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Too often, efforts to conserve biodiversity pay insufficient attention to human needs. A leading economist is now proposing a strategy by which this might change.

There was unintended irony in an information note circulated last week by the secretariat of the Convention on Biological Diversity. The note informed recipients that, in line with the spirit of last year's World Summit on Sustainable Development, the theme of the next 'international day' on biological diversity — to be celebrated on 22 May — had been changed to 'biodiversity and poverty alleviation'. It then continued that the secretariat "apologise(s) for the inconvenience caused".

One is tempted to add that no apology is needed. Admittedly the shift may have caused some inconvenience to those who had already been planning events around the previously agreed theme, namely 'mountain biodiversity'. Nevertheless it is a welcome recognition of the fact that, in the words of Mark Malloch Brown, administrator of the United Nations Development Programme, "biodiversity is a development issue".

This fact is slowly growing to be acknowledged in the biodiversity community, many members of which have been making welcome efforts in recent years to ensure that the social relevance of protecting the environment is placed high on its agenda. This has included making efforts to ensure that local communities are fully integrated into biodiversity protection strategies, and are convinced of their self-interest in helping to promote such strategies (for example by benefiting from eco-tourism). But it appears that there is still a long way to go until such insights are integrated into mainstream development thinking.

One way of achieving this, however, has now been proposed by Jeffrey Sachs, director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University in New York, and an adviser to UN secretary-general Kofi Annan on strategies for achieving the Millennium Development Goals. Sachs' suggestion, as outlined in a speech in London on Sunday, would be to identify geographical 'hotspots' around the world where environmental degradation and grinding poverty appeared locked in a downward spiral (see UN adviser urges focus on environment 'hotspots'). These would then hopefully become top priorities for international financing by agencies such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund.

Introducing a human dimension

There is much to endorse in such an approach. Firstly, the process of identifying such 'hotspots' would inevitably require natural scientists and social scientists to work together in selecting areas in urgent need of attention. Too often ecologists still fail to introduce the interests of humans in their ecological models (the more conventional concept of ecological 'hotspots', from which Sachs has derived his proposal, is a case in point). Where they do, social behaviour is often still seen as one more threat to the environment, rather than the prism through which environmental degradation needs to be assessed and tackled.

Secondly, prioritising actions in this way would, as Sachs suggests, provide both a rallying call and an "organising principle" for both economic advisers and political leaders. The most effective aid programmes, in terms of identifying goals and raising the funds to pursue them, are often those that can be expressed in a way that those required to fund them can easily comprehend. The technique is well known to both conservation and aid groups, from Birdlife International to Oxfam. Extending its geographical range while maintaining its focus — as the concept of 'hotspots' would achieve — makes much sense.

Thirdly, Sachs is already building an enviable track record in devising strategies that have been effective in catching the eyes of both headline writers and policy makers. One of these, for example, has been the Global Fund on AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, predicated on the basis that a substantial increase in public funding is required into these diseases if they are not to undermine the massive investments that the industrialised world has been putting into promoting development elsewhere. Many — including Annan — are clearly hoping that Sachs can repeat this success in the biodiversity field.

A need for reliable data

At the same time, there are also several weaknesses in his suggestions. One of these, as Sachs himself is the first to admit, is the relative lack of the kind of reliable data that is needed to accurately identify the most critical 'hotspot's. Despite the massive efforts that have been made in recent years to collect some types of data — for example on the impact of El Niño on earth surface temperatures, or the level of ozone in the atmosphere — other types — such as the impact of watershed management practices — is noticeable by its absence.

A second weakness is that Sachs' approach remains wedded to a model of globalisation that pays insufficient attention to the power structures that are embedded in it. It may be a question of "better the devil you know". But by focusing on the big picture, Sachs has a tendency to give less weight than others to ways in which modifying the terms of global trade — for example by granting developing countries the ownership of their genetic resources, as enshrined in the biodiversity convention but challenged by the World Trade Organisation — could achieve the same goals of linking development and environment concerns.

A final, related, criticism, is that by promoting strategies that are designed primarily to appeal to leading economists in institutions such as the World Bank, Sachs risks paying insufficient attention to securing grassroots support for his proposed strategy. It is increasingly clear, however, that such support is essential if strategies that aim to defend the environment, while promoting social and economic development, are to succeed.

Meeting the costs of development

None of this, however, detracts significantly from the need to follow a path that is at least close to the one that Sachs lays out. His proposed 'hotspots' strategy — which he and his team are already applying to the Millennium Development Goals, identifying for example the key regions of the world where high levels of infant mortality require urgent attention — seems a sensible attempt to express the human dimensions of biodiversity preservation in a language that development economists and politicians alike can integrate into their thinking.

Equally important is Sachs' message that implementing a successful strategy that blends ecological and development priorities will require a substantially increased injection of resources, and that these can only come from the industrialised North. It is many years since these countries pledged to increase their aid spending to 0.7 per cent of their gross national product; some are now close to that, but many are not. For the United States to reach that target, for example, would require an increase in annual spending of about US$60 billion. An enormous sum, perhaps — until one compares it to the amount that going to war with one country alone, namely Iraq, is expected to cost.

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