Conserving biodiversity for development

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Mark Malloch Brown argues that for rural people living in poverty, development can’t happen without the conservation of biodiversity.

The author is administrator of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP).

What does biodiversity have to do with poverty and development? And why should it concern an organisation such as the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), whose principal mandate is to improve the lives of the poor?

The answers to both questions lie in the fact that biodiversity, far from being optional or a luxury restricted to the rich countries, is a key development issue. Indeed, it frequently provides the ‘welfare system of last resort’ for poor people and communities.

Medicines based on natural products, for example, provide the primary healthcare needs for up to 80 per cent of people in developing countries. Similarly, wild resources and non-timber forest products provide more than 20 per cent of rural household incomes in Vietnam, up to 35 per cent in Zimbabwe, and more than 50 per cent in Senegal, according to the World Conservation Union (IUCN).

Forests, wetlands and grasslands provide what are widely called ‘ecosystem services’, which are a mainstay of poor communities. These include clean water, soil fertility, pollution control and protection from floods, and regulation of disease.

Unfortunately, however, it is the wealthy that control access to a greater share of these services than the poor. They also consume them at a higher rate, and are buffered from changes in their availability by being able to purchase services that are scarce, or replace them with substitutes. When a degraded river basin, for example, no longer purifies water effectively, the wealthy can afford to build water treatment facilities – but the poor cannot.

Similarly, the depletion of fisheries does not disrupt supplies of fish for the wealthy. But for poor fishing communities in developing countries, it can mean the loss of precious livelihoods. Indeed, for poor communities, losing the insurance afforded by healthy, intact ecosystems can literally be a matter of life and death.

The impacts of floods, landslides, drought, crop failure and disease, for example, are each intensified whenever ecosystems are already degraded. It was poor communities living in such conditions, for example, who were the most severely affected by Hurricane Mitch – the catastrophic storm that caused more than 6,000 deaths and an 80 per cent drop in the gross domestic product of Honduras alone.

Biodiversity and the Millennium Development Goals

A major challenge currently facing the international community is finding ways to transform these precarious living conditions for the poorest of the poor. One global initiative that intends to do this is the campaign to achieve the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). These time-bound and measurable goals and targets for combating disease, illiteracy, environmental degradation and discrimination against women – with the overarching aim of halving extreme poverty and hunger – were agreed in September 2000 by world leaders at the UN Millennium Summit in New York.

The goals were explicitly reaffirmed at the 2002 World Summit for Sustainable Development in Johannesburg, placing them at the heart of a broader vision to integrate global development priorities with environmental protection. It is highly encouraging that the 188 governments that are parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity will consider the role of biodiversity in achieving the MDGs at their meeting this month (February 2004) in Malaysia.

Biodiversity is dealt with explicitly under the seventh MDG, which is a commitment to ensure environmental sustainability. But it is clear that the conservation and sustainable use of biological diversity is also central to achieving many of the other goals. 

The first goal of eradicating hunger, for example, depends on sustainable and productive agriculture. And that in turn relies on conserving and maintaining agricultural soils, water, genetic resources and ecological processes. The capacity of fisheries to supply hundreds of millions of the world’s people with the bulk of their animal protein intake, for example, depends on maintaining ecosystems (such as mangroves and coral reefs) that provide fish with habitats and sustenance.

Three of the goals (numbers 4, 5 and 6) are aimed at improving health and sanitation. Each of these requires healthy, functioning freshwater ecosystems to provide adequate supplies of clean water, and a sustainable supply of genetic resources for both modern and traditional medicine.

Overcoming conflicts with agriculture

Achieving the various MDGs could, however, throw up potential conflicts; and these obviously need to be avoided. Take the goal to halve world hunger before 2015. One way of meeting this could be to dramatically expand agriculture by clearing natural forest. But we know that the side-effects of deforestation – such as increased soil erosion, the silting up of rivers leading to reduced fish stocks downstream, and the degradation of water quality – whether planned or unintentional, may actually significantly reduce the benefits to society of that land over the long, and even short, term.

A more innovative and sustainable approach is to incorporate biodiversity conservation into food production practices, a strategy that is increasingly referred to as ‘ecoagriculture’. This refers to the many different ways in which land can be used to produce food, while also supporting the maintenance of biodiversity and other critical ecosystem services. There is a range of methods for promoting such ‘dual-use’ of land, from reducing the amount of chemicals used, to providing more wildlife breeding sites on farms.

There are also a growing number of practical examples showing how this approach can be applied. Take, for example, the ‘Campesino to Campesino’ (CaC) programme in Nicaragua. CaC was a finalist in UNDP’s 2002 Equator Initiative Awards, which recognise outstanding community success in reducing poverty through biodiversity conservation. 

Founded in 1992, the CaC project is aimed at controlling the rapid spread of agriculture over valued natural areas, achieving food security, and restoring deforested areas in Nicaragua’s Siuna municipality. It does this by, for example, promoting the use of leguminous plants and green fertilisers as cover crops that stabilise the soil and lead the way for crop diversification and improved land use planning.

As a result of CaC’s work and its network of volunteer ‘promoters’, maize yields in Siuna have more than doubled and bean production has more than tripled. At the same time, CaC has helped to replace destructive agricultural practices that had taken a devastating toll on the nearby Bosawas Biosphere Reserve, a species-rich site with sustainable systems that ensure food security, increase family incomes and protect local biodiversity.

Through UNDP’s work with the Equator Initiative, and the Small Grants Programme funded through the Global Environment Facility (GEF), we have become aware of literally thousands of other examples of such ‘win-win’ initiatives all over the world. We need to learn from these innovative communities, and to help other communities learn from them and follow their example. This is a focus of UNDP’s work in biodiversity.

An opportunity for the poor

In fact, there is a silver lining to all this. Most of the world’s biodiversity exists in the economically poorest countries. This provides the poor with opportunities to enhance their income by entering emerging markets for sustainably produced, certified forest and agricultural products, as well as ecotourism.

Poor rural communities even have a chance to compete in the global economy via payment for ecosystem services by those who benefit the most from them. Such arrangements might include watershed protection contracts (where, for example, users of the water or hydroelectricity dependent on these watersheds make payments to communities for protecting the forests), as well as many other market-based mechanisms. Such an approach would of course rely on those communities not being excluded by insecure land tenure, high transaction costs or unfair subsidies.

Globally, we are seeing a real opportunity to advance all the Millennium Development Goals without undermining our ecological capital. But this will happen only when we recognise that poor communities have an urgent stake in safeguarding their own ecosystems at the same time as meeting their basic human needs.

In other words, we need to go down a path that recognises that for rural people living in poverty, development can’t happen without the conservation of biodiversity. The real key to a sustainable future is to remember that our efforts towards poverty reduction and conservation are mutually reinforcing. In other words, our programmes should focus on ‘biodiversity for development’ not ‘biodiversity or development.’