Africa, Development & Aid, Environment, Headlines

ENVIRONMENT: Cities Commit to Defend Biodiversity

Kristin Palitza

DURBAN, Sep 14 2008 (IPS) - Political representatives from 21 cities around the world have signed a declaration to protect and re-develop urban biodiversity in their towns. Each city committed to identifying five vital initiatives to conserve plants, animals and natural resources and put those plans into practice within the next 18 months.

From Africa, the Namibian town of Walvis Bay and four South African municipalities – Cape Town, Durban, Johannesburg and Ekurhuleni – are part of the Local Action for Biodiversity (LAB) project, which was kicked off in 2006 at the Sustainability World Congress by the International council for Local Environmental Initiatives (ICLEI).

“Cities occupy just two percent of the surface area of the planet, but absorb 75 percent of the world’s natural resources,” says Sebastian Winkler, director of ICLEI’s Count Down 2010 project.

Each participating city will select five projects to enhance biodiversity according to its particular natural environment. “The strategy and action plans are different for each city because northern and southern cities have very different needs,” explains Kobie Brand, regional director of ICLEI Africa.

In Europe, for example, cities struggle with the fact that they have little biodiversity left and are likely to aim their projects at restoring nature. “But in Southern Africa, the focus is more on protecting what we have, with the core issues being invasive species, climate change and habitat loss due to urban expansion,” says Brand. “Most of the fastest growing cities in the world are in Africa.”

The Durban municipality plans to develop a green by-law to protect threatened species and list invasive plants. The City of Cape Town will focus on conserving its lowlands.

By the end of 2009, the 21 LAB cities will submit an assessment report to evaluate their progress in protecting urban biodiversity, just in time for the International Year of Biodiversity in 2010. By then, Brand expects that LAB, currently a pilot project, will have doubled in size. “We hope to sign up at least another 21 cities by next March,” she says.

Brand says the success of the LAB project will depend on support from both politicians and environmental activists: “We need the political will behind the projects to make them sustainable. It is key for cities to realise that we can’t lose our biodiversity base and enable proactive steps to be taken to preserve it.

“We still need to shift towards long-term, sustainable thinking and unlock the potential for economic growth and job creation through environmental initiatives,” she added.

Durban city manager Mike Sutcliffe agrees with Brand, pointing out that developing countries like South Africa and Namibia need to balance the triple bottom line of economics, social issues and biodiversity to achieve sustainable growth. Cities struggle to find an equilibrium between attracting industrial investment and job creation, while addressing the population’s social needs, such as housing and sanitation and, at the same time, making sure to conserve the environment.

“We are often looking at short-term profits only. It is most difficult to achieve this balance,” admits Sutcliffe. “Our challenge is to balance growing industrialisation with quality of life.”

Environmental issues have been particularly neglected in South Africa. “The environment is still the third leg after economic and social development in terms of importance,” says Richard Boon, manager of biodiversity planning of the Durban municipality. To change this, not only political buy-in is needed but also the commitment of each and every citizen.

“We need to demonstrate the benefits (of conservation) to the people so that we can link service delivery to biodiversity,” he adds.

“In South Africa, economic development, infrastructure and service delivery have been competing directly with biodiversity,” agrees George Davis, deputy director of the South African National Biodiversity Institute (SANBI).

For example, there has been a big push for more housing – an important social service in a country like South Africa, where many poor families live in shacks – but new housing projects have often been constructed without regard for the environment.

“We need to change mindsets and start balancing social needs with the value of our ecosystems and species,” says Davis.

Although South Africa has progressive environmental policies and laws, the country has been slow in their implementation. “We don’t have the budgets, human resources or regulatory frameworks to put them into practice,” explains Davis. “The political commitment (to biodiversity) is not developed yet.”

South African politicians are only slowly waking up to the importance of conservation for long-term economical growth. “Biodiversity in an urban context never had political commitment. We need to reformulate our environmental strategy and get budgetary buy-in,” admits Cape Town deputy mayor Grant Haskin. “We need to think global but act local. Everyone has a responsibility, so does every city.”

One of Cape Town’s core initiatives will be the protection of its plant biodiversity. The municipality, which measures only four percent of South Africa’s landmass, has half of the country’s plant biodiversity, and more than 70 percent of the 9,000 species are endemic, not occurring anywhere else in the world.

Yet, only now have municipal authorities woken up to the need of preserving this natural habitat and urgent action is necessary. “(We are) on the brink of a biodiversity mega-disaster as we have 13 plant species that are already extinct and 319 threatened plant species,” warns Haskin.

One of the reasons that nature conservation has been slow is that South African municipalities face numerous implementation challenges, caused by complicated procedures, lack of accurate biodiversity data, resource limitations, zoning and failure to integrate plans and frameworks of different local government departments. For example, municipalities do not have dedicated conservation budgets.

“The big challenge is implementation. There has been lots of talk, but nothing much has been done on the ground yet. We all have problems with budgets and are underfunded,” says Julia Wood, biodiversity manager at the City of Cape Town. She stressed the fact that urgent action needed to be taken to conserve the environment: “Cape Town is currently losing twelve square kilometres each year in natural areas. Hopefully, LAB will help to change that.”

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