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Forestry is a long-term business – it needs foresight, with an eye for long-finance awareness and to the long-term health and wellbeing of people and sustainability of the environment. When the Natural History Museum celebrated the bicentenary of Charles Darwin in 2009 it worked with artist Tanya Kovats to create TREE, a work which involved embedding a thin section through the length of a 200-year-old English Oak into a ceiling within the listed Museum building. The age represented the years since Darwin’s birth and the oak itself the resilience of his evolutionary ideas. However there were demanding requirements for this work, and to meet them the tree was procured from a private forest. Why?

 

The Museum was insistent that the work, though it involved felling a live tree, should be an exemplar of sustainable management practice (and biodiversity conservation). The Museum achieved this by working with the forestry team on the private estate of Lord Bath at Longleat in Wiltshire. The Longleat forest is one of the largest tracts of English broadleaf forest surviving. Historically, post Second World War, government demands via the Forestry Commission were for rapid, low-cost timber provision. This often meant alien, fast-growing conifers planted as monocultures and harvested within just a few decades of growth.

 

The broadleaf forest on the Longleat Estate is an SSSI (Site of Special Scientific Interest), and the subject of long-term study by several universities because of its high biodiversity. Yet this forest is commercially managed. Each year something like 10,000 tons of standing timber is cut from it, of which 6,000 tons is extracted for commercial use and the remainder – around 4,000 tons of branches and thinnings - left on the forest floor to create habitats for wildlife. This commercial activity is of course important for local livelihoods and to the rural economy.

 

The Longleat foresters emulate natural succession processes. Trees are not clear-cut but taken as they age, leaving a ‘mosaic’ of spaces in the forest which is always changing over time. As oak is typically at its best for timber between 140-180 year, which means long-established forests (with ancient oaks left in various parts of the woods). Trees such as hazel, ash, birch and beech all come in naturally as seedlings, usually long before oak is re-established. Where the estate was once required by post-war policy to plant alien firs, these are gradually being taken out in a sympathetic way. For example fire breaks are being cut much wider so that they become more like ‘natural forest borders’ with edge species such as birch and elder providing habitats for wider species diverity.

 

Unusually, procuring the tree for the Museum’s project required excavating the huge 20-ton root stump (stumps are more usually left to rot which is great for invertebrates and animals of the forest floor). It was the Longleat forester’s initiative to take advantage of this opportunity and enhance the large excavated hole to turn it into a pond haven to encourage frogs and newts and other pond life. The Museum project also included planting 200 young trees in public areas around the forest, and this legacy of ‘Darwin Clumps’ has been marked on the maps of the estate.

 

Looking at the bigger picture, with concerns over climate it is increasingly recommended that for commercial interests forester’s have to edge their bets and create much more diverse tree-planting to optimise the chances of getting good timber crops in spite of the environmental uncertainties around the climate of the future. At the same time the wider importance of forest in securing water supply and mitigating risks such as floods or in helping to lock-up carbon to off-set some of our fossil fuel emissions is also increasingly part of what forest management must address. It is only relatively recently that the Commission began to pay attention to biodiversity and the wider services of nature provided by forests, including their importance as accessible amenities to benefit both the health and wellbeing of the public, and to provide an accessible landscape that encourages regional tourism.

 

In the debate about ‘who should own public forest’, the key issue is actually what will be the ground rules for their future governance? Whoever takes on the task of managing our forests must do so in line with future long-term environmental and green-economic aims, not those of the post war era. They will need to be sustainably managed and developed to anticipate and offset the risks of environmental change. Their role in accommodating wider ecosystem services (including their importance as an amenity for public health and wellbeing) will need to be part of the specification. The UK Government has just agreed with the United Nations the importance of maintaining biological diversity as it underpins the vital services which nature provides for free, and yet which contribute substantially to our economic wellbeing. To deliver our contribution to the new targets for the UN Decade of Biodiversity 2011-20 we will need to see much more of the practices exemplified in Longleat. Whether ownership is via a governmental appointed Commission or via private or community ownership what will be most important is having a management framework that will ensure that rich, diverse forests are part of our landscape for the future and that they, more than ever before, provide the full variety of services we need for our health, wealth and wellbeing.

 

Dr Robert Bloomfield

Head of Innovation and Special Projects

Natural History Museum, London

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Delegates at the Nagoya conference have agreed to an ambitious conservation  programme to protect global biodiversity and the natural habitats that support the most threatened animals and plants.

 

20 key strategic goals to be implemented by 2020 should help to end the current mass extinction of species.

 

This has been widely reported, including features in The Independent and Guardian.


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Helen Buckland is UK Director, Sumatran Orangutan Society

 

Palm fruit.jpgThe world’s voracious appetite for palm oil - an ingredient found in up to half of all packaged supermarket products in the UK - is fuelling the destruction of some of the most biodiverse rainforests on the planet, home to countless species, including the critically endangered Sumatran orangutan (see www.orangutans-sos.org). Whilst every individual has the right to make choices about the food they eat and the cosmetics they use, I feel that a boycott of products containing palm oil is not the answer to saving Indonesia’s forests, for a number of reasons.

