Politicians won't act to conserve biodiversity unless they have strong evidence that it is an effective strategy for combating global poverty.
Tomorrow (22 May) is the International Day for Biological Diversity. But planned celebrations are sure to be dampened by the news that the world has failed to meet its target to significantly reduce the rate of biodiversity loss (see Biodiversity leaders lament failure to reach the powerful).
This target, set for 2010, was agreed by parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) in 2002 and subsequently incorporated into the Millennium Development Goal (MDG) of ensuring environmental sustainability by 2015.
Later this year, political and scientific leaders at two major international meetings will face hard questions about why global efforts to stem biodiversity loss have not been more successful — and what must be done about it.
The first is the MDG review summit in New York in September. And at the second, the Biodiversity Summit scheduled for October in Nagoya, Japan, CBD signatories are due to agree a new set of targets — and hopefully a more realistic strategy for achieving them.
The failure to halt biodiversity loss does not reflect a lack of commitment by the scientific community. Over the past few decades, many scientists have spearheaded efforts to highlight the damaging impacts that human activity can have on our natural environment.
But it has been difficult to align this message with the priorities of politicians. The key challenge is to persuade policymakers that preventing biodiversity loss is an essential step towards the much more widely accepted political goal of eliminating global poverty.
To some champions of biodiversity, the links are obvious. They point out, for example, that all social development relies on 'services' provided by natural ecosystems — from clean air and water to food and renewable energy sources — and that any damage to these services threatens the communities that depend on them.
But, so far, such 'self-evident' arguments have failed to convince politicians to take action.
What is needed is more robust evidence that conserving biodiversity alleviates poverty. Policymakers need firm scientific evidence of a direct link between protecting the natural environment and promoting the interests of poor communities.
There are already some efforts that are coming up with the evidence. This week, for example, we report on a study in Kenya that shows that protecting fish stocks by limiting fishing can preserve their economic viability (see Fishing restrictions bring better catches, says study).
More evidence was presented last month at a conference in London, organised by the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED). A highlight was an address by Craig Leisher from The Nature Conservancy, United States, who described five key interventions from peer-reviewed research where biodiversity conservation has been shown to alleviate poverty, such as forest tourism (see Study pinpoints whether conservation can fight poverty).
But the broader message to emerge from the London meeting, in particular from three 'state of knowledge reviews' commissioned by the IIED, is that there is an overall lack of robust, scientific evidence on the relationship between biodiversity and poverty.
One of the reviews, examining spatial patterns of biodiversity and poverty, endorsed the widely-held view that they do indeed overlap, but concluded that precisely where depends on which definitions of biodiversity and poverty are used.
Further, the existence of a spatial correlation does not increase our fundamental understanding about how and why biodiversity and poverty overlap.
Another of the reviews highlighted the lack of sound evidence on the extent to which the poor depend on biodiversity. One of the authors, Bhaskar Vira from the University of Cambridge, pointed to a conceptual leap between the abundance of resources — such as non-timber products — and biodiversity. "Is it dependence on biodiversity that we're documenting, or just dependence on resource-based livelihoods?" he asked.
In many cases, there is also the complication of accurately determining the extent to which conservation elements of projects have successfully reduced poverty, to avoid exaggerated claims about the role conservation has played.
None of these questions have easy answers. But what is clear is that more research is needed to produce hard evidence of the links between biodiversity and poverty.
Research — and action
To investigate the links, researchers will have to work together effectively across disciplines. And donors will have to give higher priority to research projects that are explicitly oriented to demonstrate the links between biodiversity conservation and poverty alleviation.
Of course, there is always the danger that a call for more research can be used as an excuse for political inaction in the meantime.
But without solid evidence that biodiversity conservation can alleviate poverty, politicians simply won't buy into the idea of protecting biodiversity, or will take action that however well meaning, ends up unfocused and ineffective.
There is no clearer example of the need to base good policy on sound scientific evidence; generating such evidence must be recognised as one of the major tasks ahead.
David Dickson, Director
Sian Lewis, Commissioning editor