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Environmental Challenges

Fresh Water
Climate Change
Extinction of species
Pollution
Deforestation and reforestation
Soil erosion
Invasive species
Energy and Environment
Migratory species
 

Introduction

Today's world faces many environmental challenges. This environmental dictionary of the Dominican Republic will deal with those challenges that are considered of highest importance for the Caribbean country, challenges that require immediate attention from the Dominican people in order to secure a future that is environmentally harmonious, socially just and economically viable, a future where the island's population can continue to benefit from the many goods and services that biodiversity and other natural resources have to offer.


Conservation of Biodiversity

Perhaps the most pressing environmental challenge that human population faces is the conservation of biodiversity; the preservation of the great diversity of life-genes, species and ecosystems - which exists in the biosphere of our planet, as well as its mutual interactions with the physical environment. One of the most important focal points of biodiversity in the world is located in the Caribbean region, and in this region, The Hispaniola Island is the most diverse of all the West Indies. However, stress factors such as climate change, fragmentation and degradation of habitat, the invasion of non-native aggressive species, the overexploitation of forest and marine resources and the pollution of water, air and soil, are threatening the planet's biodiversity, thereby endangering its long-term existence. To be able to face the increasing losses caused by humans, in 1992 the world's nations decided to create the Convention on Biological Diversity, sponsored by the United Nations. It is hoped that this agreement can promote the conservation of biodiversity, the sustainable use of its components and the fair and equitable distribution of benefits arising from such use, both in the Dominican Republic and in other signatory nations participating in the Convention.

While some species are in the process of extinction due to the aforementioned pressures, others take advantage of the spaces created by humans and spread to new areas. Among the latter are aggressive invasive species that are transported by human actions to places where they were previously not naturally present. Thus, there are many micro-organisms, plants and animals which after propagating and occupying new habitats, become aggressive and result in pests, damaging the environment and threatening many native species that live there naturally. In fact, at present, the invasion of exotic species into previously unoccupied areas is one of the biggest threats to natural life on our planet. Never before in human history was there a biological invasion of such magnitude. For this reason, the prevention and control of invasive species is one of the largest environmental challenges of our era.

Deforestation

Another environmental issue that deserves the attention of humans, especially in tropical and developing countries, is the deforestation and fragmentation of forest habitats. It is important to remember that approximately eight thousand years ago, the world had a forest cover of about six billion hectares. At present, the forests of our planet cover no more than four billion hectares, which are equivalent to 30% of the Earth's surface. No more than half of this area is covered by mature, non-intervened forests, formerly known as primary forests. From 1990 to 2005, Latin America and the Caribbean lost 64 million hectares of forest surface. During this period, the forest cover decreased from 51% to 47% of the total land area in this region. While the forest cover of the Dominican Republic was about 40,000 km2 at the start of the twentieth century, during the decades of the twenties, thirties and forties, between 10 and 15% of this forest mass was lost, leaving only about 35,000 km2. Today, in the first decade of the twenty-first century, there are only approximately 14,000 km2 of Dominican forest cover, due mostly to the conversion of forests into extensive agricultural and farming land. Fortunately, in recent times, the rate of net forest loss of Dominican mature forests is slowing considerably, thanks to the planting of trees in forest plantations and the restoration of forests through natural regeneration. The current use and the modern management of forests prove that there are places that experience progress and maintain or recover their forest cover. This trend is expected to continue in the decades to come.

One of the main causes of deforestation has been forest fires caused by human action. In fact, man has become the leading cause of forest fires, surpassing natural factors such as lightning. People frequently set fires, intentionally or accidentally, thereby altering the structure and composition of forest vegetation. As a result, there are uncontrollable wildfires of unimaginable scales that burn thousands of hectares of tropical rainforests. The Dominican Republic is one of the countries that suffer greatly from the impacts caused by these forest fires. The majority of fires are ignited intentionally for agricultural and livestock purposes, during the driest months of the year. In view of the scale of this problem, it is crucial that the Dominican people pay close attention to the management of these forest fires, in a coherent and integrated manner, with an approach that is mindful of the ecosystem. And in this context, it is important to discuss the approach taken to integrated forest fire management, as it goes far beyond conventional strategies for preventing and extinguishing fires and includes planned actions such as controlled or prescribed burns, community participation, and the enforcement of laws. The challenge now is to implement these promising techniques, to manage, in an integrated and successful manner, the numerous fires that threaten the biodiversity of the Dominican forests and that of the Caribbean region in general.

