Environmentalists are sometimes charged with caring more about the wellbeing of planet earth than the needs of the people who live here. Why protect the environment and save endangered species when the world’s poor – at least three billion who live on less than three dollars a day – face unprecedented food shortages? Not to mention the estimated one billion with no access to clean drinking water. In short – why does biodiversity matter?
Biodiversity is the complex web of life which sustains us all. None of us lives in isolation from nature. Protecting biodiversity is not just about saving animals or habitats. It’s about providing sustaining access to food and water, and it’s about helping us cope with the worst effects of climate change.
Biodiversity underpins our entire food supply. It is the coral reefs and seagrass beds that produce the fish we eat. It is the birds and insects that pollinate our crops. And, of course, it is the plants from which our crops were originally derived.
We have always depended on biodiversity, but in this century it will be more important than ever in protecting our crops from the diseases, droughts, and other assaults that come with a changing climate. If we allow wild varieties of major staples such as rice, maize and wheat to become extinct, we run the risk of crop failure in the future, yet recent research suggests that three-quarters of the earth’s agricultural crop diversity has already been lost. In Central America alone, more than half the wild varieties of maize have disappeared in the last four decades. Climate change is already affecting our ability to grow food – just ask Australian wheat farmers forced off their land by the “big dry”, or Indian rice growers whose coastal paddy fields have been made sterile by sea water. Nature’s genetic diversity is a precious source of resilience.
Healthy ecosystems also help us weather change in more direct ways. The waves which pound the shores of the Seychelles have doubled in size and power, and are predicted to double again in the next decade. Protected natural areas like coral reefs and mangrove forests can mitigate the worst effects of storms in coastal areas. Elsewhere, forests play a key role in preventing floods and mudslides. Indiscriminate logging was blamed for flash floods and landslides which devastated the Philippines in 2004, and for the Yangtze River basin floods which killed 3000 people in 1998.
Biodiversity has other important benefits. Healthy forests and wetlands are a vital source of fresh water. Nearly a third of the world’s biggest cities rely on protected natural areas for clean water. Already today, pollution and deforestation threaten the drinking water of more than a billion people – and that figure is expected to rise to 2.8 billion by 2050. Biodiversity is also vital to human health. Half our prescription drugs originate from plants. More than two-thirds of people living in Sub-Saharan Africa use traditional herbal and plant medicines for primary health care.
Six years ago, the parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity pledged to reduce the rate of biodiversity loss by 2010. They are not on track to meet that goal – by any measure, biodiversity continues in sharp decline. The two most reliable indicators of the state of the planet — the Living Planet Index and the Ecological Footprint – show that in less than two generations, global biodiversity has declined by 27 per cent, whilst consumption outstrips the earth’s capacity by a quarter.
Protected areas are an important part of the answer, and some countries have taken bold action to expand their protected area networks. The government of Brazil, for example, has committed itself to protect 50 million hectares of the Amazon (an area the size of France), and is already more than half way toward that goal.
But in the Amazon and elsewhere, additional measures will be needed. Ultimately, success will depend on making biodiversity conservation the priority not just for ministries of environment, but also for ministries of agriculture, forests, fisheries, and finance. In the end, success is vital not only to the health of our environment, but also our economy and our very survival.
James P Leape, Director General, WWF International