9 billion by 2050! What about plants and animals?

Have the use of human capital, the green revolution feat and the development choices we made helped India get a relatively-better spot on biodiversity? A biodiversity scientist tells us why.

When someone tells you that your money has gone into the right spot, it feels great, right?

Turn some pages of a paper ‘Reductions in global biodiversity loss predicted from conservation spending’. In a paper published in Nature that tracked $14.4 billion spent on conservation programs all over the world in a band of 12 years, Anthony Waldron, lead author of the paper and research fellow at the National University of Singapore, distills this – that’s money well spent!

Now that’s good to hear. It is uncomfortable to learn that the bucks we spend on development and GDP growth harm biodiversity, but it is reassuring to learn that the pennies we put in conservation reduced those impacts – at least something good happened.

But that’s where we are also woken up to the notion of ‘ecological’ cost of development. Even with all the good road covered, there is room for slipping up. If we keep our Maths busy on ‘net biodiversity’, what about specific species and habitats? What about cynics who still question wallets devoted to conserving biodiversity? We cannot forget what the Living Planet Report 2018 from WWF (World Wide Fund for Nature) reminded us again – of all the plant, amphibian, reptile, bird and mammal species that have gone extinct since AD 1500, 75 per cent were harmed by overexploitation or agricultural activity or both. To add to this red-list there are invasive species, climate-change effects, pollution and disturbance (through agricultural pollution, dams, fires and mining). Let us not miss out on pollinators here too. They are very crucial for how we live and what we eat, and they are also one of the dominoes that get kicked down by human activity and carelessness.

Notably, the latest Land Degradation and Restoration Assessment (LDRA) that came out in March 2018 from the Intergovernmental Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES), pointed that only a quarter of land on Earth is substantively free of the impacts of human activities. If by 2050, this fraction is projected to decline to just a tenth and if species population-decline precipitates further, (turning more pronounced in the tropics – an 89 per cent loss compared to 1970 when Nearctic and Palearctic populations are at decline-rates of 23 per cent and 31 per cent respectively), we really need to start having headaches and nightmares about biodiversity.

Can we ever get close to goals like the CBD Aichi target 5 – ‘By 2020, the rate of loss of all natural habitats, including forests, is at least halved and where feasible brought close to zero, and degradation and fragmentation is significantly reduced.’

Let’s pour out some of the doubts and what-ifs to Ameenah Gurib-Fakim. A Biodiversity Scientist and the former President of Mauritius (the 6th President of Mauritius from 2015 to 2018) Ameenah has been studying and validating the flora of Mauritius, that happens to be one of the world’s key biodiversity hotspots. Armed with a graduate degree in Chemistry, and a PhD degree in organic chemistry, she brings a different interplay of brain and heart when she argues and explores issues of biodiversity.

From researching the medical and nutritive implications of indigenous plants of Mauritius to standing up with questions and red flags around biodiversity, Ameenah has traversed an interesting journey so far. At the 10th edition of TEDxGateway held recently at the DOME @ NSCI Mumbai, she helped us mutate some questions into powerful insights and paths to take on the big crusade of biodiversity.

How serious is the scenario on biodiversity today? Is the issue suffering from oblivion in face of other urgent issues on climate change taking spotlight?

Unfortunately, all the alarm bells are ringing on the extent of biodiversity loss. Climate change, pollution and human impacts are all responsible for this. We still have not understood that biodiversity underpins life on earth. We tend to overlook the ecosystemic services that Nature gives us- like the oxygen that keeps us alive, the clean water that we drink and the food that we eat! It is akin to that good-old saying now: It is only when the last fish has been fished, when the last tree has been cut, that Man will realise that he cannot eat money!

What is the significance of global co-operation and technological innovation in this realm?

To tackle climate change, there is a call for a global solidarity. It is not a challenge that can be tackled alone. Every action counts at local level but we will need funding, technology transfer and a youth that needs to be innovative in their approach. Agriculture is an area that I am thinking of where technology will have an impact especially as one is talking about ensuring food security, for example. Yet what is paradoxical is that we are, increasingly, witnessing anti-science sentiment in many parts of the developed and emerging countries.

What are the three key drivers of this problem and three important solutions that you have distilled in your work and observations so far?.

