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The conservation of biodiversity can only succeed when it is given priority over development, argues Reginald Victor.

The author is director of the Centre for Environmental Studies and Research at Sultan Qaboos University, Oman.

Nowadays, the consensus among conservationists is that if you want policymakers to take conservation seriously, you need to link it to development – in other words, focus your activities on sustainable development.

The UN Convention on Biological Diversity is the principal international legal instrument supporting sustainable development. And as such, it does not merely promote conservation. As a result of pressure from developing countries during the negotiation process, it also aims for the sustainable use of biodiversity and the fair and equitable sharing of benefits obtained from biological resources.

But is sustainable development truly the most effective route to the conservation of biodiversity? Many conservationists have always doubted that sustainability will work in practice, and have adhered to the traditional thinking that nature must be protected for its own intrinsic value rather than the use to which people might put it.

In recent years, supporters of this approach have remained silent, and have – at least outwardly – backed sustainability. But some have now begun to challenge the ability of sustainable development to deliver on conservation goals.

In a landmark book published in 1999, Myth and Reality in the Rainforest: How Conservation Strategies are Failing in West Africa, J.F. Oates provides a powerful argument for debunking the link between conservation and economic development. The Okomu rainforest in southern Nigeria, where I had the privilege of working with Oates, is a classic example of how policies to promote sustainable development can undermine forest conservation. Other renowned conservationists like George Schaller, M.E. Soulé, Arne Naess and Thomas Struhsaker also support the argument that conservation will only work alongside development if the latter is defined as a secondary objective.  

More than a decade has passed since the biodiversity convention was signed at the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio. The convention has since been ratified by the governments of more than 180 countries. Similarly, the past decade has seen a wealth of research on the sustainable management of biodiversity.

Yet despite these efforts, none of the convention’s signatories has been able to demonstrate that the rate of biodiversity loss has actually slowed. There have been undoubted improvements in human development. But the loss of biodiversity continues at a rate unprecedented in human history.

Indeed, in some instances, policies that advocate sustainable development have been detrimental to conservation. For example, attempts to improve agricultural biodiversity in arid regions of Saudi Arabia have resulted in the replacement of a few traditional crop species with a large number of intensively cultivated non-native species. The ensuing overexploitation of freshwater resources has caused widespread soil and groundwater salinisation. This in turn has had severe impacts on natural plant biodiversity.

Fisheries offer another example. Policies that support sustainable fisheries by focusing on commercially important species and aquaculture often involve the introduction of alien species – a practice that may benefit people, but seldom supports biodiversity. The most effective methods for conserving biodiversity, such as moratoria on fishing and banning invasive species, are rarely used in developing countries.

Rainforests, too, suffer when decisions are geared to commercial interests. Planting oil palm and rubber trees on cleared land in West Africa might provide a higher quality of life for forest-dwelling peoples – at least in the view of some governments – but such reforestation cannot restore the biodiversity lost from the destruction of wild forest.

Attempts at sustainable management of protected areas are also failing to limit biodiversity loss. This is happening primarily because most authorities in protected areas are struggling to balance the number of trees people cut down and wildlife they consume with the regenerative capacity of these natural resources.

Part of the underlying problem is the lack of an agreed definition for sustainable development. The UN Commission on Sustainable Development defines it as development that meets our needs without compromising the ability of future generations to meet theirs. But there is no consensus on what this concept actually means in practice. This is one reason why so many sustainable development projects fail. And in developing countries, the chances of such projects succeeding are even more remote, plagued as they are by inadequate governance systems, pilfering of funds, nepotism and kickbacks.

The global public is well educated in environmental issues, thanks to widespread media coverage of green activism; and it is fast becoming disillusioned with the promotion of sustainable development as a mechanism to address human needs and biodiversity conservation. But its scepticism gets far less publicity than sustainable development interests, which are vigorously promoted round the world.

We need to reconsider the argument that biodiversity conservation is a ‘people issue’ and thus inseparable from development. In his groundbreaking book The Environmental Revolution, published in 1970, Max Nicholson wrote that conservation planning should allow “beneficial natural processes to operate to the fullest extent compatible with whatever justifiable human demands may need to be satisfied”. But what, precisely, does this mean?  

What are justifiable human demands? What is the limit for satisfaction? What are the criteria determining compatibility between human demands and natural processes? Does the link between conservation and development imply compatibility between natural processes and human demands? These questions do not have easy answers.

I believe that our commitment to biodiversity conservation demands four steps. The first step – an easy one – is to recognise impending threats to biodiversity. Combating these threats, even if required as a precautionary measure, is the next big step. Doing this without compromising development, or sustainable development, is the third, very difficult step. And the fourth step – which I believe is achievable – is a willingness among policymakers to sacrifice development to some extent for the sake of biodiversity conservation.

Conservationists are often accused of raising false alarms about biodiversity decline. But false alarms are better than no alarms. And in the spirit of the precautionary principle – which advocates a ‘better safe than sorry’ approach to potentially damaging practices – we should not postpone urgent measures to prevent biodiversity loss.

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