Mekong Environment Ministers Vow Natural Resource Conservation

SHANGHAI, China, May 25, 2005 (ENS) - Environment ministers from countries sharing the Mekong River today pledged to intensify cooperation on preserving their individual and shared natural resources.

In a joint statement at the close of their initial meeting in Shanghai, the Mekong environment ministers recognized that key economic sectors in the Greater Mekong Subregion (GMS) depend on the conservation and sustainable management of healthy natural systems.

"We acknowledge the importance of further accelerating the momentum of GMS environmental activities," they said. "We reaffirm our commitment for a better environment and sustainable development in the GMS."

Xie

Chinese Environment Minister Xie Zhenhua, heads the State Environmental Protection Administration of the People's Republic of China (Photo courtesy SEPA)
In addition to the ministers, the meeting brought together about 80 senior environment officials from the six Greater Mekong Subregion countries - the Kingdom of Cambodia, People’s Republic of China, Lao People’s Democratic Republic, the Union of Myanmar, Kingdom of Thailand, and the Socialist Republic of Vietnam - to take stock of achievements in environmental cooperation and discuss future directions in environment and natural resource management.

The Greater Mekong Subregion Program began in 1992 to promote closer regional economic ties and cooperation among the countries sharing the Mekong River.

Covering an area about the size of western Europe, the Greater Mekong Subregion is home to more than 300 million people. Its wealth of human and natural resources makes it a new frontier for economic growth in Asia.

The Greater Mekong Subregion is at "a defining moment in collaborative environmental management," the ministers agreed, with regard to the level of investment, the institutional arrangements and the emphasis placed on conservation and sustainable use of natural systems in the area's development agenda.

Five dams have been proposed within the GMS Biodiversity Conservation Corridors, while two more are within 10 kilometers of the GMS BCC boundary. All these will affect the watershed of the corridor and the flows of the Mekong River.

To "safeguard this resource base and unique biodiversity," the ministers endorsed the GMS Core Environment Program and recommended its early implementation to improve management of the shared natural resources in the subregion.

An Environment Operations Center will be established to coordinate the program.

The ministers also endorsed the GMS Biodiversity Conservation Corridors Initiative to protect high value terrestrial biodiversity conservation landscapes. The Initiative aims to help establish sustainable management regimes and restore ecological connectivity and integrity within important biodiversity areas.

Nine potential priority biodiversity corridors have been identified in the Greater Mekong Subregion with the advice and input from BirdLife International, the Critical Ecosystems Partnership Fund, the IUCN-World Conservation Union, WWF and others.

Conservation problems in these areas abound. In the Mekong Headwaters region, which spans China's Yunnan province, Myanmar, and Laos, conservation is described as "a salvage operation" by the Asian Development Bank.

headwaters

The Zhixilawu Monastery on the the Mekong Headwaters is only accessible by river or trail. Here river rafters visit the monastery. (Photo courtesy Shangri-la River Expeditions)
"Much of the natural habitat in this region had been converted to farmland and agriculture centuries ago. Thus, the forests have become highly fragmented," the bank's assessment finds. "Hunting has eradicated most of the fauna, especially the large mammals and birds."

Restoration efforts are viewed as essential, to conserve the species, and to restore the watershed and maintain critical hydrological processes and services in this Mekong Headwaters region.

The opposite problem exists in the Central Annamite mountains of Laos and Vietnan, for instance, where relatively little is known of the biodiversity of the area. Surveys are needed in the remaining forest fragments and potential habitat linkages before a conservation landscape and its core areas and habitat linkages are defined.

In Cambodia, the Cardamom Mountain rainforests are some of the most intact in the region. Rich with species diversity, this area is suitable for landscape conservation the bank's assessment recognizes. The elephant population is thought to be one of the largest in Indochina, and the forests have been recognized as a Level I Tiger Conservation Unit.

"The Core Environment Program is a systematic and integrated approach to conserve the natural systems of the GMS for the ecosystem services they provide," said Asian Development Bank Vice President Liqun Jin, who led bank's delegation to the meeting.

"It provides the framework to address the immediate and long-term stresses that rapid economic growth would, otherwise, have on the environment and natural resources of the subregion," he said.

Due to the subregion's rapid economic growth, said Jin, the number of people earning less than $1 per day has fallen by a 56 percent since 1990. At the same time, access to basic human needs such as clean water and proper sanitation has increased.

But the subregion is experiencing the tremendous pressure that rapid growth puts on the environment. "Across Asia and the Pacific, lands have been deforested and degraded, major areas of biodiversity lost, and air and water quality has significantly declined," Jin said.

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A new logging road slices through evergreen forests in the Central Cardamom Mountains. (Photo courtesy The Cardamom Project)
"The crucial question, then, is how to finance sustainable management and use of natural resources. Recent trends show that public spending on the environment is declining," he said.

Traditionally, we have relied heavily on government interventions in the economy to manage the environment, and overlooked the role of the private sector in the provision of environmental goods and services, said Jin, but today "significant opportunities exist for the private sector to use its technological expertise to capture opportunities and play a larger role in environmental management."

He pointed to the world market for environmental goods and services, currently valued at $515 billion, and forecast to grow up to $688 billion by the year 2010. The organic food market and clean production sector show similar trends. The environmental market in industrialized Asia was $19 billion in 1996 and is estimated to be over $50 billion in 2005. "In the GMS countries, a proactive approach will allow the corporate sector to capture tremendous business opportunities in these areas," said Jin.

The ministers expressed appreciation for the support of the Asian Development Bank, United Nations Environment Programme, and other development partners. They urged donor countries and international agencies, the private sector, and civil society to strengthen their support for the Greater Mekong Subregion Core Environment Program.

"We look forward to strengthening our relationships with development partners and seek their support and participation in promoting environmentally-sound development in the GMS," the ministers concluded.

The Second GMS Summit of Leaders is set for July 4 and 5 in Kunming, China, where the heads of governments will address sustainable use of natural resources and environmental protection for the subregion. There the ministers will submit the Core Environment Program, in particular the Biodiversity Conservation Corridors Initiative, for consideration by the heads of state and government. A declaration approving these initiatives is expected.