Biodiversity – Natural Environment Saves Livelihoods and Lives

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Biodiversity is in full swing these days. 2010 was the International Year of Biodiversity. A commitment to substantially reduce the rates of biodiversity loss by 2010 was incorporated into the United Nations (U.N.) Millennium Development Goals in 2005.

Biodiversity refers to the variety of genes, species, and ecosystems that make up life on Earth. It provides a wide variety of essential goods and services to the world, including everything from basic material needs (food, timber, fiber, and medicines) to underlying ecosystem services like flood and pest control, pollination, and climate regulation.

Loss of Biodiversity and Environmental Impact

Biodiversity gets lost as animal and plant species disappear from certain areas or from the planet altogether. The World Conservation Union’s annual “Red List,” the broadest scientific assessment of the world’s animals and plants, put the number of species threatened with extinction at 16,306 in 2007. Largely man-made forces including habitat destruction, over-exploitation, and invasive competitors push 52 species per category closer to extinction each year.

Up to half of all logging in the five major timber-producing countries in 2009 consisted of unsustainable, illegal harvesting. The strong global demand for seafood in the form of high-level ocean predators like tuna and salmon threatens the biodiversity of the world’s oceans. In Zimbabwe, wildlife poaching in national parks and private game conservatories by supporters of President Robert Mugabe is thought to have cost the country more than half of its wildlife.

The adverse effects of many natural disasters are exacerbated by failures to protect biodiversity and ecosystem services. This can be seen regularly in the results of disasters around the world from Haiti to Indonesia. For example, deforestation makes many areas more vulnerable to mud slides that wipe out homes, crops, and lives.

Framing the Issue

The Group of 8 leading industrialized nations initiated the Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity (TEEB) project to study the economic impact of ecosystem services and changes in biodiversity. The 2010 TEEB study puts the annual value contributed by global wetlands at $3.4 billion and the annual loss of natural capital from ecosystems like forests at $2 to $4.5 trillion. Other recent estimates place the economic value of the benefits of maintaining the biodiversity of natural ecosystems at 10 to 100 times their costs.

In most cases, those who bear the brunt of the impact from the loss of biodiversity and deterioration of ecosystems are people who live off the land in less developed countries. These people rely directly on nature for their food, shelter, and income. They generally do not have the resources or training to resort to the modern, artificial tools at the disposal of wealthier populations to help compensate for the loss of nature’s services.

Biodiversity Conservation Success Stories

Fortunately, we have the capacity to restore and protect biodiversity and natural ecosystem services. There have already been a number of noteworthy success stories.

An innovative Indonesian conservation law enacted in 2007 has enabled the management of sustainable logging and ecosystem restoration.

In Costa Rica, a study found that coffee plantations near forest areas had 20 percent higher yields due to the economic services of wild pollinating organisms, which translated to an additional $60,000 in income per farmer.

The extinction of at least 16 bird species was prevented between 1994 and 2004 thanks to a variety of ecological conservation programs, including habitat management, removal of invasive species, captive breeding, and the reintroduction of endangered species.

The benefits of maintaining biodiversity and healthy ecosystems are prevalent in developed areas as well as remote locations. New York City recovered the quality of its drinking water by restoring the local natural ecosystem. In the process, it avoided paying $8 billion for a water treatment facility that would have otherwise been required by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

International Development and Foreign Aid

Well-off donor countries such as the Group of 8 have an important role to play in the maintenance of biodiversity and ecosystem services in developing countries. Donor nations have tended to look at aid too narrowly in terms of humanitarian relief efforts and physical infrastructure projects. While both of these are hugely important and valuable, they often do not address biodiversity as a key driver of economic livelihood and survival in much of the developing world. Effective aid packages should empower developing country institutions and include incentives for local stakeholders to be actively involved in the conservation of their own natural ecosystems.

Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR)

The global supply chains of multinational companies can have a tremendous impact on biodiversity and local ecosystems. Companies need to make the adoption and implementation of sustainability practices a central component of their corporate social responsibility policies. Local countries could promote environmentally responsible corporate behavior by linking incentives with the adoption of sustainable business practices, with the goal of earning positive economic returns on their investments in these incentives.

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