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Big Nature Debate

6 Posts tagged with the conservation tag
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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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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.

 

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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Paul Wilkinson is head of Living Landscapes for The Wildlife Trusts, and has responsibility for leading and supporting the achievement of their Living Landscapes vision across the UK. www.wildlifetrusts.org

 

Conservation groups such as The Wildlife Trusts will never give up our efforts to protect the UK's wildlife and habitats, but the truth is this can't be enough to ensure a bright future for biodiversity into the 21st century and beyond. Although we manage around 2,300 nature reserves across the UK, it's still not enough - we need nature to be thriving on a landscape scale.

 

The Wildlife Trusts' vision for A Living Landscape, a recovery plan for nature, was launched in 2006 and there are now more than 100 landscape scale schemes across the UK, covering over 3.5million acres.

Pumlumon_Highland_cow.jpg

Image: Pumlumon, Montgomeryshire, the site of one of The Wildlife Trusts flagship Living Landscape schemes. © Montgomeryshire Wildlife Trust

 

In trying to deliver these schemes we are working amid Government policies that tell us how land should be used and managed, few of them designed with nature in mind and virtually none actively supporting its restoration. Decisions about land use are being made by different organisations and government departments, with different interests, but this decision making is not aligned or suitably integrated towards achieving a common vision, and so wildlife and the natural services on which we all depend continue to decline.

 

Ahead of the General Election this year we were pushing for a White Paper on the natural environment as a way of addressing this. We envisioned this being a new driver to restore the natural environment, putting wildlife back on the front foot. It was a great cause for celebration when the coalition Government committed to a Natural Environment White Paper (NEWP) in England. It's currently at a public consultation stage, where anyone can submit their views on what should be included. You can find out more on our website. We'd recommend doing so to anyone with an interest in nature and wildlife.

 

From The Wildlife Trusts' point of view, the NEWP should ensure all our existing wildlife areas are fully protected and valued, that they are enlarged and connected so wildlife can move between them, and that we are making the most of natural processes for the purposes of flood prevention, carbon absorption and crop pollination. It should also see partnerships continuing to develop between central and local government, businesses, communities, voluntary sector and landowners - a joint commitment to restoring nature. Wildlife, with the myriad benefits it brings, should be part of all of our lives. And Government needs to provide the impetus and means for this to happen.

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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.

 

Over the past 20 years there has been a lot of interest in ‘biodiversity’ – the variety of animals, plants and microorganisms on Earth, their genetic makeup and the ecosystems in which they live.  There have been peaks and troughs – a peak with the massive excitement globally at the Rio ‘Earth Summit’ in 1992, when the world’s leaders seemed to pick up the biodiversity flag, and troughs with continued threats to ecosystems from rainforests to seabed, and no clear turning point to a more secure future.

 

So what happened to the tide of optimism generated in Rio?  We got a ‘Convention on Biological Diversity’ out of it, but what has it done, and what will it achieve at its next major meeting in Nagoya?  At one level, the Convention (‘CBD’) has achieved a vast amount.  With 192 signatory countries, plus the European Union, it is the largest Environmental Convention.  It has 42 legally-binding provisions, and its major biennial meetings (the Conference of the Parties – ‘COP’) have taken nearly 250 detailed 'Decisions' about how the CBD should be implemented and what should be prioritised.  These have led to a great deal of work across the world, and money directed to biodiversity issues.  On the other hand, hardly anybody seems to have heard about it or, if they have, they have only a hazy idea of what it does.

 

The CBD is a policy process, a forum where global agreement can be reached and policies adopted.  However, these policies (the COP ‘Decisions’) are for national implementation, and are not legally binding.  Under the CBD “States have … the sovereign right to exploit their own resources pursuant to their own environmental policies …”.  Biodiversity does not belong to all humanity as it did before Rio, but belongs to the countries in which it exists.  The CBD cannot fund implementation, and does not have staff to take part in ‘hands-on’ biodiversity work.  Thus projects tend not to be clearly labelled ‘CBD’ and it is difficult to see what CBD policies are achieving.  The policies themselves are written in complex language, and are far from ‘user-friendly’ to most of us.

 

CBD policies are not just about conservation, but are in support of the three equally-important objectives: Conservation, Sustainable Use, and Fair and Equitable Access to the Benefits arising out of the utilization of Genetic Resources of Biological Diversity.  In terms of general understanding, ‘conservation’ is pretty easy, and many people stop there.  ‘Sustainable use’ is rather more complex, especially when we are not very clear about what that use is.  In fact ‘use’ encompasses everything from aesthetic enjoyment to spiritual support to food and water provision to pollination and a whole range of other ‘environmental goods and services’ – the life support system of good old ‘Planet Earth’.  In that framework ‘sustainable’ might mean anything from ‘exactly as it is now / was at some time in the past’ to ‘enough to allow us to survive’.  In fact, since the issue is rarely discussed in a comprehensive way, the decisions on what action to take to ensure sustainability are rarely addressed and even more rarely put into practice.  I’ll come back to benefits from genetic resources in another post, because the nub of the matter is discussion, understanding and action.

 

In Nagoya the CBD COP will meet for the tenth time.  As with previous COPs, hundreds of government servants and others will spend the first week hammering out the details of new Decisions. In the second week environment ministers will join the stew to deal with any national political issues that can’t be addressed by the other attendees and then agree the final texts.  One of the major outcomes will be a new Strategic Plan for the CBD, including targets for 2020.  Whether those targets can be met depends entirely on how willing people across the world are to prioritise them against other policies, and to tell Government how much time, money and effort should be directed towards meeting them.  This has been an issue all along; Government may agree to CBD policies but can only implement them – bring the necessary benefits to biodiversity (and us!) – if voters want this to happen.  If we do not fully understand what these policies are, or even know they exist, there is little chance that Government can take the next important steps.