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By Heinz Sielmann


Distinguished Foreign Minister Genscher, Honored Guests:

I have had the good fortune to spend a lifetime active in the wilds in order to document on film the life of animals and the problems which they, as well as we, face from the environment. This experience, on all continents, has shown me that within the span of one lifetime, we have done so much harm to the environment that we have endangered our own existence.

Fifty years ago, when I was making my first film about animals in East Prussia, my home and a veritable Mecca for nature lovers, there were very few cars and very few roads cutting up the landscape. In the summer, the harvesters gathered on the large farms and I can still see them in long rows, cutting the grain with their scythes, bundling it by hand, manually loading and unloading it. At the time the three-field system was still in use, and everywhere one looked, one saw blue cornflowers, hedgerows, and spinneys, heard the beating of the quail's wings and the song of the lark. But gradually the meadows were converted to agrarian fields. Today harvest machines drive over enormous monocultures, cutting, bundling and threshing the grain in one quick operation. In order to make the land more profitable, 90% of the ponds and streams were filled in.

When I was a child, there were only 1.8 billion people on the earth. Now there are almost 5.4 billion, and soon it will be 10 billion, even though more than 1 billion people presently do not have enough to eat.

It is not just the staggering increase in the world population which is so frightening, but the continually growing demands which man makes on nature; we live from the yield of a layer of topsoil only 15 to 20 centimeters deep, and the survival of all plant, animal and human life depends upon this!

The balance of nature on our earth has evolved over a period of approximately 350 million years. In just a few decades we have injured that balance to such an extent that Nature is sending out SOS signs that are becoming more and more threatening. Just think about the hole in the ozone layer, about the ever-increasing greenhouse effect, about the diminishing quality of our drinking water, about the dying forests or the pollution of the seas.

From the Federal Institute for Botanical Studies, Ecology and Landscape Preservation comes the alarming news that half of the approximately 490 vertebrates in Germany are threatened with extinction. The continued existence of one out of every two species of bird is in danger.

In the course of phylogenetic development on earth, innumerable animal species died out before the origin of man, but evolution produced a continued further development and enrichment of living things.

Man's extermination of various animal species, chiefly by eradicating the biotype, is exactly the opposite of what nature does, because it leads to the impoverishment of life and leaves behind a dangerous void.

When we conservationists endeavor to preserve the remaining natural landscapes and the diversity of species, we do not do so simply because life on earth would be dull without them. We do not do so merely because we know that all living things have an important function in the happy balance of nature. We do it because we recognize that by creating monocultures from forest and field, and above all by destroying the tropical rain forests, we eradicate innumerable plant and animal species and in so doing we destroy a genetic potential for human nourishment and for medicine which is invaluable.

A year ago I began a television series with Lutz Bergmann for the new "Nature" network, work which is once again taking me over all the continents where I was active 30 to 40 years ago. I would like to show what we could do with our current ecological knowledge, what we must do in order to protect the last natural landscapes, the last wilderness, from destruction.

The consequences brought about by the population explosion, civilization, tourism and the destruction of nature are enormous.

In 1957, when I arrived in the Belgian Congo for an 18-month stay, the people of this giant primeval forest still lived with the ancient rituals of a religion of nature. Today, their forests are for the most part destroyed.

The situation is similar in the African savanna, except that since 1965 the population has doubled, and the result is that now during years of famine, the entire world famine relief force is hardly able to feed the starving people. Many of the animals which once made their home in the savanna can no longer be found except in the national parks, and even there the animals are endangered. In only 10 years, 80% of the African rhinoceroses there were poached because their horns are mistakenly believed to have miraculous healing powers. The African elephants, too, have almost been eradicated in that area for the sake of their ivory, or "white gold."

The awesome mountain gorilla, so close to us on the evolutionary scale, is also being threatened with extinction. When I arrived in Africa thirty years ago, there were over 1000, but today their numbers have dwindled to little more than 200. The reason for this is especially evident in Rwanda, one of the most densely populated countries in equatorial Africa. In order to obtain farmland and grazing land, the people are pressing deeper and deeper into the forests, tearing the animals' living space right out from under their feet!

It was only thirty years ago that chain saws made their devastating entry into the tropical rain forests. Before that it took days to fell a giant tree, but today the power saws can do it in thirty minutes. It has taken man only three decades to destroy 50% of the tropical rain forests. It is not just a matter of marketing the valuable tropical wood; this could be prevented by a ban on imports.