 

In order to boycott products containing palm oil, you need to know which ones to avoid – which is not easy. Palm oil is usually a hidden ingredient in food and cosmetic products, listed simply as “vegetable oil” on packaging, so it is currently almost impossible to make informed choices about what you buy at the supermarket.

 

Even armed with a palm-oil-free shopping list, protesting with your wallet may have some unintended consequences. Oil palms are the most productive oil seed in the world – more than 10 times as much oil is produced from a hectare of oil palms as other crops. If companies are forced to switch to alternative oils, even more land could be put at risk by increasing demand for oils which need larger plantations. Soybeans, for example, tend to be grown under a similar model to oil palms: huge monocultures, often at the expense of tropical forests in South America. We do not want to export the problem - saving the Southeast Asian rainforests from conversion at the expense of the Brazilian Amazon, swallowing up even more forest in the process. We simply want forest conversion to stop.

 

Palm oil is a “wonder crop” when it comes to meeting the huge global demand for vegetable oils, accounting for more than a third of the world’s supply. Countries such as India and China rely on huge palm oil imports to meet their populations’ nutritional needs, bringing billions of dollars to top producer countries such as Indonesia and Malaysia. As long as the world needs vegetable oil, there is no question that the palm oil industry will continue to grow; what we need to be concerned with how this expansion happens.

 

The development of new oil palm plantations does not need to entail forest destruction. While precious ecosystems are being devastated, millions of hectares of abandoned land lie idle, available for cultivation.  It is estimated that the amount of land growing oil palms in Indonesia could quadruple without impacting forests (http://www.projectpotico.org/), enabling the industry to grow whilst drastically reducing its environmental footprint.

 

wild male.jpgThe Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil was established to create a clear set of standards for reducing the environmental impacts of the industry. Change has been slow, and it’s not a perfect system, but oil certified as sustainable according to these standards has started to trickle into the world market.

 

Many millions of hectares of forests have already been lost to the palm oil industry. It is absolutely critical that the conversion of forests is stopped. We need more research into how to increase output on existing plantations, as current yields are in many cases well below their potential, and this would reduce the need for cultivating more land.  Environmentally-sensitive land use planning, improved productivity, responsible investment by banks and purchasing by manufacturers and retailers are all crucial to halt the conversion of Indonesia’s forests for agricultural development.
So what can you do to help? If you know a certain product contains palm oil, and would rather not to buy it on that basis, make sure that you write to the company that makes it and tell them. You can also demand that companies use only certified sustainable palm oil, and to clearly label this on their packaging. Making your voice heard really can make a difference – several big companies have already made commitments to cleaning up their palm oil supply after hearing from their customers about this issue - see the WWF website for a list.  We can all also pressure our elected officials to make decisions that help conserve our planet's limited resources and threatened biodiversity, and save precious species, including the orangutan, from extinction.

 

For further information on the environmental and social impacts of the palm oil industry see: http://www.orangutans-sos.org/campaigns/palm_oil_and_biofuels/

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Dr Bob Bloomfield has coordinated the UK response to the International Year of Biodiversity working with diverse partners from more than 400 partner organisations in the UK (www.biodiversityislife.net). Bob has an academic background in biological science but has devoted his career to science communication and public engagement around science issues including, and especially Evolution and Biodiversity.

 

 

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The London Metro reported yesterday how scientists have just given the green light for a Polynesian pepper shrub/vine – Piper methysticum - and that it does have properties that can be used medicinally to help deal with anxiety problems.

 

Well good for science to confirm this, but the back story includes that Sydney Parkinson the artist on Captain Cook’s first voyage in the Endeavour (1769) was one of the first people to ever record the ethnographic use of the past. Polynesians chewed the leaves into a pulp and ate the brew to get intoxicated (Parkinson a tee-total Quaker disapproved, but also noted that at that time the Polynesians really disliked the alcohol the crew offered them). Much of the society drank the Kava Kava (‘Ava ‘Ava) brew to chill – its anxiety alleviation being pretty obvious!

 

Roll on 50 years and the Presbyterian missionaries had got their hold on the islanders – converting them to Christianity and banning the Kava Kava brew. Charles Darwin in the Beagle Narratives of 1831-6 records with satisfaction how their good work has led to the eradication of the plant over most of Tahiti, but it could still be found on remote volcanic heights (I recorded it there in 2003).

 

clip_image001.jpgOf course other plants in this pepper genus have similar properties. For example, the Savunese people in Indonesia pulp the fruit of a related species with Betel nut to make the red chewing-paste which many of the old people use as a mild smooth (they do not report any euphoric effects but an sense of calm and wellbeing – so science confirms what a whole people have known since time immemorial, Interestingly today the Savunese culture - a mixture of ancient animism and modern Lutheran Christianity - is being suppressed today – by the majority Muslim Indonesian State which do not allow their language to be taught in schools etc.

