Humans Undermining the Very Biodiversity Needed for Survival

WASHINGTON, DC, May 24, 2005 (ENS) - In the last 50 years, humans have changed the diversity of life on the planet more than at any other time in history. Human activities have lifted many people out of poverty, but at a price - the loss of biodiversity. A new assessment of biodiversity and human well being by top scientists from throughout the world shows that if humanity continues down this road, biological diversity will be depleted with life-threatening consequences for all, including human beings.

"Biodiversity is where the human hunger for resources is taking its heaviest toll, and the inclusion of 15,589 species on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species is the clearest sign that we need to change the way we produce and consume,” said Jeff McNeely, chief scientist of the IUCN-World Conservation Union and contributor to the report.

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An endangered Sumatran tiger emerges from the Indonesian forest. (Photo credit unknown)
The assessment, launched as part of the celebrations for the International Day for Biological Diversity on May 22, was conducted by a panel of the Millenium Assessment, a partnership involving some 1,360 scientists who are experts in their fields. It is supported by 22 of the world’s scientific bodies, including The Royal Society of the United Kingdom and the Third World Academy of Sciences.

The panel defined biodiversity as "the variability among living organisms from all sources, including terrestrial, marine, and other aquatic ecosystems and the ecological complexes of which they are part."

“Loss of biodiversity is a major barrier to achieving development goals, and poses increasing risks for future generations,” said Dr. Walter Reid, director of the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment.

The second Millennium Ecosystem Assessment report, "Biodiversity and Human Well–being: A Synthesis Report for the Convention on Biological Diversity," finds that although biodiversity is the foundation for human well-being, all of the likely future scenarios in the report lead to a further decline in biodiversity, contrary to the agreed global target to reduce the rate of biodiversity loss by 2010.

The diversity of life provides the materials humans need for food, clothing and shelter, and also bestows security, health and freedom of choice. But, the assessment found, "the current pace and rhythm of human activities are harming ecosystems, consuming biological resources and putting at risk the well-being of future generations."

"If the wetlands, forests, rivers and coral reefs were factories and other ecosystems providing these services were art galleries, universities and the like, it would be considered gross vandalism or arson to damage them in the way we do," said UNEP Executive Director Klaus Toepfer.

"Our recklessness goes further than this. It is also economic madness," said Toepfer. "The assessment points out that, for example, an intact hectare of mangroves in a country like Thailand is worth more than $1,000. Converted into intensive farming, the value drops to an estimated $200 a hectare."

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Button wrinklewort, Rutidosis leptorhynchoides, was listed in 1999 as a nationally endangered species in Australia. Once plentiful in the lowland grassy plains of Victoria, this species is now restricted to railway reserves and is threatened by disturbances such as soil excavation, dumping and ploughing. (Photo courtesy Australia DEH)
These sobering conclusions are "not hopeless," the biodiversity panel says. "Humankind can choose to act now for the conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity if it changes the way it is causing change, carefully chooses the ways it responds to change and makes the right tradeoffs."

“The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment report shows that management tools, policies and technologies do exist to dramatically slow this loss," Reid said.

“What we do to save biodiversity today will increase our options to adapt to change in future," said IUCN Director General Achim Steiner. "It is up to each government, organization and individual to sustainably manage our natural wealth. The more biodiversity we manage intelligently, the more services we secure."

UNEP is developing Environment Watch, a system for improved monitoring of the planet’s environment which is also expected to strengthen links between researchers and policy-makers.

"But we may need to go further," Toepfer said, "and urgently consider a bridge between scientists and politicians echoing and comparable to the one we have for climate change."

"The scale of the problem is so huge, the rate of loss so fast, and the risks to human well being so manifest that we should consider nothing less," he said.

The Millenium Assessment brings together international organizations such as the Convention on Biological Diversity, the UN Convention to Combat Desertification, the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands, the Convention on Migratory Species, the World Bank, and the IUCN-World Conservation Union. Five UN agencies are also involved in the assessment - the Food and Agriculture Organization, UNESCO, the UN Environment Programme (UNEP), the UN Development Program, and the World Health Organization.

The Millenium Assessment’s work is overseen by a 45 member board of directors, co-chaired by Dr. Robert Watson, chief scientist of The World Bank, and Dr. A. H. Zakri, director of the United Nations University’s Institute of Advanced Studies.

The multi-stakeholder board is composed of the international organizations plus government officials, the private sector, NGOs and indigenous peoples.

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Atlantic cod like this one once supported a thriving industry in the Canadian Maritime provinces, but the cod fishery crashed in 1992, and now catching a cod is a rare event. This one, held by a Newfoundland biology student, will be released back into the sea. (Photo courtesy MUN Biology)
The Assessment Panel, which oversees the technical work of the Millenium Assessment, includes 13 of the world’s leading social and natural scientists. It is co-chaired by Angela Cropper of the Cropper Foundation, and Professor Harold Mooney of Stanford University.

UN Secretary General Kofi Annan has some sobering statistics for the International Day for Biological Diversity. One-quarter of all commercially exploited marine fish stocks are over-harvested, leading to the closure of many fisheries with significant socio-economic consequences, he said.

Changes in land cover, in particular tropical deforestation and desertification, tend to reduce local rainfall and contribute to desertification and water shortages, Annan pointed out.

And, said Annan, the capacity of ecosystems to mitigate the effects of extreme weather events such as the recent tsunami in the Indian Ocean has been reduced as a result of the conversion of wetlands, forests and mangroves.

Hamdallah Zedan, executive secretary to the Convention on Biological Diversity, said that the report is of great value to all those concerned with the Convention and its objectives – the conservation and sustainable use of biological diversity and the equitable sharing of its benefits.

“The report’s findings remind us that biodiversity is a requirement for all life on the planet," said Zedan, "it is life insurance for our changing world. The report reminds us of the need for action now.”