Our seven deadly environmental sins

The seven environmental sins of our times are habitat loss, habitat fragmentation, habitat degradation and pollution, overexploitation, invasive species, diseases, and climate change (exacerbating all of the above)

Our seven deadly environmental sins
A replica of the Planet during the World Climate Change Conference 2015 at Le Bourget, France - Photo: Stephane Mahe/REUTERS
English 01/10/2018 15:29 Mexico City Omar Vidal Actualizada 14:23
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Pride = boastfulness, ambition, arrogance, hypocrisy, self-praise, obstinacy.
Remedy = humility.

We live in difficult times. Earth’s sixth mass extinction. Unlike the previous five, which were triggered by natural disasters, humans are to be blamed for this one. It has been called “the Anthropocene,” “anthropogenic defaunation,” and “biological annihilation.” What you call it is irrelevant, what matters is that we are the lead characters in an episode where biodiversity is being lost at an unprecedented rate.

Take WWF´s Living Planet Index, which measures the state of the world's biological diversity based on trends of 14,152 populations of 3,706 vertebrate species. It reveals a stark picture: between 1970 and 2012, abundances of global populations of those species have declined 58% on average, freshwater populations declined by a staggering 81%, terrestrial populations by 38%, and marine populations by 36%. Unless urgent action is taken global populations will decline 67% on average by 2020.

There are seven major threats to biodiversity. The seven environmental sins of our times are habitat loss, habitat fragmentation, habitat degradation and pollution, overexploitation, invasive species, diseases, and climate change (exacerbating all of the above). Our seven cardinal sins. The gravest and most insidious is habitat loss (pride), originating from unsustainable agriculture and livestock, deforestation, commercial development, energy production, mining and fragmentation of rivers.

Here in Latin America and the Caribbean, we boast of being home to 40% of the world’s biodiversity and with six nations (Brazil, Colombia, Mexico, Ecuador, Peru, and Venezuela) topping the list of the world´s so-called megadiverse countries, yet habitat loss, especially due to the rapid advance of agriculture and the cattle industry, threatens this natural heritage and imperils our future.

According to the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, between 1990 and 2005 this region lost 7% of its forest cover and four million hectares vanished annually between 2000 and 2010. More than three times the global rate. Honduras, Ecuador, Nicaragua, Guatemala, Belize, and Paraguay suffered the highest deforestation rates, with Mexico, Colombia, and Brazil doing little better.

Destruction of coastal ecosystems has been even worse: between 1980 and 2001, 40% of mangrove forests were lost to urban and tourism development and aquaculture. Estuaries—those enchanted areas where the sea and freshwater meet—are among the most poorly understood habitat and the most abused.

The gigantic, fatuous projects propelled by ambition and arrogance of governments, often financed by loans from international agencies and indebting entire generations, stand out for their insidious impact on the environment and local communities. Let’s focus on just two, separated by 9000 miles across sea and land: in China and Nicaragua.

The Three Gorges Dam in the Yangtze River is the world´s largest hydropower station. It began operation in 2009, costing USD$ 59 billion: arguably China´s largest project after the Great Wall. Construction of the dam and its reservoir not only displaced 1.3 million people but drove many species and populations of animals and plants to extinction, destroying entire ecosystems, altering the river and its delta, and wiping out priceless archaeological and cultural sites.

Even worse damage is anticipated if President Daniel Ortega has his way and sells his country´s soul to build Nicaragua´s inter-oceanic canal. It will geographically divide into two a politically already divided nation, and it will threaten Lake Nicaragua, Central America´s largest freshwater reserve. The canal promoters are the government and—what a coincidence!—Chinese investors from the HKND Group who have pledged USD$ 50 billion. Hypocrisy.

The canal would be 275 km long (3.5 times longer and twice as deep as the Panama Canal) and a total of 5 billion cubic meters of earth (241 million in the sea, 739 million in freshwater, and 4019 million on land) would need to be dredged, including 715 m³ of sediments of Lake Nicaragua plus 1.7 km along the Pacific coast and 14.4 km on the Caribbean. The environmental, social and cultural impacts would be massive. Compared to it, the Panama Canal will be Lilliputian because "only" 244 million m³ of land were dredged by the Americans to build it, including the 60 million m³ excavated by the French before.

According to Amnesty International, building the Nicaragua canal will seriously affect indigenous rights since it would displace 120,000 people. It would be one of the world’s most gargantuan engineering projects, taking place in one of the poorest countries in the Northern Hemisphere—and the Chinese developers will hold the canal exclusive concession rights for 100 years. A Faustian bargain indeed. HKND and the British consultancy company ERM (that prepared the environmental and social impact assessment reports) have both boasted about it: “[the project has] …the potential to transform global trade and make Nicaragua a major center for transport and global logistics. It would be one of the largest civil works endeavors ever undertaken.” Self-praise.

Although construction of the Nicaraguan canal was announced in 2013 and the government granted the permits in 2015, dredging and engineering work have not yet begun. Mr. Ortega´s obstinacy and disdain for democracy and for his country’s natural resources will probably led to his fall, and Nicaraguans may take soon their country back in their hands...without having to suffer the environmental, social and economic consequences of a mammoth project.

A good dose of humility may be the only effective counter-medicine to stem our excessive pride and save our environment for future generations.


Scientist and environmentalist Omar Vidal
Twitter: @ovidalp
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