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  • UN adviser urges focus on environment 'hotspots'

[LONDON] A top adviser to UN secretary general Kofi Annan has warned that the importance of preserving biodiversity in poor countries is not being adequately conveyed to those responsible for implementing economic development policies, and suggests that a global system of environmental 'hotspots' could help to focus their attention.

The warning has come from Jeffrey Sachs, director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University in New York, who heads a team advising Annan on how to achieve the so-called Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) that were endorsed by more than 150 heads of state three years ago.

Speaking at a meeting in London yesterday (2 March), Sachs said that those keen to promote the preservation of biodiversity in poor countries have not yet found a way to get this issue taken seriously by senior economic advisors and policy makers in the world’s leading development finance institutions.

Unless ecologists and environmental scientists were able to express their concerns in ways that were easily accessible to policy makers and could immediately be used by them, they were unlikely to make a major impact on decision-making.

One way of doing this, he suggested, would be to develop a global system for identifying and monitoring environmental 'hotspots’. The approach would be similar to that developed by ecologists to identify regions of high biological diversity; however the assessment of such hotspots would also take account of environmental degradation and local social and economic conditions.

“It would be very interesting to have a biodiversity ‘hotspot’ analysis that combined high [species diversity] with objective indicators of deteriorating conditions; we could then point to a region and say that a crisis existed because various indicators demonstrated that it was on a path to destruction,” he said.

Sachs reported attending a meeting last week with leading development economists to discuss the next edition of the human development report to be published by the Unites Nations Development Programme (UNDP). This will focus on the steps needed to achieve the MDGs, which include specific targets for improving the health and living conditions of the world’s poor

“The issue of the environment did not come up once during the discussion,” Sachs told the London meeting, which was organised by the UNDP jointly with a number of environmental actions groups. “That is an indication of how disconnected the issues of biodiversity and environmental management are from the way that development issues are talked about by many development practitioners.”

Sachs said that he was personally convinced that the biodiversity agenda was critical not only in its own right, but also for the future of the world’s poorer people, many of whom depended on the environment for their livelihood.

He argued that the ecological setting in which people live has a profound impact on their economic prosperity, pointing out for example that most of the world’s richer countries are in temperate regions, and do not face the extra burdens of disease and food production that face those living in tropical areas.

Furthermore, said Sachs, environmental stresses degrade the life support systems on which the very poor depend for their survival. It is in order to raise the profile of this issue in the eyes of decision-makers that he suggests using a modified version of the concept of biodiversity 'hotspots' that is used by ecologists.

“Our 'hotspots' are places that are both poor and not achieving economic development,” Sachs said. “They are below a certain income threshold, which means that people are living in miserable conditions that are not improving. We are talking about places that are falling backward.”

Such 'hotspots' would include much of tropical Africa, parts of the Andes (such as Bolivia and Ecuador), parts of Central America, and countries in the Middle East such as Afghanistan and Pakistan. “Absolutely nothing happens economically in these places except that people survive, their environment gets degraded, and other countries fight over their oil resources,” Sachs said.

Attempts to focus funding on the needs of these regions has been hampered by the lack of mechanisms for identifying environmental 'hotspots' separately to those already identified as particularly rich in biodiversity. “As a result, we do not have any clear way of pointing out to economic policy makers that there are regions of great stress that need attention; here is the kind of attention that they need; and here are the costs and modalities of approaching those conditions.”

Included in this needs to be an assessment of what could be achieved immediately, and those areas in which new scientific and technological developments were required in order to meet long-term goals.

He pointed out that this approach was already being developed in the health field, where there is a focus on the one hand on introducing effective services to fight diseases such as tuberculosis and AIDS, and at the same time a commitment to worldwide research efforts, for example on producing a vaccine for malaria or AIDS.

“For biodiversity it is the same issue,” Sachs said. “We need to identify areas where there is a clear crisis of current management that needs to be resolved, and those areas where more science or research is needed — and, if it is needed, ways to get it done”.

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