV pictures are showing a repeat this year.
Environmental stewardship never had much priority in the region.
Yet it is not all gloom. There is incremental realization that ecosystems
perform an essential service, for example, in regulating the climate.
Scientists now have a better understanding of how forests play a
long-term role in locking up greenhouse gases, recycling nutrients
and maintaining watersheds.
And, as the following pages show, green groups and enlightened officials
can achieve impressive reversals. Southeast Asia's coral reefs,
the most species-rich in the world, are also most at risk from overexploitation
and habitat damage. But at the Tubbataha reefs in the Philippines,
consistent conservation has brought back not just fragile coral
but also more fish.
Regulatory authorities, too, are beginning to recognize the need
to preserve biodiversity, not least because little-known plant and
animal life may prove very useful in future. A role model: Kinabalu
Park in Malaysia, which is working with the local people to preserve
plant species. Here's to the next Asian miracle: Living in harmony
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