Defender of the Environment: Mostafa Tolba, An Egyptian Legacy


A land that is blessed with relatively moderate varying landscape of sea and desert, rivers and farmlands, Egypt is blessed with a beautiful environment. However, this beauty that we are so in awe with has been greatly endangered in the past decades with the rise of industries and lack of concern for sustainability, which has negatively impacted our planet.

Terrible practices occur on a daily basis; our environment is at risk, but there are those who have raised and still raise their voices to sound the alarm and try to take proactive steps in defending our environment. One such defender hails from Egypt, Mostafa Tolba.

Tolba was born in 1922, in the Governorate of Gharbia; he studied botany at Cairo University and graduated in 1943. Losing no time, he obtained his PhD from Imperial College, the University of London, in 1948. He put his knowledge to good use, and would become Professor of Microbiology at the National Research Center. He had a thriving academic career, was a prolific writer and researcher, and published over 100 major scientific papers in international journals.

Not only that, he also served as Secretary-General of the National Science Council of Egypt, as well as President of the Egyptian Academy of Science, Research and Technology. However, what put him in the limelight was his contribution to the Stockholm Conference of 1972, where he led the Egyptian delegation. He had always been interested in policy making, especially when it concerned science and politics at the same time.

Thanks to that Conference, United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) was established, and Mostafa Tolba would become UNEP’s Deputy Executive Director, later on becoming the Executive Director. He proved to be up to the task, taking on this great responsibility upon his trusty shoulders from 1975 until 1992.

For seventeen years, he tirelessly called for reform and change when it came to our treatment of our planet; he voiced his concern to the shortsightedness of some who only looked for profit and forgot about sustainable practices. He was extremely dedicated to protecting the environment and called on the international community to work together, to overlook political disagreements, and not let them get in the way of working together when it came to environmental issues.

He wrote many articles and he has various published works; in a foreword he wrote for a book by Salwa S. Gomaa, entitled Environmental Policy Making in Egypt he said “The goal of sustainable development cannot be attained without significant changes in the ways development initiatives are planned and implemented. These changes will not come about unless there are similar changes in our attitudes toward environmental issues.

They will not come about if we do not stop taking the environment and its natural resources for granted, if we do not stop considering the environment as free for the taking. They will not come about if we do not come to consider environmental protection and environmental security as essential parts of national and international security. Furthermore, environmentally sound development plans will not succeed without public participation and a sense of individual responsibility.”

In 1988, a historic agreement took place to protect the ozone layer; the Montreal Protocol. The ozone layer is a belt made from naturally occurring ozone gas; it protects Earth from harmful ultraviolet-B radiation emitted by the Sun. In the mid–1980s, the ozone layer above the Antarctic was heavily impacted by pollution which caused a depletion in it, and therefore exposing us to the harmful Sun radiation.

This depletion was caused by the release of manufactured chemicals that contained chlorine and/or bromine. When the Sun shines for long periods of the day, the chlorine that was released into the atmosphere reacts with the ultraviolet rays and the reaction greatly destroys the ozone layer.

During the negotiation period for the Montreal Protocol, Mostafa Tolba showed how scientific knowledge and great negotiation skills can come together to take affirmative action in protecting the environment. This Protocol set a precedent, since it was the most successful environment protection agreement, and had a clear schedule to phase out the use of ozone depleting chemicals on a global scale.

Not all countries signed on immediately; however, as of 2009, all countries have ratified the Montreal Protocol, which makes it the first international environmental treaty to achieve complete ratification.

“Over the past two decades it has become more evident than ever that environmental problems are not confined within national boundaries, but are of regional and often global significance. International cooperation—global partnership—is essential, not only to protect the environment, but also to set the world on the path to sustainable development.” These are words Mostafa Tolba wrote in 1997 and they still ring true today, almost two decades later.


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