 

What has this to do with the International Year of Biodiversity, well two obvious points; we should be carefully preserving indigenous knowledge rather than destroying it.

 

We should also be respecting this knowledge alongside science - and that means thinking how these peoples get a share of the benefits of biodiversity when it is exploited by modern drugs companies. These people have been custodians of that knowledge for hundreds, if not thousands of years.

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I’m Australian. Australia can probably claim the fastest rate of species extinction of any country on earth. Humans no sooner entered the treasurehouse of biodiversity that is the continent of Australia than they brought cats, foxes, dogs, deer, goats, pigs, water buffalo, camels, rats, mice, and allowed them to maraud at liberty. Whole populations of fascinating small mammals have been wiped out. Even in England cats have hunted all kinds of small mammals and birds to the edge of extinction. People who care about biodiversity don’t keep cats.

An earthling’s true heritage is not collections of works of art or crown jewels or great palaces built by potentates of the past. Our heritage is the exuberance of our small planet, with its astonishing variety of indwelling species, from the most delicate and intricate of mosses to the most specialised of bugs, hundreds of thousands of species each adapted to its special niche, living in fragile equilibrium with its neighbours and competitors. Every time a single species goes out of existence we are poorer. As it is, whole chains of mutually dependent species are crashing. We are destroying our inheritance before we had even come into it.

My position is that only ordinary people can make a difference. Rebuilding habitat is enormous fun; if you get it right it is also easy. What should be growing in your garden, as distinct from what is? Let your garden grow wild. Leave litter to rot down. Be glad to see bugs, yes, even aphids. More slugs means the return of the thrushes, and the happiness of toads. Let the wasps get drunk on your apples. Let the worms condition your soil. You may make a million mistakes along the way, but you will also see a reward beyond price.
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Paul Smith is leader of Kew's Millennium Seed Bank Project (MSBP) which aims to save the world’s most endangered plant species from extinction.

 

PaulSmith5.jpgTo halt, and even reverse, biodiversity loss what we need is a combination of appropriate policy and good management practice. These two approaches should always go hand in hand. Even if appropriate policy is set, if natural resource managers don’t have the tools to implement that policy, nothing improves. Conversely, technological or management interventions to stem biodiversity loss will not work unless they are supported by policy that creates funding and incentives.

 

In my opinion, the most important challenges that biodiversity and natural resource  managers face are related to both international and national development policy. The emphasis on poverty alleviation or wealth generation, for example, as measured by GDP or US dollar income, does not adequately address the problem of unsustainable management (and resulting loss) of biodiversity, which in itself leads to real, material poverty. This is dealt with comprehensively in the recent TEEB (The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity) studies, and has been highlighted by the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment.

A second, related problem is faddism in international development policy. The shift away from supporting and encouraging technological collaboration and exchange in natural resources management has undone a lot of good work – for example the decision by donors to cease supporting African tree seed centres at a time when the Food and Agriculture Organisation tells us that 28 trees are cut down for every tree planted in Africa. Good natural resource management takes decades to achieve in any given place, and needs to be maintained.

In the case of national development policy, education and health are rightly priorities, but environment comes too far down the list. Natural capital (land, soils, the diversity of plants, animals and life) is hugely undervalued, and key development areas such as agricultural research and forestry are massively under-resourced. As a result, where natural resource or land use policy is in place, it is often poorly implemented. Government scientists are poorly paid, the best brains move out, the remaining scientists don’t have the training, tools or resources they need, they are consequently not involved in development decision making, and central government increasingly regards its own researchers as irrelevant. This is a vicious circle.

The technological knowledge and tools needed to manage natural resources in a sustainable way are usually available somewhere. However, scientists in developing countries don’t have access to those technologies. This goes way beyond just information. Like the rest of us, they need mentoring, training and long term collaboration. They also need access to wide global networks not simply one on one partnerships in order to reap the benefits.

It is a mystery to me why it is that technical collaborations in Africa have to follow short term funding cycles. In Europe we have pan-European technical collaborations that span decades or even careers and yet a long term European-African collaboration is taken to be an indicator of a programme that is unsustainable – why do we need to have an exit strategy after 3 or 5 years? No wonder it is hard to make an impact!

Finally, biodiversity science in the public sector needs to find its way. Over the past two decades, government agricultural and forestry research institutions all over the world have had their funding cut drastically, and many have had to close. Universities can’t fill this void because they have different research drivers (e.g. publications and short term funding cycles). NGOs can’t do long term research because they don’t have the funding or expertise. And the private sector doesn’t always work for the public good – it also works for profit and shareholders.

