Better communication is key to wise use of Nature's riches

Mike Shanahan's picture
Insight by 
Mike Shanahan
19 October 2010

To ensure that nature's goods and services can continue to support human wellbeing, we need better communication about why biodiversity is important, what its decline means and what can be done about it.

This week, parties to the UN Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) are in Nagoya, Japan to create a global agreement to preserve and wisely use life on Earth.

On the table is a comprehensive ten-year strategy with 20 measurable targets to guide sustainable management of the world about us. Also up for agreement are large flows of finance to enact the strategy and a set of international rules to provide transparent access to biological resources and a fair sharing of any benefits arising from their use.

It's not the first time the world has tried to safeguard life on Earth — in 2002, parties to the CBD set themselves the target of significantly reducing biodiversity loss by 2010. But the target has been missed and the state of the natural world continues to decline steeply.

The world's failure to meet the 2010 target represents, in large part, a failure to communicate. People will only strive to protect biodiversity if they appreciate how important it is to human health, livelihoods and national economies. But many politicians and the general public still struggle to understand the true value of biodiversity and the benefits it brings to both local communities and the world at large.

This means that the benefits are not included in economic valuations and the true costs of biodiversity loss are not reflected in policies and plans. As a result, they tend to be overexploited. We expect finite resources to fuel infinite growth, and scientists warn that if we continue to bite the hand that feeds us it will slap us in the face.

That environment and human wellbeing are two sides of the same coin is well-known to indigenous communities. In the late 1990s, I spent 18 months working in a small, yet extremely diverse, rainforest in Sarawak in the Malaysian part of Borneo. In just 100 square metres you could find 800 different tree species (compared with 36 native tree species in the whole of the British Isles).

Local indigenous people know Sarawak's forest inside out. To them every tree has a name, a use and a value. There is the Gaharu tree, which produces a resin worth thousands of dollars per kilogramme. There is the Tapang tree, in which honey bees build the hives that provide local Iban people with a nutritious source of honey. There are dozens of species of Merenti — an important source of timber — and dozens of species of wild fruit trees too.

The forest benefits local communities indirectly too. Each night, small bats take to the air and consume millions of insects, including crop pests and disease-transmitting mosquitoes. By day, bees, butterflies and beetles leave the forest and fly to farmers' fields where they pollinate important food crops.

Birds, fruit bats and monkeys disperse the seeds of many of the plants that local people have used for generations as traditional medicines. And the forest also helps regulate the local climate, ensure clean water supplies, and protect communities from flooding.

But Sarawak's politicians — like those the world over — do not truly understand the value of these environmental goods and services and do not factor them into their policymaking.

Until just a few decades ago Sarawak was almost entirely covered in forests like the one I worked in. Today just 10 per cent remains — mostly in national parks. While Sarawak's political elite have made millions through logging, most of its people not only remain poor but have also lost the resources they had safely guarded for generations.

The benefits of tropical forests extend far beyond the borders of countries like Malaysia. Forests absorb and store vast quantities of carbon that would otherwise contribute to climate change. They are also the source of many important medicines. More than two-thirds of all medicines found to have cancer-fighting properties come from rainforest plants.

To put a price-tag on what these things are worth, the Deutsche Bank analyst Pavan Sukhdev has spent the past two years running The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity study. It concludes that the goods and services nature provides — not only through forests but also coral reefs, dryland savannahs, mangroves and deep oceans — are worth US$2–4.5 trillion annually. Sukhdev says the pollination service that insects and other animals provide is alone worth US$190 billion each year.

Communicating the value of these goods and services — in concrete terms that are easily understood — will be a key ingredient to ensuring the success of any deal struck in Nagoya. This means ensuring better communication about why biodiversity is important, what its decline means and what can be done about it.

For this to happen, we must focus on how the fate of biodiversity will affect our health, our wealth and our children's future. We must focus on the benefits biodiversity can provide if we manage it well, instead of telling doom-and-gloom stories of extinction and destruction.

To this end we have teamed up with Birdlife International and Pavan Sukhdev to produce a free pocket-sized guide that explains how nature's riches can play a major role in poverty eradication.

And in Nagoya on 27 October, we and our partners will launch the Biodiversity Media Alliance, which aims to strengthen the quality and quantity of media coverage of this under-reported story, which has profound implications for livelihoods, health and businesses the world over.

This post is based on an article published yesterday (here in English and here in Chinese).