Loss of biodiversity endangers wellbeing of present and future generations
April 25, 2018
By Karina Toledo, in Medellin | Agência FAPESP – The inhabitants of the Americas enjoy access to three times more benefits offered by nature than the global average, but most countries in this vast region that extends from the North Pole to Cape Horn, not far from Antarctica, are using natural resources unsustainably – exceeding the capacity of its ecosystems to renew themselves and promote quality of life.
The Americas are home to 13% of the world’s population and seven of the 17 most biodiverse countries on the planet. The region also accounts for 40% of the capacity of the world’s ecosystems to produce nature-based materials consumed by people. On the other hand, it produces almost a quarter of humanity’s global ecological footprint (the ecological assets required to produce the natural resources consumed by the global population), and natural resources are very unevenly distributed among its inhabitants.
This imbalance has a measurable impact. A comparison of the region’s biodiversity today with its species richness and abundance when European settlement began suggests that on average, 31% of its species have suffered population decline. The proportion is considered high and could reach 40% by 2050.
The numbers and wake-up calls come from the Regional Assessment for the Americas, issued by the Intergovernmental Science Policy Platform on Biodiversity & Ecosystem Services (IPBES) at its Sixth Plenary, held in Medellin, Colombia.
The report on the status of biodiversity and ecosystem services in the Americas was one of four regional assessments launched on March 23, 2018, by IPBES. The others focused on Africa, Europe & Central Asia, and the Asia-Pacific Region. The Plenary also approved publication of four Summaries for Policymakers with key findings from the full reports.
“Brazil has been one of the most active countries in the Americas in terms of producing this diagnosis. In addition to my own participation as one of three co-chairs for this regional assessment overall, Brazilians co-chaired four of its six chapters. Some 25 Brazilians were involved, including lead authors and contributing authors,” said Cristiana Simão Seixas, a researcher at the University of Campinas (UNICAMP) and co-chair of the Regional Assessment for the Americas with Jake Rice (Canada) and Maria Elena Zaccagnini (Argentina).
In addition to Seixas, the regional report’s authors include five other members of the FAPESP Research Program on Biodiversity Characterization, Conservation, Restoration & Sustainable Use (BIOTA-FAPESP): Jean Pierre Ometto, Juliana Sampaio Farinaci, Jean Paul Metzger, Ricardo Ribeiro Rodrigues, and Carlos Alfredo Joly. Joly is a member of IPBES’s Multidisciplinary Expert Panel (MEP), and in this capacity, he helped develop guidelines for production of the four regional assessments.
“We’re all leaders of the Brazilian Platform on Biodiversity & Ecosystem Services (BPBES), where we’re leveraging the experience recently acquired from our participation in the Americas assessment to produce the Brazilian Assessment of Biodiversity & Ecosystem Services, to be launched in July 2018 during the 70th Annual Meeting of the Brazilian Society for the Advancement of Science (SBPC) in Natal, Rio Grande do Norte,” said Joly, who also chairs the BIOTA-FAPESP Program.
He added that Brazil is “undoubtedly” one of the countries in the Americas that use natural resources with unsustainable intensity.
“Our economy has been extractivist ever since the Portuguese Discovery,” Joly said. “Today, the expansion of the agribusiness industry is also based on natural resource extraction. Its current focus is the region known as MaToPiBa [an acronym for the states of Maranhão, Tocantins, Piauí and Bahia]. Although it produces food and other staples, contributing enormously to the country’s trade balance, it does so in a predatory manner.”
Instead of simply expanding soybean acreage and cattle pasture, he went on, it would be advisable to build a multifunctional landscape comprising large agricultural areas interspersed with areas of native vegetation (including the Legal Reserves required by the Forest Code, for example) and connected by wide strips of riparian forest (Permanent Preservation Areas).
“Everyone would benefit,” Joly said. “We would maintain sufficient populations of pollinators, which would enhance soybean quantity and quality. We would keep the aquifers recharged, especially in areas of Cerrado, and avert the need for rationing. We would maintain biodiversity and optimized conservation capacity by connecting fragments with areas of riparian forest. In the medium term, it would be a win-win situation.”