Things that would make a difference

1.    Recognition by governments and the development sector that human wellbeing or wealth cannot simply be measured in US dollar.
2.    Recognition by governments that good management of natural capital, including biodiversity, underpins human health, wealth and wellbeing.
3.    Support from donors and national governments for policies that promote ecosystem health, and mitigate the risk of environmental degradation and biodiversity loss.
4.    Support from donors and national governments for capacity building, information exchange and scientific collaboration in the public sector (for appropriate timescales).
5.    A new vision that sets out the role of government scientists in delivering services for the public good.


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Dr Chris Lyal studies insects in the Natural History  Museum's Department of Entomology, where his speciality is the largest  of all beetle groups, the weevils.  As well as his research work he is  the UK National Focal Point for the Convention on Biological Diversity's  Global Taxonomy Initiative and for several years worked as a Programme  Officer for the CBD Secretariat.  He has visited many different  countries both for research and while working with people on  biodiversity policy and capacity-building issues.

 

In an earlier blog I mentioned I’d come back to benefits from genetic resources and the CBD, so I’ll now try to grasp the nettle.

 

One of the three objectives of the Convention is Fair and Equitable Access to the Benefits arising out of the utilization of Genetic Resources of Biological Diversity. This is the part that receives least attention of all, and which many of the Parties to the Convention want action on. As Bob has mentioned in one of his postings, one of the three outcomes that many countries want from Nagoya is an International Regime on Access and Benefit-Sharing.  So what does this mean? One thing it means is a lot of terminology, but as so much of the discussions are terminology-heavy, I’d better go for it.

 

Under Article 3 of the Convention "States have … the sovereign right to exploit their own resources …".  Broadly speaking, this means that the biodiversity of a country belongs to that country, and cannot be exploited without the permission of that country. Article 15 makes it clearer: “Recognizing the sovereign rights of States over their natural resources, the authority to determine access to genetic resources rests with the national governments and is subject to national legislation.”.  So if anyone wants to get hold of a ‘genetic resource’ (“genetic material of actual or potential value”) they have to ask the government of the country in which it is found and obey its laws. In practice this may mean getting permission from a variety of bodies and people, including at very local level, to access these ‘resources’.  The general mechanism for this is to make it clear what use is going to be made of the resource and get agreement with the provider country (‘Prior Informed Consent’ - PIC) and then agree a form of contract, a ‘Material Transfer Agreement’ (MAT). This will probably have a section on how any benefits are shared. The benefits might be money, if something gets commercialised, or information, or support for conservation, or a host of other things. So far so good. However, different countries have developed legislation in different ways, and there is real lack of clarity on how legislation in one country might be applied to someone from another country who has exploited genetic material without PIC and MAT. That is part of the background for the desire for an International Regime, so that access can be regulated and compliance can be more easily monitored and enforced.

 

In principle that sounds OK. Stuff growing in my garden belongs to me; you can’t take genes from it without my permission, and if you make money out of those genes I want a cut. In practice, it is a touch more difficult. How does a country know what is being collected and used out, how does it manage the permits it issues, how does it monitor what happens when genetic material is being examined outside the country, and passed between different researchers? Any process put in place is likely to be expensive in time and money; should it apply only to people who are planning to utilise a genetic resource commercially, or to everybody, including those who are carrying out purely academic research with no financial implications? How do you tell which is which? Should the regime apply only to the genetic material or to derivatives (“a naturally occurring biochemical compound resulting from the genetic expression or metabolism of biological or genetic resources, even if they do not contain functional units of heredity”). Should this apply to human genetic material? Should it apply to disease organisms, where it might be important to transfer and use genetic material very rapidly? Of course, one doesn’t just take genetic material from the environment, one takes organisms and extracts the genetic material afterwards. Because of this any legislation tends to be applied to specimens that might be collected, because of the potential benefits from the genetic material within them. So should it apply to commodities, such as potatoes? How does it apply to the exotic pot plants so many of us grow at home?

 

The basis of the discussion is very important; countries have seen and are still seeing money being made by big companies from exploiting genetic information gleaned from organisms they have collected, but no return coming back to the country of origin. The problems in developing a regime that can protect such countries whilst not paralysing other activities in support of the Convention, and can be practically implemented, are considerable.  The proposed text of the regime to be agreed at Nagoya is still being negotiated, and as of this morning still contains much text that is bracketed, which indicates that the negotiators have not yet agreed on the appropriate wording. It is important that we have something out of Nagoya that we can take forward, so we can move forward on this area of the Convention.

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Dr Bob Bloomfield has coordinated the UK response to the International Year of Biodiversity working with diverse partners from more than 400 partner organisations in the UK (www.biodiversityislife.net). Bob has an academic background in biological science but has devoted his career to science communication and public engagement around science issues including, and especially Evolution and Biodiversity.

