Will biodiversity loss break the bank?

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9 March 2010

Is the biodiversity drain speeding up? As Juliette Jowit reports in a recent Guardian, a study by Simon Stuart of the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Species Survival Commission reveals that humans are driving extinctions ‘faster than new species can evolve’.

That might not surprise some in Madagascar — the California-sized ‘eighth continent’ off Africa’s southeastern coast, and a crucible of species from lemurs to octopus trees. This positively sizzling biodiversity hotspot is in danger of becoming little more than a barren political minefield.

All of which strikes a bleak note in this, the International Year of Biodiversity.

Smash and grab
A year ago, Madagascar was headline news. The coup of 2009, in which President Ravalomanana was forced out to make way for opposition leader Andry Rajoelina, led to a state of near-lawlessness. Suddenly it was open season on the country’s natural legacy.

Organised gangs have made illegal logging raids in protected areas, felling precious hardwoods, and killed record hauls of lemurs for the upmarket bushmeat trade.

The Malagasy can ill afford the loss. Over 70 per cent of the 20 million-strong population live below the poverty line, largely dependent on subsistence agriculture and struggling with hunger and drought

Nor, as environmental writer Rhett Butler of www.mongabay.com has chronicled, has their situation improved. The coup not only led to a freeze on aid for development and conservation — disastrous for both government and people — but has also endangered years of advances in ecotourism.

As such tourism significantly benefits both local communities and biodiversity, both are at real risk, making the coup a roadblock on a path that might have led to better models of economic stability.

Poor prospects
The World Bank is calling the island’s economic prospects for 2010 ‘sombre’. The Malagasy economy has been in recession since the coup first hit.

Tourism had been an economic mainstay bringing in US$390 million a year. Post-coup, turnover from the industry halved. The withdrawal of aid has also hamstrung many social and environmental programmes run by NGOs in the country.

Recent Due South posts have noted environmental wins from the global slump. One is the reported curb on felling in the Brazilian rainforest, which stemmed partly from better governance. 

The contrast with Madagascar is stark. It’s a bit tougher to separate chicken from egg here, but it’s probably fair to say that global recession has magnified the effects of a governance crisis, creating the conditions for environmental thuggery. With so much of the island’s wealth concentrated in its natural riches, it’s no wonder that this combination of factors has proved such a blow. A plundered ecosystem is a multiple whammy for poor people in countries with biological wealth.

Brink scenario?
Madagascar could be seen as a kind of concentrated microcosm of what’s happening elsewhere in the developing world. Studies reveal, for instance, that wildlife is diminishing in some African countries’ protected areas, with the notable exception of Botswana, Namibia and South Africa.

It’s partly why the International Year of Biodiversity feels a bit like the central point of a seesaw. Is it a time to celebrate, or mourn? From ocean rifts to cloud forests, diversity in ecosystems and the life they harbour is breathtaking. But so, too, is the pace of its disappearance. By some estimates, it’s 100 to 1000 times the natural rate.

And as most of that loss is happening in the rainforest- and reef-rich South, there are big implications for the developing world.

Natural resources supply 80 per cent of the needs of the poor. Many small economies depend hugely on ecosystems that are diverse — and robust — for fisheries, wild food plants and medicines, game, ecotourism and much more. The lives and livelihoods of a billion rural poor, from farmers to foresters, are as tightly entwined with nature as warp is to weft in a carpet.

Brightness falls
Slumps can cause a kind of myopia. People — and organisations, and governments — can focus so powerfully on the upheavals and busts that they lose the long view.

But if our natural capital dwindles beyond the point of no return, forget the banks and bankruptcies — although 40 per cent of the global economy is based on biological resources. A scenario of depleted ecosystems — drained not just of big, iconic species, but of bacteria, fungi and worms — will mean that basic biosphere systems such as climate, water and soil could be catastrophically disrupted. And there's no toolkit for mending broken planets.

So, in biodiversity’s big year, what’s it to be — celebrate or mourn? The key thing, surely, is to act.  

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