Conservation of the earth’s biological diversity is critical in the reduction and eradication of poverty due to the goods and services that the ecosystem provides. A healthy ecosystem is the primary source of food, clean water, soil formation, fibers, housing, medicine, climate regulation, pollution breakdown, and unquantifiable cultural, aesthetic, and educational value. In addition to these basic services, a vibrant environment contributes immense economic value by means of agriculture, fishing, forestry, livestock, and tourism. A decline in biological diversity means that the environment is no longer able to support the needs of the people who depend on it.
What is Biodiversity?
Simply put, biodiversity is all life on the planet. How much life is out there, however, is still somewhat unclear. Estimates range from 2 million to 100 million species, with only around 1.4 million currently named. The possible diversity of uncharacterized species is staggering: in 1980, in the tropical rainforests of Panama, scientists discovered 1,200 species of beetles living in an area of just 19 trees… and fully 80% of these species were previously unknown to science. However, relatively recently, species have begun to disappear at an alarming rate. When species disappear, integral components to our web of life disappear as well, often in ways not well understood.
How Much Biodiversity Are We Losing?
Scientists estimate that the loss of species is occurring at a rate of around 0.01%-0.1% of all species per year, or between 1,000 and 10,000 times the natural or background rate of extinction (the rate of species loss that would occur without human influence). This means that if there are 2 million species on earth, roughly 200-2,000 of them disappear each year. However, if there are 100 million species currently in existence, we are losing between 10,000 and 100,000 every year. No matter which numbers are correct, loss of biological diversity is a very serious problem - and it looks to only get worse. Unfortunately, an overwhelming amount of the earth's biological diversity is located in the equator region, an area beset by extreme poverty and thus under serious threat of species loss (See Fig. 1.0 Gaston 2000). Conservation International has designated 34 distinct regions as "biodiversity hotspots," areas that hold at least 1,500 species of vascular plants (> 0.5 percent of the world’s total) as endemics, and have lost at least 70 percent of the original habitat. These 34 hotspots cover only 2.3 percent of the Earth's land surface, and yet host over 50 percent of the world’s plant species and 42 percent of all terrestrial vertebrate species as endemics. 21 of these hotspots are within the Equator region.
Based on population projections alone, 50% more food than is currently produced will be required to feed the global population by 2050. Irrigated crop production will need to increase by 80% by 2030 to match demand. Already, 35% of the Earth’s surface has been converted for agriculture, which indicates a frightening limit on future productivity. The livestock sector already represents the world’s single largest human use of land. Grazing land covers 26% of the Earth’s surface, while animal feed crops account for about a third of arable land. 70% of land in the Amazon that was previously forested is now used as pasture, and livestock feed crops cover a large part of the remainder.
How Does This Affect Humankind?
Though often taken for granted, human well-being is seriously dependent on goods and services provided by a healthy environment. Unfortunately, these are predominantly public goods with no real markets or discernible prices, and so are rarely taken into account by our current "economic compass." Because of this, we are losing biodiversity at an alarming rate, our ecosystems are being continuously degraded and we, in turn, are suffering the consequences.
The biological diversity of the planet provides people with the basic goods and services needed to survive. Known as "ecosystem services," they include:
In addition, the living environment provides economic benefits and livelihoods that are lost as species disappear. Unfortunately, the effects of biodiversity loss are felt most strongly by those people that are most directly dependant on the environment: the poor. According to World Resources 2008: Roots of Resilience, as of 2004, around 986 million people are existing on less than $1 per day, and over 760 million of these people live in Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia alone. Additionally, 76% of global poverty is found in rural areas - where the concentration of biological diversity is greatest. Over 3 billion people rely on coastal and marine biodiversity, and around 1.6 billion people are dependent on forests and non-timber forest products for their livelihoods. Coral reefs provide a wide range of services to around 500 million people. Some 9-12% of the world’s fisheries are based directly on reefs, while a large number of offshore fisheries also rely on them as breeding, nursery or feeding grounds.
Human health and medicine are also inextricably linked to the health and diversity of the environment:
Clearly, to achieve meaningful poverty reduction and to create sustainable development mechanisms, it is imperative that there be global cooperation in reducing biodiversity loss.
What Are We Doing About It?
Many governments have, through the Convention on Biological Diversity, agreed to “achieve, by 2010, a significant reduction of the current rate of biodiversity loss at the global, regional and national level, as a contribution to poverty alleviation and to the benefit of all life on Earth." In addition, many of the people who are so directly affected by the loss of biodiversity are helping to shape their own futures: local and indigenous communities and grassroots organizations in the poorest parts of the world are finding ways to help their economies develop, while at the same time conserving the species upon which they so depend.
Through the use of traditional knowledge and sustainable practices, local people are developing initiatives that are proving that it is not only possible to generate income through biological conservation, but that maintaining biodiversity can actually provide greater income generation over a greater period of time than unsustainable practices.
World Resources 2005: The Wealth of the Poor elucidates certain critical conditions that enable successful community initiatives, namely:
The sharing, dispersal, and scaling-up of indigenous and traditional knowledge will not only benefit the poor that depend directly on the environment for their livelihoods, but will improve the outlook for humanity as a whole. It is difficult to determine with any certainty what effect the thousands of species disappearing each year will have on us personally, but it is clear that this is a problem that cannot be ignored.
Establishing protected areas is one important method of biological conservation. Protected areas in developing countries are considerably cheaper per hectare to establish and manage than in developed countries. Thus, although developing countries account for 60% of the total area of biodiversity reserve sites, their actual conservation budget needs come to just 10% of the global budget. Already, more than 11% of the Earth’s land surface is legally protected thanks to a loose network of more than 100,000 protected areas, which together contain most types of terrestrial biodiversity. Unfortunately, it is not always possible to secure the land necessary to create a suitable protected area. So what do we do then?
"Payments for Ecosystem Services," or "PES" are payments for a biologically-provided service or the land use likely to secure that service. Governments are increasingly creating incentive programmes that support landowners who protect ecosystem services by compensating for lost revenues. Payments are particularly valuable when land cannot be purchased and set aside for conservation, or where protected areas cannot be established.
Acting to conserve biological diversity before being forced to do so is far preferable to the alternative. If humans are able to plan for the future ahead by cutting demand for ecological resources, this need not necessarily entail hardship, and may likely promote development opportunities and improve quality of life. On the other hand, when societies that operate with an ecological deficit experience unplanned reductions in resource use and are forced to rely on their own “biocapacity”, a decline in quality of life, often severe, generally follows.
You are an integral part of nature; your fate is tightly linked with biodiversity, the huge variety of other animals and plants, the places they live and their surrounding environments, all over the world.
You rely on this diversity of life to provide you with the food, fuel, medicine and other essentials you simply cannot live without. Yet this rich diversity is being lost at a greatly accelerated rate because of human activities. This impoverishes us all and weakens the ability of the living systems, on which we depend, to resist growing threats such as climate change
2011-2010 is the United Nations Decade of Biodiversity, and people all over the world continue to work to safeguard this irreplaceable natural wealth and reduce biodiversity loss. This is vital for current and future human wellbeing. We need to do more. Now is the time to act.
Sources: World Resources Institute, the Convention on Biological Diversity, the Millennium Ecosystem Report, The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity (TEEB) Report, BiodiversityHotspots.org, and Global Patterns in Biodiversity, by Kevin J. Gaston, 2000.