 

 

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An interesting development week is the online publication of a report following from the Global Business of Biodiversity conference in the summer. The report, GBOB - A contribution to CBD COP10, has been designed for the CBD to share with the business segment meeting (a side event at the CBD COP10 later this month in Nagoya).

 

As an e-publication the site also links to an easy download and print version of the report. The introduction includes a video keynote from HRH Prince Charles, and a number of extracts and features drawn from other keynote speeches including Secretary of State for Environment, Caroline Spelman. Section 2 highlights comments from the other key speakers from science, policy and industry.

 

However at the heart of the book is Section 1 – a summary of the feedback from delegates. It is their feedback to the CBD, to Nagoya and to international governments which is most important and interesting. This is summarised under seven themes which highlight the main issues and barriers. A strong response from governments at the COP could help address and remove these obstacles and thereby enable businesses to engage more systematically, and not be penalised, in the global market place:

 

 

    • Lack of understanding
    • Communication
    • Markets
    • Regulatory frameworks
    • Reporting and accountability
    • Capacity development
    • Wider integration – the overarching narrative

 


What is most interesting about the report is that while industry is rightly in the frame for being one of the primary causes of biodiversity loss, this shows a growing interest and awareness, and a willingness to address the issues if Governments internationally can set the policy frameworks for them to operate and be regulated within.

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Helen Buckland is UK Director, Sumatran Orangutan Society

 

Orangutan 1 Djuna Ivereigh.jpgHow protecting one species can help protect thousands more - and aid in the fight against climate change too.

 

As awareness about our impact on the world around us grows, so does the power of the flagship species – emblematic animals which draw attention to an urgent environmental issue, or a critical habitat under threat.

 

Take the Sumatran orangutan (Pongo abelii), a critically endangered species, and deforestation of the Leuser Ecosystem in northern Sumatra, one of the most biodiverse forests in the world. While these iconic animals consistently win hearts and minds thanks to their intelligence, unique character and striking similarity to humans, many people don’t realise just how much we can achieve through their protection.

 

Like the more numerous, but still endangered, Bornean orangutan (Pongo pygmaeus), Sumatran orangutans are a fantastic flagship species for Indonesia’s forests, incredible animals that can act as ambassadors for this unique habitat and all the other wildlife within it.

 

By protecting orangutans and their rainforest home, we can help literally thousands of other species, from the world’s smallest fish - Paedocypris progenetica, discovered just a few years ago, to the world’s longest snake, the reticulated python. Then there are the Sumatran tigers, elephants, rhinos, clouded leopards – the list goes on.

 

Orangutans also play a crucial role in forest regeneration. Spending most of their time up in the trees and with a diet consisting of over 400 different plants and fruits they spread seeds over great distances, helping maintain the diversity of the entire ecosystem.

 

Of course it’s not just plants and animals that benefit as a result; millions of people are dependent on these unique ecosystems too. As well as supplying food, fresh water, fuel and natural medicines, the forests are also crucial for soil fertility, flood control, prevention of fires and more.

 

Orang 2 Nick Tignonsini.jpgThe forests of Indonesia - and of Malaysia, home to Bornean orangutans – are also crucially important in the fight against climate change. The ancient forests of Sumatra and Borneo are vital carbon sinks - especially those on deep peat soils. Deforestation leads to the release of centuries’ worth of carbon stored in the soil and in the trees themselves. Around 20% of global greenhouse gas emissions come from the clearance and burning of forests, more than those from transport, and Indonesia is losing its forests faster than any other country.

 

The loss of their rainforest home is the greatest threat pushing the orangutan to the brink of extinction; as forests are burnt, logged and converted to plantation agriculture, the call for their protection becomes ever more urgent. Around half of Sumatra’s forests have been lost in the last 25 years. By working with communities living next to the last remaining orangutan habitat, restoring damaged forests, and supporting local government in protecting the Leuser Ecosystem, we offer a lifeline to Sumatran orangutans, and the thousands of other species they represent.
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Jonathan Baillie is Conservation Programmes Director for the Zoological Society of London and a global authority on the status and trends of threatened species. He  has played a significant role in some of the most influential documents  on the status of the world's species including the IUCN Red List of  Threatened Species, and has helped lead the development of a series of  species level global biodiversity indicators for the Convention on  Biological Diversity.

 

2010 is the International Year of Biodiversity and our planet is in crisis. A recent paper in Science (Butchart et al. 2010) demonstrates that indicators looking at the status of species and ecosystems continue to show declining trends while those looking at threats are rapidly increasing. It is unfortunately clear that the 2010 CBD target has not been met, as we have not reduced the rate of biodiversity loss.  ZSL research conducted in collaboration with the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and partners demonstrates that 1/4 of the world’s terrestrial vertebrates – mammals, birds, reptiles and amphibians – are threatened with extinction and our initial results indicate that these patterns may be representative of biodiversity in general. ZSL research with WWF indicates that vertebrates have declined by 30 percent since 1970 and this is consistent across marine, freshwater and terrestrial systems.