According to IPBES Chair Robert Watson, agriculture must be made more sustainable, and this means ending government subsidies for production.
“There should be subsidies only to integrate environmental preservation measures into production, not for production itself. We have to learn how to use fertilizer, pesticides and water appropriately. Their use is excessive in most places,” Watson said. “We need precision agriculture, which means giving the crops exactly what they need. It’s no trivial task, but it can be done.”
Seixas stressed that changing patterns of land use and the degradation of natural habitats due to agriculture and livestock production, as well as mining, dam construction and urban sprawl, have historically been the main cause of biodiversity loss in Brazil and the Americas generally, and they still are.
Other important factors mentioned in the report include pollution, invasive species, and overexploitation of natural resources.
“However, the rate at which climate change is impacting biodiversity has accelerated sharply, and our projections suggest the impact of climate change will be comparable to that of habitat destruction by 2050,” Seixas said.
Estimated value of nature’s contributions
The Americas assessment estimates that the economic value of nature’s contributions to people, considering only land-based resources, surpasses US$24 trillion per year, equivalent to the entire region’s gross domestic product (GDP).
“The calculation was based on modeling and extrapolation of data collected from a wide range of scientific studies, but because it doesn’t take account of intangible benefits such as mental health promotion, for example, we believe it’s a significant underestimate,” Seixas said.
The authors of the report also warn that 65% of these contributions supplied by natural ecosystems – which include such factors as pollination, climate regulation, food production and many others – are in decline and that 21% are declining sharply. Some 50% of the region’s population faces water security problems, for example.
Seixas drew attention to the finding in the report that 61% of languages spoken in the Americas are in trouble or dying out, along with the associated cultures. “With their disappearance, we lose huge amounts of knowledge about sustainable natural resource management practices,” she said. “We have a lot to learn from indigenous people. That’s one of the report’s key messages.”
To Jake Rice, the most important message is that humans are using nature’s benefits faster than they can be replenished. “Is this future inevitable? That’s not the message we want to convey. We’re increasing protected areas and rehabilitating degraded areas, but above all, we have to find ways to earn our livelihoods sustainably,” he said.
According to Joly, biodiversity and ecosystem services should not continue to be treated as matters of mere environmental policy. “These issues absolutely must overcome their current isolation so they can be addressed by planning and finance ministries. We need economic policies that integrate environmental solutions with economic and social solutions. This is the kind of multi-sector policy that can find ways to foster more sustainable development, not just growth like we have today,” he said.
The environmental and social costs of all human activities should be reflected in the economy, Joly stressed. “A discussion of this kind involving all players, from big landowners and small farmers to environmentalists, government officials in charge of agriculture and the environment, public prosecutors and researchers, is in progress under the aegis of a Thematic Project funded by the BIOTA Program,” he said.
Borrowing from the future
Some 120 authors contributed to the Americas assessment, which was also based on a review of the scientific literature on biodiversity and ecosystem services, as well as approximately 30 reports produced by the region’s governments and dialogues with representatives of indigenous people.
The Summary for Policymakers (SPM), targeting both government officials and environmental managers in the private sector, was thoroughly discussed during the IPBES Plenary and approved by representatives of all member states.
All four regional assessments stress that biodiversity is declining everywhere and that this decline significantly reduces nature’s capacity to contribute to human wellbeing, endangering economies, livelihoods, food security, social cohesion, and the quality of life.
“We’re borrowing from future generations to live well today. But there are other options,” Watson said.
“We can’t have development without protecting biodiversity. We can do better by creating public policies, ending the use of fossil fuels, reducing meat consumption, opting for public transport, avoiding waste of resources, and producing food, water and energy more sustainably. We must act yesterday.”
The four reports were produced in the past three years by 550 experts from more than 100 countries. “The documents represent the most complete analysis of the state of knowledge about biodiversity and we expect them to contribute to public policy and the sustainable development agenda. This is the start of a journey that I hope will be long and fruitful,” said IPBES Executive Secretary Anne Larigauderie.
Watson also said the four assessments were only the first step on a long journey. Now the representatives of IPBES’s 129 member states will take the message to the relevant government ministries. “We also need help from the press and social media to spread the message,” he added.
More information about the reports can be found at: www.ipbes.net.
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