Climate Change

Another major challenge facing human beings today -and perhaps the greatest of our times- is known as climate change, which is the variation of the climate caused by human factors. This change may persist for prolonged periods ranging from decades to millennia. At the same time, it can have major impact on life systems that inhabit the Earth. It has already been proven that the increased concentrations of greenhouse gases (GHGs) and aerosols in the atmosphere are caused by emissions of carbon dioxide from burning fossil fuels such as oil and coal. These greenhouse gases trap heat in the atmosphere, resulting in a process of warming of the Earth's surface. Such warming has persisted for at least three decades and is exerting a significant influence on many physical and biological systems on the planet. Some of the consequences of global warming are the melting of glaciers; the rise in sea levels; the bleaching and death of coral reefs; the geographical displacement of species; the increase in forest fires; the increase in soil erosion and the resulting sedimentation downstream; more frequent and severe floods in plains and coastal areas; pests of invasive species; and ultimately, the extinction of species that are unable to adapt in situ and which migrate to more suitable sites.

Some strategies to fight the threat of climate change are the reduction of GHG emissions, mitigation through carbon sequestration in forests, and adaptation based on an ecosystem-oriented approach. In this regard, a key action will be to implement policies aimed at reducing GHG emissions and enhancing carbon sinks. It is hoped that through meetings of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) a consensus can be achieved on curbing emissions and promoting adaptation and mitigation mechanisms as soon as possible.

Pollution

Another major challenge that we must assume is the contamination of the environment. Biological, chemical or physical wastes that are dumped into the environment by humans are causing damage and imbalances in our surroundings and affecting the quality of our air, water and soil. Other types of pollution include luminous, sonic, thermal, radioactive, electromagnetic, advertising and cultural contamination. These are caused all by modern society which, with its technological progress and irresponsible conducts, is endangering the planet's physical balance. All this garbage, specially solid, liquid and gaseous waste, pollutes the environment, affects the health of microorganisms, plants, animals and, ultimately, of human beings. Addressing this challenge requires the urgent adoption of integrated and coordinated actions. We cannot continue to accept that over three million people die every year due to environmental pollution, as indicated by the United Nations. It is essential that we reduce exhaust fumes from vehicles, emissions of toxic substances from industries, and generation of smoke from forest fires.

Similarly, we must stop the pollution of streams, rivers, lakes, seas and oceans, caused mainly by the direct or indirect deposit of waste produced by humans. We cannot continue to allow fecal waste and wastewater discharges to be dumped into rivers, increasing the amount of coliform bacteria that alter the quality of the water and cause diseases in humans. Simultaneously, we must stop the pollution of freshwater resources, as it is one of the greatest threats to drinking water supplies in major cities around the world.

We must do everything possible to stop the contamination of soils, mainly due to industrial activities, landfills, solid waste, and agrochemicals such as fertilizers and pesticides. Such pollution adversely affects the productivity of soil, the quality of water, the palatability of vegetables, and the price of lands in the vicinity of landfills. A reduction in waste production, by recycling and reusing materials, will be one of the key strategies in reducing the levels of environmental pollution in the decades to come. In this regard, it will be essential to raise public awareness through early education and participative campaigns at the community and corporate levels.

Poverty

Perhaps the biggest challenge we are facing in the preservation of the environment is poverty, which affects large groups of people in many developing countries. It is estimated that a total of 1.2 billion inhabitants in our planet live on less than US$ 1 per day. This condition of life, characterized by malnutrition, illiteracy and disease, affects our ability to protect natural resources in an effective manner and in the long term. Fortunately, we now have some examples of how to eradicate poverty while preserving the environment. In Oceania, for instance, it has been proven that the creation of marine parks can help improve the income of artisanal fishermen who depend on fishing for their sustenance. With the arrival of marine reserves, they have been able to extend their activities towards the tourism sector, which has served them as an alternative source of income.

This and other examples illustrate the potential that environmental conservation has to improve the livelihoods of local populations through the diversification of economic activities. It is vital to seek additional financial mechanisms that are socially viable and environmentally responsible, to ensure the harmonious relation between development and conservation, in order to achieve poverty eradication and a sustainable future in developing countries.

Furthermore, in countries such as the Dominican Republic, where there is a political will to achieve a significant reduction of the current rate of loss of biodiversity, in addition to a strong interest in developing an integrated response seeking to attain a greater reduction of poverty, an even larger difference can be achieved. Given that everything starts with the population's interest in seeking solutions to environmental problems, in a constructive and collective manner, these elements are at our disposal to face the many environmental challenges that lie ahead.