 

The threats to biodiversity are intensifying with the impacts of climate change and the increased pressure associated with an estimated global population increase of 2.5 billion people over the next 40 years. This century is clearly presenting society with some of the greatest challenges it has ever faced. Our ability to overcome these challenges depends on whether we are capable of transitioning to a world where we manage the world’s species and ecosystems in a sustainable manner. The 2010 Convention on Biological Diversity provides an opportunity for the world’s governments to place biodiversity high on the international political agenda and jumpstart this transition process. If this does not occur, nature will find its own balance with unthinkable consequences for all species, including the humans.

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Dr Bob Bloomfield has coordinated the UK response to the International Year of Biodiversity working with diverse partners from more than 400 partner organisations in the UK (www.biodiversityislife.net). Bob has an academic background in biological science but has devoted his career to science communication and public engagement around science issues including, and especially Evolution and Biodiversity.

 

 

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In some extraordinary scenes at the United Nations General Assembly the threats associated with biodiversity loss discussed in today’s special session began with the stark message that; addressing biodiversity loss was not a luxury but a duty. In his remarks Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon rang the alarm bells saying biodiversity loss needed an emergency, internationally-agreed rescue package akin to the global bank crisis. He underscored the imperative stressing that Governments had to stop thinking about environmental (biodiversity) protection as a loss but as an investment which Heads of State and all areas of government had to consider alongside the other measures needed to ensure long-term stability.

 

Speakers in the assembly were in accord with the significance of the problem, the European Commission President Jose-Manuel Barroso highlighting that mitigating climate change and adapting to its impact would be impossible without effective measures to protect ecosystems and biodiversity. While the spokesperson for the Group of 77 developing countries and China said that without comprehensive measures to address biodiversity loss the Millennium Development Goals would be unobtainable.

As the main session took place in the assembly Ahmed Djoghlaf, Chief Executive of the Convention on Biology, held a press conference with biodiversity experts and celebrity champion of the International Year of Biodiversity actor Edward Norton.  Norton urged people to use their purchasing power to influence opinion - saying that in some ways this could have a bigger impact on industry, which is a primary driver of biodiversity impacts, than the progress of government policy. This press conference ended in slightly chaotic scenes as the panel rose to ring a Memorial Bell as a call for recognition of the issues at stake. This event coincided with bell-ringing in sympathy around the world, including here in England by Anglican Churches. Peterborough Cathedral tolled 492 times – one for each species known to have become extinct in England in recent history.

 

However, while the International Year of Biodiversity and the International Bell-ringing were intended to celebrate the importance of Biodiversity there were signs that behind the scenes in the UN the international negotiators were not pulling in harmony, but more like a group of new bell-ringers desperately trying to get into rhythm. There was an undercurrent of concern that next months crucial meeting in Nagoya could end up in a cacophony as efforts to meet agreement falter.

 

There are two primary causes of concern. The first is that one county won’t fully join in. The CBD has almost universal support, now with 194 countries having full status. However, as Ed Norton highlights, the rope left dangling pulls the primary bell in the bell tower – the United States, which only has observer status at the CBD. This is not only hugely politically embarrassing, it has a major impact on key decisions which need to be made in Japan in October when the CBD meets to agree the way forward for the next decade.

 

The second and bigger threat to the world chiming in unison became apparent as the nuances emerged from the speakers in the main assembly meeting. While Brazil, Germany and the EU all heralded the establishment of IPBES (Intergovernmental Science Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services) as a major breakthrough, a threat has emerged over its full implementation. This panel, biodiversity’s equivalent to the International Panel on Climate Change is seen as essential in getting better informed responses and action at global and national levels – so what’s the crack in the mould that could put it out of tune?

 

Brazil’s Environment Minister Izabella Teixeira emphasised that there were three components to the Nagoya negotiations which were indivisible, these include:
•    A comprehensive Strategic Plan with new country targets to implement measures to protect biodiversity and ecosystems.
•    An agreement on access on benefits – that is how particularly developing countries with important genetic resources in their biodiversity will benefit from any commercial development of these ‘assets’.
•    The creation of an essential strategic and financial plan to build capacity and mobilise the resources required to make the difference.

 

The political problem lies in the indivisible nature of these components and at least some of the countries in the Group of 77 wanting clear agreements on financial support for them – and potentially not supporting the implementation of IPBES if this cannot be agreed.

 

While these issues are surmountable what the CBD and the United Nations are saying is that global society has to change, change fast and change dramatically if the consequences of biodiversity loss are to be avoided – including major setbacks to address climate change and global poverty alleviation. The subtext was clear, that rate of damage caused by man in recent years and in the few decades to come will have a monumental impact for thousands of years to come. And the call is for an unprecedented programme of global ecosystem restoration which has to be supported in all areas of governance from heads of state, through all government departments. The value of ecosystems natural assets has to be in our economic accounting – and this is currently in the RED. The movement towards a green economy places biodiversity centre stage and the greatest challenge of the decade ahead. The representative for Japan – the incoming Presidency of the CBD recognised the imperative calling on the UN accept a resolution that the 2010-2020 be called the International Decade of Biodiversity.

