BIODIVERSITY: Words Are Not Enough
By Stephen Leahy
PARIS, Jan 25, 2010 (IPS) – Words are not enough to stop the rapidly unraveling web of life, agreed heads of state and international conservation organisations at a high-level meeting that ended here last Friday.
"How can we fund specific actions to stop this?" asked Henri Djombo, minister of sustainable development, forestry economy and environment for the Republic of Congo.
"There is never enough funding, never enough political will, especially in the wealthy countries. So what can we do?" Djombo told about 150 delegates attending a high-level event to launch the International Year of Biodiversity at the Paris headquarters of the U.N. Scientific, Educational and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO).
"Our wealth and well-being is being undermined by not acting," said a clearly frustrated Djombo through a translator.
One reason for inaction is that so few people know what biodiversity is. In the case of France, 75 percent people of surveyed didn’t know what it meant, said Chantal Jouanno, France’s state secretary for ecology. And what most people want are new roads, not alternative forms of transport, Jouanno said.
"We have forgotten nature is the source of life on our planet, that nature provides the basic infrastructure for all economic activity and for our cultures," said Julia Marton-Lefèvre, director-general of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).
"Imagine if 30 percent of your friends faced extinction and that risk was increasing," Marton-Lefèvre told IPS, referring to the fact that 30 percent of all species are threatened – including 22 percent of all mammals who are our biological ‘cousins’.
She also noted that studies have show that at least 60 percent of all ecosystems are degraded and in decline. In making a similar parallel she asks: "What would you do if 60 percent of your farm had become degraded and was getting worse?"
"Life has taken billions of years to evolve and we are part of that, we are enmeshed in it. But we suffer from a lack of understanding of this reality and a peculiar obstinacy," E.O. Wilson, the eminent octogenarian biologist from Harvard University, told delegates.
"It is the little things, microscopic animals like nematodes, that truly run our world," said Wilson, who coined the term biodiversity decades ago.
A single teaspoon of soil may contain a billion bacteria, and perhaps 6,000 different species, and most of those are unknown. However, we do know each has evolved to fit a particular niche and perform a special function but we know almost nothing about those, he said.
"This is the world as it exists. We depend on these… But the great tragedy unfolding presently it is human actions are destroying countless species and ecosystems before we even know they exist," Wilson said.
The species extinction rate is 1,000 times higher than the normal and it’s going higher. Without serious action to reduce this, half of all existing species will be gone by 2100, never to exist again. No one knows what that really portends for Earth’s life support systems that humans rely on.
The central problem, Wilson said, is how to sustain ourselves on this planet while improving the lives of the world’s poorest billion and preserving nature. There is little change for the poor if their environment is devastated, nor can nature survive a billion land-hungry people.
"We know how to do this and we have the resources," he reminded delegates.
For its part, the IUCN has set ambitious new goals to boost protection of existing conservation lands and increase the size of protected areas from the current 12 percent of land to 15 percent by 2015.
Less than one percent of the oceans are presently protected but the dire state of global fish stocks and coral reefs means urgent action is needed to protect 15 percent by 2020, said Marton-Lefèvre.
To truly take significant action to protect nature requires a re-examination of the economic system that perpetuates the drivers of biodiversity loss, said Victoria Tauli-Corpuz, chairperson of the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues.
"Market mechanisms don’t integrate ecology, culture, fairness, and equity. We need to diagnose the real causes of the extinction crisis – the current economic system," Tauli-Corpuz told IPS.
The present economic system treats nature as something to exploit, she explained. Indigenous peoples use nature too, for food, cutting trees to build their houses, and sometimes to earn money.
However, there is a strong cultural value of "enough" – a balance between real human and community needs and the need to preserve nature.
"In our community [in the Philippines], we have strict rules. If someone cuts a tree, it must be used for themselves, not to be sold, and they have to replant," she said. "These customary laws work and that’s why most of the world’s remaining forests are in the hands of indigenous peoples."
Wealth in traditional communities is defined by having good relations within the community and with nature, not acquisition of money and material things, she added. Those are the values that protect nature.
"In any place where individual rights predominate, people don’t care about nature," Tauli-Corpuz said.
Although coming from a very different perspective, E.O. Wilson has reached a similar conclusion. Protecting nature and helping the world’s poorest is "an ethical and spiritual decision".
He offered one last warning to delegates: "In future, each nation will be defined by what it refuses to destroy."