The Black Sea Symposium took place in September 1997 and was held under the auspices of His All Holiness the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew and His Excellency Mr. Jacques Santer, President of the European Commission.
The Black Sea is today among the most degraded parts of the world’s seas and requires full attention. Until the middle of the last century there was little evidence of human impact on the Black Sea or its flora and fauna. Since then, however, the accelerating deterioration has become evident and in the 1990s the situation was considered as approaching an ecological crisis. Large-scale environmental changes were diagnosed: biodiversity declined as some species and ecosystems were virtually eliminated, fish stocks were reduced, and pollution reached an alarming level. The major chain of events started sometime in the 1960s with an increase in nutrient (fertilizers used in agriculture) input through the major rivers resulting in excessive plankton blooms and events associated with them. At about the same time toxic pollutants from industries located on the coast and mostly along the Black Sea’s tributary rivers, as well as household wastes from expanding urbanisation, started to reach the Sea in ever increasing quantities. In the mid-1980s an exotic organism (Mnemiopsis leidyi) arrived in ships’ ballast waters. Since it did not have a natural predator in the Black Sea, it multiplied explosively, with an enormous impact on the Sea’s ecosystem and commercial fisheries.
The decline of the Sea’s ecosystem resulted in considerable economic losses, particularly in two sectors: fisheries and tourism. The latter is affected by frequent closure of beaches and outbreaks of waterborne diseases (such as cholera) caused by inadequate treatment of domestic wastes.
The overarching goals of the Symposium were:
- to examine the general, and some site-specific, environmental problems of the Black Sea in their scientific and societal context through an informal dialogue;
- to raise public awareness about the present state of the Black Sea’s environment and about the forces contributing to its continuing decline; and
- to suggest approaches and measures that may mitigate or reverse the accelerating degradation of the Black Sea.
In order to achieve these goals the Symposium focused on societal aspects and particularly on the role religion could play in raising public awareness about man’s relation to, and responsibility for, the environment including the need to adopt an environmental ethic that should permeate our everyday behaviour.
The Symposium was held on a ship travelling through the Black Sea visiting each of the six countries bordering the Sea (Turkey, Georgia, Russia, Ukraine, Romania and Bulgaria). During the event invitees and local participants reviewed the general environmental problems of the Sea and the particular problems of the visited sites. The presentations were accompanied by discussions highlighting the technical and ethical dimensions of the identified problems and sought suggestions for their mitigation.
Non-governmental organisations, national and local authorities were involved from the outset in the planning of the Symposium, in determining the Symposium’s programme, and in the selection of sites to be visited.
The core participants of the Symposium numbered about 400. They included people of various backgrounds and beliefs, ranging from religious leaders (all Patriarchs from the Black Sea region participated), national and regional policy-makers (presidents, vice-presidents, ministers, town mayors), scientists from the Black Sea countries and from other regions, representatives of non-governmental organisations and the world’s media. Such a composition of participants allowed for effective sharing of ideas and knowledge without sectoral barriers, and ensured that the Black Sea’s environmental problems were considered from a variety of perspectives. Hundreds of additional local participants joined the event along the way and had an active role.
In addressing the Symposium His All Holiness recalled that man must live in harmony with his environment and warned against “rapacious exploitation of natural resources”.
The themes considered by the Symposium covered a wide range of subjects. Several of them were devoted to the environmental changes observed in the Black Sea ecosystems, and their economic and public health impact. Others explored ways of managing the resources of the Black Sea and elaborated on relevant legislation and policy-making. These themes highlighted the full complexity of ecological, economic, political and social problems facing the Black Sea and provided a good basis for a third group of themes which dealt with environmental concerns as they relate to various religious traditions.
The participants of the Symposium made a number of proposals. Aside from the general and unanimous support of the implementation of the Black Sea Strategic Action Plan (adopted in 1996 by the governments of all six Black Sea countries), there were four groups of recommendations made at the Symposium:
- actions to enhance governance;
- actions for development and use of public media;
- actions for enhancing environmental education; and
- actions to encourage participation of civil society in environmental issues.
Improved investment in measures to protect the environment
Following his attendance at the Symposium Mr Johannes F. Linn, Vice President of the World Bank held a meeting of country team leaders from the Black Sea littoral states to re-examine national lending strategies for investments opportunities to protect the Black Sea. A Danube/Black Sea partnership was created, and a portfolio of US$90 million of grant-aided projects developed that is currently being implemented. These include wetland rehabilitation in Bulgaria and rural agricultural projects in Romania, Turkey and Moldova. The agricultural projects have had a positive impact on lifestyles in the region and have ensured new and more environmentally friendly agricultural practices. Governments have added their own funding to each project, bringing the total investment to over $200 million.
Enhanced international support for protection of the Black Sea
During the Symposium, the case was made for continued international support for implementing the Black Sea Strategic Action Plan. Several participants, notably Prince Saddrudin Aga Khan, lobbied the UN for continued action and this pressure helped to secure renewed funding from the Global Environment Fund (GEF) and other bodies. This led to programmes supporting the establishment of the Black Sea Commission (BSC). Continued funding is guaranteed until 2007. Though the BSC is still far from the robust body that would ensure full effectiveness and sustainability, its very existence is a sign of progress and an important building block for the future.
Involvement of the European Commission in Black Sea issues
For Ms Ritt Bjerregaard, European Union Commissioner for the Environment and Nuclear Safety, the Symposium was a unique opportunity to focus on the problems of a European sea that is often ignored. This was further reinforced by the large number of hard-hitting press articles that emanated from the Symposium, bringing further pressure to bear. Ms. Bjerregaard committed the Commission to further action which has been followed up by her successors. One of the most important measures has been the establishment of DABLAS (a Task Force providing a platform for co-operation for the protection of water and water related ecosystems of the wider Black Sea Region including all tributaries), an EU programme specifically designed to promote investments in environmental protection in the Danube and Black Sea.
New developments in environmental education
Relating to environmental education, there were two direct consequences of the Symposium: Two clergy, two school teachers, two journalists and two students from each of the six Black Sea countries participated in an 18-day interdisciplinary environmental course held at the Patriarchate Halki Ecological Institute. The course was led by eight outstanding scientists and educators, five leading theologians, and four environmental media specialists. The idea was to discover the wonders of the natural world and learn how to convey stewardship of nature to people of all ages.
The second direct consequence was the nomination of Laurence Mee (Chairman of the RSE Committee at the time) for a Pew Fellowship in Marine Conservation. Professor Mee used the $150,000 from his fellowship to produce public information materials on the Black Sea and to organise a two year programme of training for a group of teachers from all six countries. The teachers helped to develop a Black Sea environmental education study pack that has been approved as facultative educational material throughout the region.
The Symposium also led to the funding of environmental education in the region, by the Lifebridge Foundation
Endorsement of the RSE process
The success of this key Symposium gave a tremendous boost to the RSE process itself and helped to create momentum for the symposia that followed it. There were many lessons learned in the realisation of this event and their careful discussion has led to gradual improvements as the process moves forward along the pathway of ‘learning by doing’. Its legacy will be felt by continuity, by reflection and through growing wisdom.