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Thursday, 21 March 2019

Biodiversity: On the precipice of danger

Magdi Allam, head of the Arab Environmental Experts Federation, explains to Mahmoud Bakr the hazards facing Egypt, and Africa in general, if biodiversity is further endangered

Mahmoud Bakr , Thursday 22 Nov 2018
Magdi Allam
Magdi Allam, head of the Arab Environmental Experts Federation (Photo: Mahmoud Bakr)
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Biological diversity is the cornerstone of sustaining life on the planet. Biodiversity, by nature, is renewable, unless man interferes in its composition to achieve short-term interests.

After Egypt lost 1.2 million feddans of agricultural lands, it started suffering a food crisis. Efforts are currently underway to build 200,000 greenhouses to make up for the production of 600,000 feddans.

Egypt is also working on preparing 1.5 million feddans for agricultural purposes, part of the national project adopted by President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi.

Moreover, some 485 million people in Africa are on the verge of famine as a result of losing 50 per cent of agricultural lands on the continent.

Magdi Allam, head of the Arab Environmental Experts Federation (AEEF), told Al-Ahram Weekly that signatories to three agreements are meeting in Egypt this month for the UN Biodiversity Conference taking place in the Red Sea resort city of Sharm El-Sheikh.

These are the 14th Conference of the Parties (COP 14) to the UN biodiversity agreement; the ninth meeting of the parties signatory to the 2000 Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety, a supplement to the Convention on Biological Diversity effective since 2003.

The protocol seeks to protect biological diversity from the potential risks posed by genetically modified organisms resulting from modern biotechnology.

The third is the Nagoya Protocol on Access to Genetic Resources and the Fair and Equitable Sharing of Benefits Arising from their Utilisation to the Convention on Biological Diversity, also known as the Nagoya Protocol on Access and Benefit Sharing, a 2010 supplementary agreement to the 1992 Convention on Biological Diversity.

The latter agreement seeks to utilise strains available in countries such as Egypt and Algeria.

“Each of these agreements is a source of conflict between developed industrial countries and developing states that suffer from the pollution emanating from industrial countries and that led to the elimination of 50 per cent of Africa and Asia’s biodiversity,” Allam said.

Biosafety concerns human beings, explained Allam, because, for example, hybrid seeds of strawberries, tomatoes and green peppers weakened the natural qualities of fruits and vegetables, resulting in the creation of tasteless and useless foods.

Conflict concerning the Nagoya Protocol revolves around medicinal and aromatic plants, local wormwood, mint and marjoram, for example, Allam clarified.

“COP 14 is titled ‘Investing in Biodiversity for People and Planet’ to highlight the importance of preserving nature’s creations. Man’s prosperity depends on conserving what we have, regaining what we have lost and preventing further deterioration.

“Three sectors are endangering biological diversity, the gravest of which is the energy and industry sector because of the resulting pollution.”

The second is mining. “Owners of quarries and companies invade nature reserves, such as Wadi Degla, to mine for marble to sell at the Shaq Al-Thoeban market. Sands are stolen at night from the Petrified Forest, and Snour Cave suffers from mining that will eventually lead to its collapse.”

The health sector endangers biodiversity in the sense that “to protect himself, man consumes, for example, wormwood, the price of which increases according to demand.

When demand is high the lands cultivated with wormwood decrease, or its genetic qualities change, losing its therapeutic effect.” Allam cites another example, that of local green peppers that have mutated into bell peppers of bigger sizes and different colours, resulting in the appearance of other forms of diseases.

“Protecting nature reserves’ infrastructure means making available all the basic elements to preserve biodiversity wherever it is located through connecting services to biodiverse areas without affecting the general infrastructure network of roads, water and sewage pipes, electricity lines, or fuel and gas pipelines.”

A draft biodiversity declaration is currently being discussed to achieve these goals.

Allam told the Weekly that three conditions should be taken into consideration if applying the title “Investing in Biodiversity for People and Planet” is to succeed.

These are “preserving human health and that of all living creatures; ensuring that biodiversity continues growing for the welfare of man by conserving the quality of soil, air and water; and making available food and medicine”.

The safety of the planet is guaranteed by investing in activities that achieve zero pollution, he noted.

He said “the disappearance of the marine turtle from the Mediterranean Sea and kites and the extensive existence of crows are affecting the health and prosperity of man.”

Egypt launched an initiative to merge the agreements on biodiversity, desertification and climate change. “This is a good initiative but I hope it will surpass the UN’s bureaucracy when it comes to ‘conflicts over specialisations’. For each agreement, there is a regional manager and a crew that have to deal with crises that usually take some time to be administratively sorted out because of the lack of financial resources.”

Allam said what concerns Africa concerns Egypt. “The environmental systems are the same. We share the same seas, rivers and deserts.

The Red Sea stretches from Egypt all the way to Mauritius. The River Nile runs from Egypt to Ethiopia through nine countries — the Nile Basin states. The same goes for the Great Sand Sea.

This is how Egypt is connected to Libya, Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco, Mauritania, Niger, Chad and Sudan.

As much as Africa, Egypt is affected by climate change.

Egypt suffers from further desertification if it increases in Africa, and the same goes for heat and winds.

”The Nile Basin and Ethiopian Highlands have been deeply affected by climate change," Allam explained.

"The levels of rain water in Victoria Lake decreased, consequently affecting the River Nile.The Ethiopian Highlands suffered from the lack of rain throughout the past three years, affecting countries in the south of Africa, one of whose cities reached zero water levels. “Scientists warned about this years ago but nobody believed it until it happened.”

Egypt and Africa were affected by excessive hunting, such as that of the ostrich, the Egyptian hyena and the Fennec fox, Allam laments. “In Africa, elephants are hunted for ivory and alligators for leather. African forests have shrunk to a third of their size, consequently leading to the vanishing of a third of the creatures that inhabit forests.”

It is an intertwining cycle, he concluded.

“It eventually leads to negative effects on the GDP of countries, delayed tourism growth and decreasing people’s incomes.”

* A version of this article appears in print in the 22 November, 2018 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Biodiversity on the precipice of danger

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