How to save the world with sustainable development

Moving away from the buzzwords with lessons we can take away from the coastal country of Portugal.

In 2015, the United Nations released a list of 17 comprehensive Sustainable Development Goals: “a universal call to action to end poverty, protect the planet and ensure that all people enjoy peace and prosperity.” By 2030, the aim is to have achieved each of these goals.

Ambitious? Without a doubt — and much of the criticism lays in how over-arching the goals are with 169 targets encased across 17 goals. As The Economist puts it: “Moses brought ten commandments down from Mount Sinai. If only the UN’s proposed list of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) were as concise.

I was quite overwhelmed when I had first heard of the SDGs myself. I couldn’t fathom how the world was going to eradicate poverty, feed the population, achieve gender equality and more by 2030. Undoubtedly, this is why so many people feel disconnected from the SDGs. It’s hard to find them relevant at a local level when they seem so grand. However, as daunting as they are, examples of sustainable development are a lot less complex, much more familiar, and probably already in practice than one may expect to believe.

In mid-March, I had the opportunity to travel to Portugal to attend an Education for Sustainable Development Leadership training hosted by UNESCO, FEE, & ABAE. I was surrounded by students from all over the world— tiny European countries of Montenegro and Slovenia; industrialized Asian nations of China and Singapore; and Western countries such as Canada and the USA, just to name a few. We were brought together under the common theme of being young journalists passionate about bringing environmental issues to light.

The training proved just how difficult sustainable development is on a global scale when there are so many diverse perspectives in the room. I came out of the training with a better understanding of what it means and saw it as more of a spectrum rather than a solid definition.

Being in Portugal gave us the common ground to see real-life examples of how its municipalities define sustainable development.

Sustainable development uses existing resources and expertise with the foresight of what role it will play in the future.

Costa da Caparica is a city bordered to by the sea. It hosts an impressive 15km of shoreline, making it a prime destination for nearly 8 million tourists every summer. However, residents are under the constant threat of coastal erosion, which is the entry of coastal waters from the beach and into town.

Thankfully, nature is a powerful form of defence in the tug-of-war between the land and the ocean. Sand dunes prevent damage in the city by absorbing the impacts of strong winds and rains of tropical storms.

The recent unpredictability of Portugal’s weather brings a need to be proactive towards extreme weather, rather than reactive. With 39 deaths from last year’s forest fires and an unexpected storm a week before our arrival, more attention is brought to mitigation rather than adaptation to extreme weather events and climate change.

Here enters Dr. Patricia Silva — a botanist working for the Municipality of Almada. After analyzing past records, she discovered that the beach had already retreated about 14m inwards towards the town as a result of extreme coastal erosion which had worn away the sand dunes. She began Projeto Reduna in an effort to reinforce the dunes.

Video credit: Kristijan Angeleski (Macedonia), Martina Mifsud (Malta), Márcia Vieira (Portugal), Lovely Juson (Canada), Kai Xiang (Singapore), Tal Maymon (Israel)

She knew that marram grass, a native species of beachgrass, was suitable for this project. Its roots grow up to 7 ft long, effectively rooting sand in its place to prevent erosion. By planting marram grass with other native species and supplementing the sand that had eroded away, the sand dunes became resilient to the increasingly frequent storms.

Photo credit: Kristina Madsen, Federation for Environmental Education (Denmark)

To prevent human disturbance of the sand dunes, local residents were consulted to map out pathways along the beach and around the dunes. Signs were placed to educate the public on the importance of sand dunes and why it was key not to disturb them.

Instead of introducing foreign objects and doing construction work on the beach, Projeto Reduna successfully rebuilt the dunes with minimal invasion and ensured the presence of biodiversity for generations to come.

Sustainable development isn’t limited to a specific demographic — it‘s accessible for all people.

The city of Costa de Caparica is peri-urban and transient with local residents usually shuttling to and from Lisbon for work. But on a patch of land situated between two neighbourhoods is a growing economy of kale, carrots, and cauliflower among other vegetables tended to by residents.

Photo credit: Kai Xiang (Singapore)

Almada’s community food gardens are a buzzing local ecosystem of economic, social, and environmental sustainability. Each participant receives about 50m² of land and takes a course in basic agricultural practices to learn how to care for their plot of land. They learn how to grow produce and make compost using household and local businesses’ food waste.

“It’s an experiment!” Dr. Silva picks through 4 month old compost and holds a spoon, labelled as ‘compostable’. Photo credit: Kai Xiang (Singapore)

By growing, trading, and selling their own produce, residents save money and create resilient, sustainable, local markets. They often prefer their own crops to what they see at the supermarkets, knowing their produce was grown by their own hands, without the use of pesticides.

Socially, community gardens are a unique place for community members of all ages and backgrounds to meet. Groups which may not have interacted otherwise inevitably find something in common to talk about: “ the men, the women, the rich and the poor are all attacked by the same plagues — birds, pests, animals,” says Dr. Silva.

“The priority is to make communities healthier and resilient so that when something happens, people know each other and trust each other.”
Photo credit: Kristina Madsen, Federation for Environmental Education (Denmark)

A hybrid of tradition, innovation, and creativity prove to be successful solutions to development issues. In this case, it’s looking at existing methods that have worked for thousands of years and supplementing them to be effective in the 21st century with a growing population.