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Reefs

12.58 pm

Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow): Only those who, like my hon. Friend the Minister and me, have had the good luck to swim in one can appreciate the full glory that is a coral reef. There are many reasons, medicinal and otherwise, why they are important as the cradle of fish. I thank the two young RAF officers who took me diving at an enforced stop at Gan in the Indian ocean while I was returning from an Inter-Parliamentary Union armed forces visit in 1965. I shall for ever be grateful for the opportunity to swim in the Indian ocean, which led to a lifelong interest.

The World Conservation Monitoring Centre in Cambridge, in particular Dr. Mark Spalding and the director Dr. Mark Collins, together with its associates in the United States and the Philippines, has produced an important report on the state of the world's coral reefs, called "Reefs at Risk". I should like to use my luck in securing this debate to bring the issue to the top of the Minister's in-tray. So many important reports get publicity and then gather dust.

"Reefs at Risk" highlights the crucial role of coral reefs in alleviating poverty--by supplying food and foreign tourist income--and as a natural coastal defence. Many of our fellow Commonwealth nations have coral reefs, including some of the poorest nations. Do the Government agree that the conservation of such natural resources is fundamental to their policies for poverty alleviation? I applaud my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Development and my hon. Friend the Minister for putting poverty alleviation at the top of their agenda. What can the Government do to support integrated sustainable development and coastal conservation in such countries?

The UK is among the largest coral reef nations, with more than 6,000 sq km of coral reef located in our overseas territorial waters. "Reefs at Risk" says that many of those reefs, particularly in the Caribbean, are in areas of high risk from human damage. Praise is certainly due to territories that have set aside marine parks and the resources to manage those sites, but the majority of coral reefs in those territories remain without any form of legal protection. What further measures do the Government propose to protect and manage those precious resources?

Proposals exist for a massive development of condominiums and a deep water harbour in East Caicos, Turks and Caicos Islands, which will include building work and degradation in an existing national park. Similar destructive developments are planned on some of the small islets off Anguilla, including the development of a rocket launching station at Sombrero Cay. Will the Government give a complete assurance that they will not allow those developments to take place at the expense of coral reefs?

The Government's new British Indian ocean territory conservation policy, covering the UK's largest area of reefs, which includes some of the most pristine reefs in the Indian ocean, is an important step forward that deserves high praise. What progress is being made towards the designation of Ramsar sites and strict nature reserves in that area, as laid out in paragraph 19 of "Reefs at Risk"? Will the Government also give an assurance that

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they will continue to maintain a fisheries patrol to prevent further illegal fishing incursions into the region from neighbouring countries?

I am on delicate ground here. I believe--this is not a universal belief--that fisheries protection is essential. A naval presence is necessary to protect the reefs from the depredation of Taiwanese, South Korean and other massive fishing trawlers that hoover up the bottom of the sea. I point out to my hon. Friend the Minister with some shyness that there is a huge base at Diego Garcia, which is British territory, not American, albeit that the base there is the biggest outside the continental United States. It would not be impossible to have a naval presence. I am not asking for an answer on that delicate issue today, but at least the Department might reflect on it.

Noting the Government's continued support for biodiversity conservation through the Darwin initiative and this country's position in coral reef conservation and science, it is surprising that the Darwin initiative has selected few, if any, reef projects. Does the new report provide a useful basis on which to prioritise and support future projects?

Will the Government consider supporting similar analyses for other coastal ecosystems that are vital for the people who live there? I am thinking particularly of mangrove ecosystems and poorly known but equally important seagrass beds. Part of the problem is that the huge fish that are found in reefs are extremely valued in places such as Hong Kong. They are captured live and set out in stalls, fetching huge sums. There is also a great temptation to catch fish for aquariums. We human beings must make up our minds what we are going to do about the problem, because sooner rather than later the great glories that are the ecosystems of the coral reefs will be in danger.