The chief danger is overpopulation, the poverty of the people. Every month, tens of thousands of farmers stream into the Amazon area alone. They are often armed with little more than a chain saw and a box of matches. Brasilian scientists have counted the number of fires started in order to burn clearings, through the use of satellite pictures taken at night. They reached the unbelievable number of 7,000 in one night. Every year, these fires send a good 2 billion tons of carbon dioxide swirling into the sky over the Amazon.

During the burning of the 700 oil fires in Kuwait, often called the largest environmental catastrophe of all time, 12 million tons of soot swirled into the air. As bad as this was, it is still only equal to the air pollution which is created by the Amazon forest fires every two days.

As the rain forests die, so too does one of the lungs with which we, and our earth, breathe

We have known for a long time that international cooperation is required if we are to be successful in preserving nature and protecting our environment. We need only to think for a minute about the cleansing of our rivers. What good is it if the people who live near the upper reaches of a river make an effort to keep it pure, if the people who live near the lower reaches dump their industrial wastes into the river, and into the ocean.

The protection of nature and our environment is an international task and an international responsibility! You, Foreign Minister Genscher, have been one of the first politicians to recognize and to publicly acknowledge the global interrelations and necessities of environmental protection.

It is largely due to your efforts that the allocation of German development projects is increasingly being determined according to ecological criteria, and that in the forgiveness of debt among the poorer countries, ecology is being given greater consideration. Forgiveness of debt includes the condition that the money then be used by the country concerned for environmental protection.

I quote at length from your plea:

"Whoever willfully destroys the fragile balance of nature in an entire region must be brought to justice before an international tribunal..."

"We desire that the countries of the Third World be given an equal voice in the dialog on the future of mankind in all areas, including the ecological one. We support the fight against poverty, a reduction in population growth, and the protection of the essentials of life. We support an international court of the United Nations, before which crimes against humanity, crimes against peace and crimes against the environment could be judged and condemned."

"We need an effective international law of ecology and we must establish an international system of control!"

"Man is still waging war against creation. We need a comprehensive peace agreement between men, between nations, and between man and nature. These are the tasks of a future world policy!"

In another quote, you say that the outlook for the 21st century, as we stand on the threshold of a new millennium, will depend on the decisions of the next ten years, and you remind us of our obligations to the next generation.

After serving for ten years on the committee of the Bruno H. Schubert Conservation Award, I know that it is easy to interest one's fellowmen--especially the youth--in the fascinating world of animals. It is difficult, however, to make it clear to young people who have grown up in the modern world which we created, that a natural landscape with its wealth of flora and fauna, once destroyed, cannot be restored to its original condition for all the money in the world.

We must place more emphasis on natural history and biology in our schools. We must change the way we teach. The vital and exciting theme of ecology and the balance of nature must be included already in the elementary school curriculum. Natural history must not be taught in the classroom alone, even with the excellent audiovisual teaching aids which are available. The students must learn about nature in the midst of nature. We therefore need a ecological garden in as many school districts as possible.

A matter of special importance is ecological education, in the exemplary way it is practiced today by the Association of German Game Preserves, specifically by Dr. Hatlapa in Ekholt near the gates of Hamburg, and by Horst Niesters in the Hellenthal Game Park.

We cannot leave everything to the federal government; there is an urgent need for more private initiative. Let's not forget that we nature lovers have a lobby, namely the large conservation associations, and in this area too, honored Herr Genscher, you have been a model of activity. During the post-war period, you were president of the German chapter of the World Wildlife Fund, the largest international private organization for the protection of endangered plants and animals and their environments, and you still maintain your ties to this important organization today.

Honored Herr Genscher, in each of your annual appearances before the United Nations you have appealed to the world's conscience to accept the responsibility for preserving our environment and leaving our world intact for posterity. For this, you coined the phrase "Foreign politics is ecological politics."

Because of your many years of effort, your political philosophy and your vision of a better ecological policy, the committee has unanimously decided to award you the 1991 international Ecological Eagle award.

Our heartfelt congratulations!

Translated from the German by Lynne Kvinnesland

Copyright 1996 PROMETHEUS
Reprinted with permission

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