 

What is dispiriting is the real lack of Media interest and response to this event. They could be doing so much more to engage the public and we need millions of people to understand, to ring bells, glockenspiels, mobile ring tones, maracas, bang tins and empty plastic bottles and demand that governments take heed. I hope that Nagoya will be cause for celebration and not the knell for biodiversity actions because of short-sighted and narrow political positioning. To coin a phase, For whom the Bell Tolls, The Bell Toll for You, and Me, and You and You and You….

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Alan Brown is Countryside Officer for Clyde Muirshiel Regional Park. He has a degree in Geography and has worked teaching outdoor pursuits. A few years ago he completed a biological MPhil.

 

Curiosity may have killed the cat and this may not necessarily be a bad thing considering how many wee birds they consume, but is biodiversity a question of curiosity? Are we just not worried about what type grass is growing under our feet? Perhaps we’ve just stood still too long. So, why are we not curious about what’s in our back garden? I know that in my childhood I collected worms, bees, wasps and caught shrews which was all done from the safety of my parents back garden! Not so easy now under the increasing urbanisation of our gardens built to park our combustion orientated lifestyles. With over 12 million square miles of gardens concreted over in London alone perhaps evolution may soon see the rise of the concrete mite. Still, at least the car allows us to drive into the countryside and park on the tarmac and see nature. Or have we, as Joni Mitchell sang, just ” paved paradise and put up a parking lot”. Gardens can be minature paradises for species and for our understanding of nature. Our lifestyle does influence our slant on the worth of nature.

 

Although we no longer appear to be curious, as a species, about the 800 or so species that can be in the back garden, it’s different for shiny consumables. We all recognise more than a thousand products. However, it seems most people only learn the name of a few popular plants that have been imported from somewhere exotic. Such is the case with Rhododendron that has taken over large parts of the countryside, but is appreciated for its colourful flower displays.  Ironically, for the Rhododendron, (though this point may be lost on it) in it’s native Himalaya it has become very rare due to tourist pressure for fuelwood. Meanwhile, the Privet, a tame species of our front gardens rampages across Madagascar. So what’s the outcome for this messing with the environment. Darwin pointed out that as part of the natural process a better adapted species leads to its parents’ extinction. Has our biological tampering just eased out poorly adapted species? Will things sort themselves out or will we just be over-run with super plants proliferating like supermarkets everywhere?

 

It may be that we are just Douglas Adam’s Golgafrinchans, a bunch of hairdressers and telephone sanitizers abandoned on planet earth, that eventually evolved, or didn’t, into the human race? So make your choice, it’s either a world of product placement or a place for a productive life. Choose life.

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Dr Chris Lyal studies insects in the Natural History Museum's Department of Entomology, where his speciality is the largest of all beetle groups, the weevils.  As well as his research work he is the UK National Focal Point for the Convention on Biological Diversity's Global Taxonomy Initiative and for several years worked as a Programme Officer for the CBD Secretariat.  He has visited many different countries both for research and while working with people on biodiversity policy and capacity-building issues.

 

The Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) has the objectives of conservation, sustainable use and fair and equitable access to the benefits arising from the utilisation of genetic resources of biological diversity. However, irrespective of what we decide to do about biological diversity we are unable to do anything very much (other than let it all go extinct) unless we know what that biological diversity actually is. Imagine trying to buy for and then cook a dish from a recipe book if none of the ingredients had names, or planting a new garden from seed if none of the seed packets had the contents identified. Without knowing what species are present in our environment we cannot find out the correct conditions to manage them, we will not be able to tell if populations are rising or falling, we cannot pass legislation to protect them, and we cannot share information about different sites.

 

Some 519 species of birds are recorded from the UK – if I’m honest, I can only identify somewhere between 50 and a hundred of them reliably without recourse to a book. The UK also has some 4,000 species of beetles (4,001 I believe), and no comprehensive book that allows me to identify each one of them. Now each one of these species is (a) of intrinsic interest; (b) carries its own multi-million year ancestry; (c) has a place in the ecosystem, and thus a part in maintaining that ecosystem; (d) has a value to humanity, either through its ecosystem function, its beauty (yes, even beetles) or its ability to do a job for us (like beetles eating their way through tons of invasive weed). If the people we ask to manage our environment cannot identify the species they are managing, they will be unable to ensure the species are still there in ten year time, let alone a thousand. They cannot be conserved, nor used in a sustainable way. Oh, and an additional problem: so far we have given names to around 1.8 million different species of animals, plants and microroganisms around the world; we think there may be around 30 million altogether. Most biodiversity is unnamed.