It is my wont to be lucky in Adjournment debates. As many of those who will read the report of this debate are understandably more interested in what the Government have to say than in what I have to say, I shall give ample opportunity to my hon. Friend, who has taken a deep personal interest in the issue. I place on record my thanks to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and my hon. Friend the Minister and to their ever-helpful officials, who have also displayed a passionate interest.

1.5 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for International Development (Mr. George Foulkes): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell) on his success in securing yet another Adjournment debate. When I was an Opposition Back Bencher, I knew how difficult it was. My hon. Friend has a talent that all Back Benchers should try to emulate. I also congratulate him on his interest in science, particularly this important issue. I understand that he is the parliamentary correspondent of the New Scientist and that he takes an interest in a range of issues in that capacity.

The Government also welcome the recent publication, "Reefs at Risk". We are glad for this opportunity to outline our response to this important environmental and development challenge. My hon. Friend has given me plenty of time to do so. In passing, I should like to point out that it is a great tribute to the House of Commons--readers of Hansard and visitors should note this--that we

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can move seamlessly from the problems of pedlars in the Isle of Wight to issues relating to coral reefs in oceans around the world.

The Government consider the publication of the report a timely wake-up call to the global community. This is the year of the oceans. As my hon. Friend will know, the G8 Environment Ministers agreed in April to promote greater and more co-ordinated action on marine biodiversity. We are at one with my hon. Friend in his concerns.

The coral reefs of tropical oceans are renowned for their beauty, as my hon. Friend and I have experienced from swimming in the oceans. I saw for myself in Belize and more recently in Nassau the beauty of the coral reefs, so I can underline what my hon. Friend said about that. They are also important as centres of biodiversity and a source of livelihood for many poor people. Television and tourism mean that even in our northern location--my hon. Friend and I live in relatively far northern locations--we are increasingly aware of the intrinsic values of the coral reef. We are often less aware of the threats to reefs, which the report brings out well.

The principal causes of decline are clear: there are five. The first is unmanaged coastal development where there is an inadequate institutional and legislative framework to ensure proper resource management. The second is over-exploitation of particular goods and services by destructive fishing or intensive tourism and the marine curio trade. The third is land-based pollution from domestic, industrial and agricultural sources. As tourism grows, such pollution increases. The fourth is sea-based pollution from mineral exploitation and cruise ships. The fifth and final cause is climate change and tropical storms, which physically damage the coral reefs. The challenge for us all is effectively to address those causes while, at the same time, meeting the legitimate development needs of increasing numbers of people and reducing the number of people living in absolute poverty.

I was grateful to my hon. Friend not just for mentioning the White Paper and the Government's commitment to poverty elimination but for his endorsement of it. The key aim of the Government's international development programme is the elimination of poverty. If he does not mind, I shall correct him slightly. He used the old term "alleviation". We are making it clear that we want not alleviation but elimination and eradication of poverty in poorer countries through the promotion of sustainable development. Our specific objectives are: policies and actions that promote sustainable livelihoods, better education, health and opportunities for poor people, and protection and better management of the natural and physical environment, which is what this debate is about.

The Government strongly support--indeed, theyhave been a leading proponent of--the international development targets to reduce by one half the proportion of people living in extreme poverty by 2015, and to implement national strategies for sustainable development in all countries by 2005, so that we can ensure that trends in the loss of environmental resources are effectively reduced at both global and national levels by 2015.

Concern in the United Kingdom over declining coral reef resources is not new. The Government and their predecessors have been aware of the issue for some time

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and have funded studies by some of the British scientific institutions, which have well-deserved international reputations for excellence in coral reef research.

