Magazine article UNESCO Courier

A Coastal Balancing Act. (Planet)

Magazine article UNESCO Courier

A Coastal Balancing Act. (Planet)

Article excerpt

The rich biodiversity of coastal regions can be protected without chasing away tourism and other activities. On one condition: that local people play the lead role in steering conservation projects, says coastal expert Stephen B. Olsen (*)

The first time coastal protection appeared on the international agenda was at the 1992 Rio Earth Summit. What progress has been made since then?

Quite a lot. We've gone from talking about general concepts to concrete achievements, such as the Integrated Coastal Management (ICM) programmes. To be effective, these have to involve conflicting groups such as the private sector (industry and tourism), fishermen, villagers and NGOs and make them realize that they have to work together. In 2000, there were over 300 such programmes operating in 95 countries, including many developing nations. We've also had to face the painful fact that not everything can be saved. We have to make choices because unfortunately, in some places, population pressure is so high that there's nothing left to preserve. If you visit the main Mediterranean tourist areas in Italy, Spain or Tunisia, you can see the high price being paid for ill-conceived development.

So tourism isn't compatible with protecting coastal areas?

Not always. That's certainly been the case in large areas of the Mediterranean and of the United States. But in many other countries, such as Cuba and Costa Rica, you can see much more thoughtful tourist development going on. A few years ago, I worked as a consultant on a project in the Sabana and Camaguey islands, off the north coast of Cuba, where the government had begun to build huge hotels almost on the beach. You reached them by pedriplanes, roads which crossed the lagoon and caused major ecological and water-flow problems. Under the project, sponsored by the Global Environment Facility, (1) the Cubans completely changed the design, location and density of the islands' infrastructure, resulting in very elegant and environmentally friendly tourist facilities. At great expense, the pedriplanes were removed and replaced by structures that allowed the water to flow freely. Today, the area attracts tourists and the lagoons are in better condition.

The second World climate conference will be held in South Africa in 2002. What's the message to it as far as coastal protection is concerned?

The big challenge is to help local people change the way they live and make authorities more responsive. The problem isn't a technical one, a question of know-how or even money. You can do plenty of good things without much money, as long as you build local capacity and commitment and not just send in outside experts like me. The problem is that experts often want to create prosperity as quickly as possible without thinking about the future.

But nearly half the global population lives in coastal areas and 12 of the world's 15 biggest cities are by the sea. What problems does this create for coastal areas?

The problems are all to do with human activity, though they aren't the same everywhere. The most common one is the poor location of roads, docks and infrastructure along coasts; the destruction of major habitats such as coral reefs, marine and wetland food sources; and pollution of water by sewage dumping. The other big problem is over-fishing or fishing with aids like dynamite that damage the ecosystem. It destroys basic habitats that are key to the life-cycle of fish and shellfish. …

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