Conserving Biodiversity Sounds Good, but What Does It Really Mean?

biodiversityCommitments to conserve biodiversity from United Nations’ member national governments, and making biodiversity conservation an integral part of the framework for sustainable development, is all but unanimous. Results to date, not to mention the capacity to effectively carry out and see through actions to realize them, fall far short of all the words on paper, however, even when those words take the form of an international treaty.

“Most world nations – unanimously committed to protecting biodiversity – nevertheless cannot measure and assess their genetic and biological resources, nor the value of key ecosystem services nature provides to them,” warned international experts from 72 countries attending a three-day meeting of the UN’s new Intergovernmental Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) in Malaysia’s capital, Kuala Lumpur.

The disparity highlights the tensions, trade-offs, and divide that continues to separate and pit the desire for economic growth and development against that for protecting and conserving ecosystems and biodiversity.

We measure what we treasure


“There’s an old saying: we measure what we treasure,” stated IPBES chairman and science advisor to Malaysia’s Prime Minister, Dr. Zakri Abdul Hamid. Dr. Zakri was also recently appointed to the UN Secretary-General’s new Science Advisory Board.

Unfortunately, though we profess to treasure biodiversity, most nations have yet to devote adequate resources to properly measure and assess it along with the value of ecosystem services. Correcting that is a priority assignment from the world community to IPBES.”

Nearly all UN member states (192 plus the European Union) have ratified the Convention Biological Diversity (CBD). The hold-outs? The U.S., Andorra and South Sudan.

The preeminent international treaty concerning biodiversity and ecosystems conservation, the CBD, came into force in late December 1993. Its main goals are three-fold:

  1. Conservation of biological diversity (or biodiversity);
  2. Sustainable use of its components; and
  3. Fair and equitable sharing of benefits arising from genetic resources.

In 2010, all parties to the CBD agreed to a revision and update of a Strategic Plan for Biodiversity 2011-2020 and committed to realizing five strategic goals and 20 “ambitious yet achievable targets” elaborated in summary form in the Aichi Biodiversity Targets at the CBD’s 10th Conference of Parties (COP), which took place in Nagoya, Japan.

Seeking to broaden public awareness and knowledge of the threats to biodiversity, the UN declared 2010 the “International Year of Biodiversity,” and 2011-2020 the “International Decade on Biodiversity.”

In signing and ratifying the CBD, parties to the convention also agreed to use the “Precautionary Principle” in guiding their decision making when it comes to assessing the value and trade-offs inherent in approving or disapproving investments. By and large, the Precautionary Principle has been limited to words on paper. As the CBD explains, it states that,

Where there is a threat of significant reduction or loss of biological diversity, lack of full scientific certainty should not be used as a reason for postponing measures to avoid or minimize such a threat. The Convention acknowledges that substantial investments are required to conserve biological diversity. It argues, however, that conservation will bring us significant environmental, economic and social benefits in return.”

You can’t eat scenery

As emotionally, as well as rationally, appealing as such efforts are to many, conserving species, ecosystems, forests, rangelands, mangroves, coral reefs, marine ecosystems, etc. doesn’t turn a profit, or so conventional populist economic and business rhetoric would have us believe. A growing body of evidence suggests otherwise, however.

“Scientific papers have documented that biodiversity, for example, provides a kind of human health insurance,” Dr. Zakri pointed out, by diluting the pool of virus targets. “Other research in recent years,” according to IPBES, “has revealed enormous dollar values of ecosystem services – including food, pollution treatment and climate regulation – provided by forests and coral reefs.”

  • A single hectare of coral reef, for example, provides annual services to humans estimated at US $130,000 on average, rising to as much as $1.2 million, according to researchers with The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity (TEEB).
  • TEEB estimated in 2010 that the planet’s 63 million hectares of wetlands provide some $3.4 billion in storm protection, food and other services to humans each year. Up to half of the $640 billion pharmaceutical market relies on genetic resources, with anti-cancer agents from marine organisms alone valued at up to $1 billion annually. And the loss of biodiversity through deforestation will cost the global economy up to $4.5 trillion every year.

“Harvard professor E.O. Wilson put it well,” Dr. Zakri said. “Destroying rainforest for economic gain is like burning a Renaissance painting to cook a meal.” The rainforest in Malaysia, IPBES highlighted, is estimated to be around 130 million years old.

“The knowledge deficit is high,” Dr. Zakri continued. “Of the estimated 10.8 million species on land and in the oceans, less than 2 million have been scientifically described. If we don’t know what species there are out there, we don’t know what niche they fill in a healthy ecosystem or perhaps in remedying some human condition,” he said, citing the Kalahari desert’s San people plant (Hoodia gordinii) recently found to help curb obesity among those who include it in their diet.

Job opportunities for social scientists?

Besides natural and physical scientists and technicians, there’s a glaring need for social scientists “to evaluate nature’s non-economic – such as cultural and social – values to be factored also into trade-off considerations by policy-makers,” IPBES vice-chair Sir Robert Watson stressed.

“I’m not convinced there’s even a handful of countries today that could do a proper evaluation of ecosystem services,” Watson stated. He pointed out “that the UK’s efforts at such an assessment involved detailed databases dating back several decades, a highly-skilled scientific community, and about $5 million in expense despite the donation of time to the cause by many experts.”

In essence, three abilities are needed: generate knowledge, assess it, and then use it – not only in government but in the private sector and civil society as well. Capacity-building is needed everywhere, even in the most developed countries.”

Individual countries in some parts of the world may be best served “by pooling and sharing resources to create, interpret and use regional and sub-regional rather than strictly national assessments of biodiversity and ecosystem services,” Watson added.

Delegates in Kuala Lumpur broke down the challenge of building capacity into three immediate tasks:

  1. Identify the widely-varying existing resources and needs of individual nations and regions,
  2. Set priorities for helping them address deficits, and
  3. Create a way to monitor the adequacy of national capacities on an ongoing basis.

Believing there is a crisis looming in the rapid rate of loss of species and ecosystem services in many areas, biodiversity scientists, “need to stop talking amongst ourselves,” Dr. Zakri urged. “The message needs to get through to policy makers, politicians, captains of industry and the general public. We need to start talking in terms people understand – economics and health, for example.”

[image credit: Flickr cc]

An independent journalist, researcher and writer, my work roams across the nexus where ecology, technology, political economy and sociology intersect and overlap. The lifelong quest for knowledge of the world and self -- not to mention gainful employment -- has led me near and far afield, from Europe, across the Asia-Pacific, Middle East and Africa and back home to the Americas. LinkedIn: andrew burger Google+: Andrew B Email:

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