 

Which brings me to taxonomy. Institutions such as the Natural History Museum and Royal Botanic Gardens Kew have on their staff experts in naming and identifying species, the science called taxonomy. They also have vast collections of specimens from all over the world, and scientists from all over the world come to use them and solve problems in their own countries. This expertise and these collections are a vital part of managing biodiversity, and so are important to the CBD. So important, in fact, that the CBD set up a separate policy area just about the science, the “Global Taxonomy Initiative”. This is intended to create the policies needed to train and employ more taxonomists, build up collections and infrastructure, and above all make sure that taxonomic work is directed to producing the information needed at the right time and delivered to the right people in a way they can use it. At the Nagoya meeting there will be further discussion of taxonomy, and how it needs to be directed to support the management of biodiversity around the world.

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Dr Bob Bloomfield has coordinated the UK response to the International Year of Biodiversity working with diverse partners from more than 400 partner organisations in the UK (www.biodiversityislife.net). Bob has an academic background in biological science but has devoted his career to science communication and public engagement around science issues including, and especially Evolution and Biodiversity.

 

 

Bob_Bloomfield.jpgThe recent Mori Poll confirming that British people are concerned about the loss of species is no surprise. For many years we have worked to protect areas of outstanding natural beauty such as our network of national parks. As a nation of nature lovers we take great interest in our wildlife. While many of us do this from our armchairs, many others volunteer with NGOs such as the Wildlife Trusts, the RSPB, and a host of other societies. Good progress has been made in protecting pockets of nature and specific species. Despite this over the past decade the United Kingdom, like the other 193 signatory countries to the UN Convention on Biological Diversity, has failed to meet the overall target of reversing biodiversity loss.

 

Biodiversity is the variety of living things, so biodiversity loss is happening at all levels – a decline in the genetic variety within species, individual species being pushed to the brink of extinction, and the decline in the variety of diverse habitats and ecosystems. What is happening now is without precedent, scientists estimate the current rate of extinction is maybe 1000 times the natural rate, and this erosion is due to human activities, primarily the consequence of the combined effects of human population growth and resource demands. These in turn fuel massive land-use changes with the expansion of agriculture and fishing, transport systems and urbanization, along with a host of industrial process with cause pollution through extraction, processing and waste disposal.

 

So here we get to the rub of the issue, while the efforts of Government environment departments, NGOs and volunteer organisations are having success, this is not dealing with the root cause of biodiversity loss which is the impact overall of human activity. Looking ahead to make a real difference humans need to look see things differently and do things differently.

 

The good news is that we are also becoming more aware of our dependence on biodiversity. Without green plants we would have no oxygen to breath. With no insects there would be no pollination of all the plants which provide our foods, fabrics, fuels and the host of other products for human use. Invertebrates, bacteria and fungi prevent us from being buried in our own waste and natural material would not be recycled which is essential for the maintenance of fertile soil. Without forests and moor land Insurance companies would pale at the risks of floods and drought, as these systems act like sponges to buffer the movement of rain to our rivers. Without genetic variety in nature we would have nowhere to turn to find the new strains of crops resistant to emerging pests and diseases, or for the natural pharmacopeia which is the basis for developing new medicines to protect people and our livestock. Even more significant today when we face the prospect of human induced climate change is the biological capability of forests, reef, ocean plankton, marches and bogs and other ecological systems to take in and lock away the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide. As humans allow biodiversity to degrade we threaten these Ecosystem Services, as they are called, and many more which I haven’t even mentioned.

 

Even more astounding is the emerging understanding of the economic cost of this loss. Conservative estimates of the economic costs of forest loss alone are between $2-4000000000000000000 ($2-4 trillion) each year (equivalent to about two global bank crises a year). Which brings me around to why it is so disturbing that so few people are aware of the meeting of the Convention On Biological Diversity meeting in Nagoya in October, when targets for the future protection of biodiversity will be set.

 

The Rio Earth Summit in1992 highlighted three agendas to be addressed; climate change; sustainable economic development; and biodiversity loss. What is now abundantly clear is that these are not separate agendas; quite the contrary, if we cannot address biodiversity loss we cannot hope to succeed in either of the other two, human society has to see all three as intimately bound and needing to be addressed together. As a life-long naturalist and environmentalist this is self-evident, that our complex interacting living system earth is something which we cannot be apart from, and if we do not tend to its vital organs, its oceans, rivers and forests, we will suffer as it declines. The good news is that the new economic awareness of the importance of biodiversity might be understood in the world in international politics and so we may see positive outcomes from Nagoya.

 

However biodiversity action needs the understanding of people too. People who can provide the mandate to ensure politicians provide the policy framework that will make a difference. People in business who can champion the green economy of which biodiversity preservation is a central part; and ordinary people who have the vision to see a world where we make space for biodiversity is the only way to ensure the health wealth and wellbeing of future generations.