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.
To 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.