EarthTalk: The World Bank is often cast in
a bad light by green groups and in the press. What are their
eco-crimes, and are there any reforms in the making?
—J. Bloch, Newark, NJ
World Bank has been widely criticized for funding
numerous environmentally damaging projects around
the globe. Pictured: Construction of the Sardar
Sarovar Dam, a controversial World Bank-funded project
on the River Narmada, India that flooded thousands
of acres of land and displaced hundreds of thousands
© International Rivers/Flickr
created to finance the rebuilding of Europe after World
War II, the World Bank later took on a larger mandate to
try to alleviate poverty around the world. Unfortunately,
many of the Bank’s policies and practices in intervening
years clashed with conservation priorities. But the more
recent onslaught of global warming threats, along with greater
overall public environmental awareness, has forced the World
Bank to factor sustainability concerns into how it encourages
development moving forward.
to the Institute for Policy Studies (IPS), a non-profit
think tank, the World Bank has been widely criticized for
funding a series of environmentally damaging projects in
the 1980s, including the building of dams on the Narmada
River in India, road building into the Brazilian Amazon
and transmigration (re-settlement) efforts in Indonesia.
“These projects have led to a variety of adverse impacts
in borrower countries, including deforestation and displacement
of indigenous peoples,” reports the group.
response to the criticism, the World Bank adopted a set
of policies and procedures in the late 1980s to better assess
the potential adverse environmental impacts of its projects.
The Bank further developed a series of polices to guide
investment in such areas as forestry and energy. “For
example, the bank’s forestry policy prohibits the
institution from financing logging in primary tropical forests,”
highlights of the Bank’s first round of greening included
the creation of a special unit to oversee environmentally
and socially sustainable development, and the recruitment
of staff with technical environmental credentials to supplement
its professional core of economists. IPS reports that with
these changes in place, the bank has been able to start
developing a portfolio of environment-sector projects “ranging
from support for national environmental agencies to investments
in national parks.”
an independent internal review of the World Bank’s
sustainability impacts between 1990 and 2007 found that
even these new sustainability-oriented policies fell flat.
Researchers found that the bank’s private-sector funding
arm, the International Finance Corporation, was still promoting
the expansion of livestock herds, soybean fields and palm
oil plantations—all which accelerated deforestation
in the tropics, hastening the pace of climate change for
the rest of us.
need to begin to see the inextricable link between sustaining
environment and reducing poverty,” said Vinod Thomas,
director of the World Bank group that performed the review.
“It is clear now from the Amazon to India that if
environmental sustainability is not raised as a priority,
then all bets are off.”
World Bank tried to address many of these concerns with
the release of a beefed up Environment Strategy in 2001,
but analysts remain critical of the organization’s
performance and general commitment to sustainability. In
June 2011 the World Bank will release a new Environment
Strategy which it will use as a sustainability roadmap for
its projects over the coming decade. The focus of the Bank’s
sustainability work will be mitigating climate change through
the promotion of clean energy technologies.
for Policy Studies.
EarthTalk: Recent news reports have revealed
the discovery of previously unknown species inhabiting the
deepest parts of our oceans. Is anything being done to protect
this habitat before humans have a chance to fish it to death
or otherwise destroy it?
—Matthew Polk, Gary, IN
speculate that some 10 million different species
may inhabit the deep sea. Pictured: a ghostly grenadier
on the Davidson Seamount, an undersea mountain 75
miles off the coast of Central California. The seamount
is 7,480 feet tall, yet its summit is still 4,101
feet below the sea surface.
© National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration
it may already be too late for some of the deep sea’s
undiscovered life forms. Advances in so-called “bottom
trawling” technology in recent years has meant that
fishing boats now have unprecedented access to deep ocean
habitats and the sea floor itself where untold numbers of
unknown species have been making a living for eons. Scientists
speculate that upwards of 10 million different species may
inhabit the deep sea. This is biodiversity comparable to
the world’s richest tropical rainforests.
The Deep Sea
Conservation Coalition (DSCC), a group of more than 50 environmental
and other groups dedicated to protecting cold-water corals
and vulnerable deep-sea ecosystems, reports that trawlers
today are capable of fishing deep sea canyons and rough
seafloors that were once avoided for fear of damaging nets.
“To capture one or two target commercial species,
deep-sea bottom trawl fishing vessels drag huge nets armed
with steel plates and heavy rollers across the seabed, plowing
up and pulverizing everything in their path,” the
coalition reports. In addition, adds DSCC, large quantities
of coral and unwanted fish species are hauled up only to
be thrown back dead or dying. Indeed, the result of a few
hours of trawling can be the destruction of fragile deep-sea
habitats, such as delicate coral and sponge communities,
that may have taken centuries to grow and thrive.
also stirs up the sediment at the bottom of the sea. The
resulting undersea plumes of “suspended solids”
can drift with the current for tens of miles from the source
of the trawling, introducing turbidity throughout the water
that inhibits the transfer of light down to the depths where
it is needed for photosynthesis in plankton, sea kelp and
other undersea plants that serve as the basis for the marine
food chain. Also, ocean sediments serve as natural safe
resting places for many persistent organic pollutants (such
as DDT and PCBs). Dredging these sediments up effectively
reintroduces such toxins into the water where they are unwittingly
absorbed and consumed by the fish we eat and other marine
life already trying to cope with otherwise compromised undersea
habitats. The sediment plumes also reintroduce nutrient
solids from agricultural and other practices, increasing
demand for oxygen in the water (causing algae blooms) and
contributing to the outbreak of ocean “dead zones”
devoid of marine life.
What can be done?
For its part, the United States has banned bottom trawling
in its offshore jurisdictions, but the practice continues
mostly unabated throughout Europe and out on the world’s
high seas. DSCC has gotten upwards of 1,400 marine scientists
from 69 different countries to sign onto a statement expressing
profound concern “that human activities, particularly
bottom trawling, are causing unprecedented damage to the
deep-sea coral and sponge communities on continental plateaus
and slopes, and on seamounts and mid-ocean ridges.”
The statement calls on governments and the United Nations
to adopt a short-term global moratorium on deep sea bottom
trawling to try to provide immediate protection to the mostly
undiscovered biodiversity of deep sea ecosystems while governments
hash out longer term conservation and management regimes.
In the meantime, bottom trawling continues unabated in sensitive
areas of the North Atlantic and elsewhere, harvesting now
for us what our grandchildren may never know.
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