I should emphasise that the degradation of the coral reef systems and other tropical coastal ecosystems, such as mangrove forests, which my hon. Friend mentioned in particular, can have a devastating impact on the livelihoods of very poor people in developing countries. I know that he is especially concerned about that. Such people, who often lack access to land or alternative forms of employment, are highly dependent on the resources and services that the reefs can offer. We must understand that, for poor coastal communities, degradation of reefs leads to loss of food security, destabilisation of the community structure and, often, migration to the urban centres, which creates increasing problems. If we are to protect coral reefs, we need to focus on the interests of local people to whom, quite understandably, global values may mean little given the grinding burden of poverty that they face. I shall offer just a few examples.

Astonishingly, coastal communities in the Maldives and Sri Lanka depend on reef fisheries for about 80 to 90 per cent. of the animal protein in their diet. In comparison, only 10 per cent. of the animal protein in the average UK diet is fish. That shows just how dependent such communities are. Furthermore, in the Maldives--a country of more than 1,000 coral islands--a recent study showed that some 17 per cent. of households have no source of income other than reef fishing, and that average household income varies between $25 and $77 a month. More than 60 per cent. of households in the coastal communities of Fiji, for example, are dependent on coral reef fisheries as a source of nutrition and income. Such dependence on the coral reef fishery is common in island states. Degradation of reefs that support the fishery can create poverty.

Other households in coastal areas are equally dependent on coral mining, which destroys reefs to manufacture lime and other building materials. In some coastal communities of east Africa, 85 per cent. of households are dependent on income from coral mining. More than 5,000 people earn a livelihood from coral mining in Sri Lanka. The ability of some coastal communities to build affordable housing depends on coral mining, yet their livelihood also depends on a healthy reef ecosystem. Such spirals of environmental degradation and poverty can be resolved only by sustainable development.

My hon. Friend raised the question of the theft of fish. Since the 1960s, Governments of south-east Asia have been concerned by the use of sodium cyanide solution to stun and capture coral reef fishes, as my hon. Friend described, which are exported for the aquarium trade. There is also some evidence of collateral damage to corals and other organisms. Regrettably, the use of sodium cyanide has become widespread, even though it is illegal in many countries. I am glad to say that the Government of the Philippines have taken a leading role in the fight against the users of sodium cyanide. In partnership with local environmental organisations, they provide training for fishermen in alternative catching techniques and have established laboratories to test live fish exports for traces of sodium cyanide. As a consequence, cyanide fishing has been reduced in the Philippines. We applaud that example of environmental management in action.

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Traditional community management systems have existed in some small island states for centuries and have controlled the sustainable use of resources of coral reefs. Pressures caused by increasing populations and inappropriate or badly planned development are breaking down the long-established systems, and community-based management alone may no longer be sufficient to contain the threats to reefs.

As "Reefs at Risk" makes clear, the causes of decline in coral reef health are in any case often beyond the traditional control of coastal communities. The origin of pollution and sedimentation is often far inland. For example, the recently documented decline of a coral reef system in the Philippines identified the cause as inland logging operations, which increased soil erosion and consequent sedimentation in coastal waters, killing corals and reducing fish populations. The main benefits of logging were obtained by commercial companies. The main costs to the environment, however, were felt by the poor in the coastal community. Analysis in the Philippines demonstrated that long-term revenue from tourism and fishing on a healthy reef system would have been $40 million greater than that generated by logging. Therefore, it would have been far better to go down the tourism and fishing route. We must encourage more of such analyses, as well as planning mechanisms that use the resulting information.

My hon. Friend put his finger on the key to the issue. An integrated approach to planning is essential if Governments are to protect the coral reefs and the livelihoods that depend on them. The Government are committed to such an approach in our development co-operation programme. There is a recognised planning framework to achieve it, which is known as integrated coastal management. That enables communities to participate with the Government in the identification and management of competition and conflict in the use of coastal resources. The Government have helped to introduce integrated coastal management, to address coastal resource use issues in coral reef and mangrove management on the island of Sumatra in Indonesia, and in South Africa. We are also funding research to resolve resource use conflicts in coastal areas of Sri Lanka and Vietnam. A great deal is being done by our Department in integrated coastal management.


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