On June 5, 1972, delegates from 114 countries gathered in Stockholm on World Environment Day for a landmark United Nations conference, the first-ever to focus on the environment. Some key decisions were made there that firmly put the planet on the political agenda. Twenty-six principles on environmental protection and human rights were outlined in The Stockholm Declaration.
Six months later, the UN Environmental Programme, or UNEP, was established. And June 5 was designated as World Environment Day, with the aim of annually reaffirming the commitment to protecting the natural world. World Environment Day was first celebrated in 1974.
As the decades rolled by, hopes of gaining the international political momentum needed to avert runaway climate change have taken some serious knocks. Some of the principles of the Stockholm Declaration – that damaging pollution must be prevented, and that natural resources and wildlife must be safeguarded, for example – seem like empty promises when viewed from a global perspective, particularly in the light of the COVID-19 pandemic.
World Environment Day Theme
The theme for this year’s World Environment Day is “Time for Nature“. It is a call to celebrate biodiversity just as the pandemic has highlighted our disregard for it. Activities such as habitat destruction, hunting and livestock farming lead to increased contact with animals. They are the source of three-quarters of emerging infectious diseases in humans. A new one appears every four months.
Today, World Environment Day 2020, is an opportune moment to make time for nature and to be thankful for the many benefits it provides – breathable air, drinkable water, nutritious food, carbon storage, a habitable climate and storm protection to name a few. Except, of course, we are destroying the natural support systems on which we depend.
Our insatiable demand for resources – from food to fuel, water to minerals – is putting such pressure on the planet that ecosystems are collapsing. The area they occupy has been slashed nearly in half. Without them, Earth becomes uninhabitable.
We interviewed Rhamis Kent, co-director of the Permaculture Research Institute, for last year’s series of earthrise. His words have stayed with me. “Ecosystem collapse is akin to organ failure in our own bodies. If enough of the organs that make up the terrestrial body are removed or are made sick, the body dies.”
Given how vital these ecosystems are for our own survival, failing to take care of them is not only a potentially fatal act of sabotage but also suicidal. In these five films, we explore some of the planet’s ecosystems most deeply threatened by climate change and biodiversity loss. And we meet the people who are passionate about protecting them and safeguarding the natural services they provide.
Coral reefs are home to 25 percent of marine life. This biodiversity is not only a vital source of food for millions of people but also of new medicines for diseases including cancer, Alzheimer’s and viral infections. But 50 percent of coral reefs have died in the past 50 years. In Hawaii, marine biologists have established a seed bank where coral sperm and stem cells are cryogenically frozen in a bid to safeguard these invertebrates’ genetic diversity for the future.
Forty years from now, we may have nothing left in the ocean … You have to be working years ahead of the game
Dr Mary Hagedorn, marine biologist
The world’s 370 million Indigenous peoples make up less than 5 percent of the human population and yet they manage or hold tenure of about a quarter of its land. Their traditional knowledge makes them the best guardians of their territories. In 2002, the Martu returned to their ancestral lands in Australia’s Western Desert, bringing back with them the practice of controlled burning. This boosts biodiversity and creates patches of land that act as firebreaks. Indigenous fire-fighting practices are now being employed in other parts of Australia to help prevent the return of the mega-fires that ignited the country from 2019 to 2020.
We’re teaching the young people so they can continue the practices of their ancestors
Waka Taylor, senior ranger
Ladakh’s Ice Stupas
Some scientists predict that, due to global warming, much of the Himalayas could be ice-free by the end of the century. As glaciers disappear so too does the freshwater that one billion people depend on. The farmers of Ladakh are on the front line. But local engineer Sonam Wangchuk has developed an ingenious solution – tall ice sculptures that gradually melt and release winter meltwater in the spring, when it is needed for crops.
People in the cities, if they could live simply then people in the mountains could simply live. Sooner or later it’ll come to their own doorsteps
Sonam Wangchuk, engineer
Half the world’s wetlands have disappeared in the past century, reducing their ability to perform vital ecosystem services, including groundwater replenishment, flood control and wildlife habitat. Ornithologist Cagan Sekercioglu is on a mission to protect the wetlands of northeast Turkey. These vital resting points for rare migrating birds are under threat from development.
These days if you are studying biodiversity it’s almost impossible not to become an activist because you are studying things that are being destroyed every moment you study them
Cagan Sekercioglu, ornithologist
Singapore: Asia’s Greenest City
The world’s urban areas have doubled since 1992. As cities sprawl and encroach on habitats, how can we enable nature to flourish within them? Singapore has one of the highest population densities in the world. And yet, it is known as Asia’s greenest city. With grassroots initiatives connecting locals to the land, vertical farms and living buildings sprouting vegetation, Singapore’s citizens are leading the way in developing initiatives that allow the benefits of nature to be felt within this dense metropolis.
What makes us thrive? It’s not really about having money, it’s not really about having all the tech stuff but really being able to understand that you are just a part of this bigger ecosystem
Cuifen Pui, volunteer