Biodiversity is in full swing these days.  2010 is the International Year of Biodiversity.  The United Nation Environment Programme’s Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) is currently holding its tenth biannual meeting in Nagoya, Japan.  A commitment to substantially reduce the rates of biodiversity loss by 2010 was incorporated into the United Nations Millennium Development Goals in 2005.

Biodiversity refers to the variety of genes, species, and ecosystems that make up life on Earth.  It provides a wide variety of essential goods and services to the world, including everything from basic material needs (food, timber, fiber, and medicines) to underlying ecosystem services like flood and pest control, pollination, and climate regulation.

Loss of Biodiversity and Environmental Impact

Biodiversity gets lost as animal and plant species disappear from certain areas or from the planet altogether.  The World Conservation Union’s annual “Red List,” the broadest scientific assessment of the world’s animals and plants, put the number of species threatened with extinction at 16,306 in 2007.  One-fifth of all vertebrates and a third of all sharks and rays now face the threat of extinction according to new research published online Tuesday in the journal Science as reported in the Washington Post.  Largely man-made forces including habitat destruction, over-exploitation, and invasive competitors push 52 species per category closer to extinction each year.

“The key pressures driving biodiversity loss are overexploitation of species, invasive alien species, pollution, climate change, and especially the degradation, fragmentation, and destruction of habitats, according to a research report entitled “Biodiversity Conservation: Challenges Beyond 2010” and published in the journal Science.  Up to half of all logging in the five major timber-producing countries in 2009 consisted of unsustainable, illegal harvesting.  The strong global demand for seafood in the form of high-level ocean predators like tuna and salmon threatens the biodiversity of the world’s oceans (see the related post What’s for Dinner – Sushi or Fish Sticks?).  According to the Science article, the supply side of the seafood industry is also to blame with fishing subsidies leading to “overexploitation of two-thirds of fish stocks across the globe, threatening both the fishing industry (worth $80 to $100 billion per year) and the 27 million people dependent on it.”  In Zimbabwe, wildlife poaching in national parks and private game conservatories by supporters of President Robert Mugabe is thought to have cost the country more than half of its wildlife.

The adverse effects of many natural disasters are exacerbated by failures to protect biodiversity and ecosystem services.  This can be seen regularly in the results of disasters around the world from Haiti to Indonesia.  For example, deforestation makes many areas more vulnerable to mud slides that wipe out homes, crops, and lives.

Framing the Issue

One key takeaway from recent findings and events is that biodiversity is much more than a nice-to-have measure of wildlife preservation or a moral obligation to other living creatures.  Rather, the loss of biodiversity and ecosystem preservation is a matter with practical economic and social consequences for large numbers of people around the world and their everyday lives.

The Group of 8 leading industrialized nations initiated the Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity (TEEB) project to study the economic impact of ecosystem services and changes in biodiversity.  Released last week during the CBD, the TEEB study puts the annual value contributed by global wetlands at $3.4 billion and the annual loss of natural capital from ecosystems like forests at $2 – $4.5 trillion.  Other recent estimates place the economic value of the benefits of maintaining the biodiversity of natural ecosystems at 10 to 100 times their costs.

In most cases, those who bear the brunt of the impact from the loss of biodiversity and deterioration of ecosystems are people who live off the land in less developed countries.  These people rely directly on nature for their food, shelter, and income.  They generally do not have the resources or training to resort to the modern, artificial tools at the disposal of wealthier populations to help compensate for the loss of nature’s services.

Biodiversity Conservation Success Stories

Fortunately, we have the capacity to restore and protect biodiversity and natural ecosystem services.  There have already been a number of noteworthy success stories.

  • A few of the most visible and important include reducing deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon and Indonesia.  An innovative Indonesian conservation law enacted in 2007 has enabled the management of sustainable logging and ecosystem restoration.  More than 1,200 species of plants and animals have been discovered in the Amazon rainforest over the past decade according to study titled “Amazon Alive! A Decade of Discoveries 1999-2009” published Tuesday by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF).
  • Costa Rica provides a classic example of the benefits of biodiversity and effective environmental policy according to Thomas Lovejoy.  A study found that coffee plantations near forest areas had 20 percent higher yields due to the economic services of wild pollinating organisms, which translated to an additional $60,000 in income per farmer.  Costa Rica’s ecosystem services law rewards landowners for maintaining forests that help ensure reliable water flow for downstream hydroelectric power generation.
  • The extinction of at least 16 bird species was prevented between 1994 and 2004 thanks to a variety of ecological conservation programs, including habitat management, removal of invasive species, captive breeding, and the reintroduction of endangered species.
  • The benefits of maintaining biodiversity and healthy ecosystems are prevalent in developed areas as well as remote locations.  New York City recovered the quality of its drinking water by restoring the local natural ecosystem.  In the process, it avoided paying $8 billion for a water treatment facility that would have otherwise been required by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

Role of Industrialized Countries

International Development and Foreign Aid

Well-off donor countries such as the Group of 8 have an important role to play in the maintenance of biodiversity and ecosystem services in developing countries.  Donor nations have tended to look at aid too narrowly in terms of humanitarian relief efforts and physical infrastructure projects.  While both of these are hugely important and valuable, they often do not address biodiversity as a key driver of economic livelihood and survival in much of the developing world.

Instead, the issue should be framed in terms of sustainable development and foreign aid aimed at protecting and fostering the beneficial economic and social environmental services provided by biodiversity.  Effective aid packages should empower developing country institutions and include incentives for local stakeholders to be actively involved in the conservation of their own natural ecosystems.  Developed countries with better research capabilities could contribute their scientific expertise and resources to help bridge the many knowledge gaps in all of the ways that biodiversity contributes to beneficial ecosystem services.

Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR)

Another key element of biodiversity conservation involves the support and participation of international business interests.  The global supply chains of multinational companies can have a tremendous impact on biodiversity and local ecosystems.  Companies need to make the adoption and implementation of sustainable environmental practices a central component of their corporate social responsibility policies.  Local countries could promote environmentally responsible corporate behavior by linking incentives with the adoption of sustainable business practices, with the goal of earning positive economic returns on their investments in these incentives.

Related articles and content:

Scoring and Ranking the World’s Environmental Performance

Cambodia Biodiversity Find – Carnivorous Plant

Belize – Caribbean Cayes, Wildlife and Mayan Sites

News Trends in Sustainability, Development Issues

Visit the Global Sherpa home page.


Broder, John M.  Putting a Value on Biodiversity.  New York Times.  October 20, 2010.

The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity (TEEB).

Economist.  The Least of God’s Creatures Has Value.  October 21, 2010.

Eilperin, Juliet.  188 More Species Listed as Near Extinction.  Washington Post.  September 13, 2007.

Eilperin, Juliet.  Global Extinction Crisis Looms, New Study Says.  Washington Post.  October 27, 2010.

Knight, Matthew.  Report Highlights Amazon’s Rich Diversity.  CNN.  October 26, 2010.

Lovejoy, Thomas E.  Profiting from Biodiversity.  New York Times.  October 20, 2010.

Rands, Michael R. W., William M. Adams, Leon Bennun, Stuart H. M. Butchart, Andrew Clements, David Coomes, Abigail Entwistle, Ian Hodge, Valerie Kapos, Jörn P. W. Scharlemann, William J. Sutherland, Bhaskar Vira.  Biodiversity Conservation: Challenges Beyond 2010.  Science.  pp. 1298-1303.  September 10, 2010.

Sebatha, Lizwe.  1,000 Villagers to Make Way for Transfrontier Park.  ZimOnline.  June 20, 2009.