To ensure prosperity for all, countries must deliver on the SDGs (Sustainable Development Goals). It is an important document that aims at leaving no one behind. Yet if we are to prioritise among the goals and survive in the era of disruption that we are in right now, then we need to prioritise the following:

  • Educate and empower the youth with science and technology tools
  • Conservation of genetic material of food crops to ensure food security within a changing climate
  • Water and energy-security for all

Any intervention that you suggest strongly for India and the region around it?

India has had a head-start; and thanks to the founding fathers’ vision, India had invested in science and technology since 1958 (with Pandit Nehru’s vision for Science). India has invested in her human capital and we have seen that leap forward that the country has witnessed ever since. The country did not have to invest in heavy machinery and instead used human capital for the advancement of the IT industry. India has also succeeded in its Green Revolution although now, there is some serious rethinking to be done in the light of climate change. India has had a lead in many areas and one of them is biotechnology and the pharmaceutical sector. It can leverage these areas and help ensure access to affordable medicine for example.

Have protection efforts and identification of spots anywhere struggled with knowledge gaps or industrial/development/political intercepts? How important is the area of policy and regulation here? Any thoughts on what the UN tables covered via Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) recently?

The CBD has been a landmark event in 1992 for countries and the one I think of in highlighting how they are sovereign for their biodiversity. The knowledge associated with it and the concept of benefit-sharing has been enshrined in the Nagoya protocol. However, just like any other convention, it needs to be ratified by all, especially the big players. Unfortunately, this is still not the case. India has some good examples of the protection of its traditional knowledge under AYUSH. This is good example for many other countries to adopt and India could be leading the way.

Do we need to rethink tourism, lifestyle, conservation, supply chains, food and business in the context of biodiversity? Also, how plausible is the idea of still salvaging endemic biodiversity?

We need a rethink on the way we live, consume, travel etc.. It is no longer possible to maintain the status quo. We need to relook at the amount of waste we generate and how best to recycle. Our consumption of water has to be reassessed in the light of a warming planet and an explosion of population growth. We will be 9 billion by 2050! We have no choice but to save our endemic biodiversity. They hold potential for our health, foods and many other services and yet we have not yet assessed its potential.

When the WWF report links biodiversity decline to human activities and exploitation of resources, what measures should the world wake up to without slowing down too much on the treadmill of development? Is it even possible to be sustainable here?

It is possible to do things differently but we need the political will and a collaborative and enlightened public. Technology is here to help and here I think of renewable energy as one such example. Extracting fossil fuels will become more expensive whereas the costs for renewables will be less. India has already shown the way.

An interesting report linked money and biodiversity recently. “Development and GDP growth affected biodiversity negatively, money spent on conservation greatly reduced those impacts.” What is your interpretation and suggestion on the ‘ecological cost of development’?

We need to delink biodiversity and money for a start! Our survival on this planet depends on our biodiversity preservation and conservation. The sooner we learn and accept this, the more we will make progress.

Any success examples or references that have shown good progress on biodiversity?

There has been some progress on the African continent for example when it comes to protecting the elephants and rhinos. The public is getting more and more aware of their plight and their numbers in the wild is growing slowly but again how sustainable this will be is going to depend on the decisions taken by some countries that have exploited their horns and other parts. It is a fine balancing-act that we are living daily. While this is true for animals, the same is not true for plants. When a plant disappears, hardly anyone talks about it. Yet together they ensure the sustainability of our ecosystems. Still, there is growing awareness through the power of communication to keep on making the point. We have the means and the tools to do it, so let us work towards a more sustainable future together.

By Pratima H

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Ref:

https://news.mongabay.com/2018/10/can-we-buy-our-way-out-of-the-sixth-extinction/
Waldron, A., Miller, D.C., Redding, D., Mooers, A., Kuhn, T.S., Nibbelink, N., Roberts, J.T., Tobias, J.A., Gittleman, J.L., (2017). Reductions in global biodiversity loss predicted from conservation spending. Nature, 555: 364–367.
Tittensor, D. P. et al. (2014). A mid-term analysis of progress toward international biodiversity targets. Science, 346: 241–244.
https://wwf.panda.org/knowledge_hub/all_publications/living_planet_report_2018/
https://s3.amazonaws.com/wwfassets/downloads/lpr2018_summary_report_spreads.pdf

  

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