Hanging in the Balance: Conserving Biodiversity

By Srivastava, Paritosh | UN Chronicle, September-November 2005 | Go to article overview

Hanging in the Balance: Conserving Biodiversity


Srivastava, Paritosh, UN Chronicle


The International Day for Biological Diversity is commemorated annually on 22 May. According to Secretary-General Kofi Annan, the theme for 2005, Biodiversity: Life Insurance for our Changing World, "reminds us of the central role of biodiversity in underpinning sustainable development and in protecting society from the consequences of unexpected shocks, such as water shortages, the emergence of infectious diseases, extreme weather events and the genetic vulnerability of crops and livestock". However, biodiversity continues to decline and ecological balance is still being altered. Approximately 60 per cent of the ecosystem are being degraded or used unsustainably, resulting in biodiversity loss, with harmful consequences that could significantly get worst in the next 50 years.

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The World Conservation Union recognizes seven major factors contributing to biodiversity loss: habitat loss and fragmentation; competition from invasive species; pollution; global climate change; desertification; population growth and over-consumption; and unsustainable use of natural resources. Many of these factors are upshots of human activities. Landscape alterations, through deforestation or fire, and urbanization fragment habitats and make survival for many species complex. Infrastructures, such as roads, highways and power plants, are often constructed at the expense of other species. Because vast areas get fragmented, many species are unable to cope and therefore go extinct. Desertification caused primarily by climate variability and human activities leads to biodiversity loss. Trees are cut down without any regenerative alternatives and livestock is made to overgraze, resulting in a decline in the land's economic productivity and its abandonment by inhabitants for other productive regions.

Population growth and exploitation of natural resources are also major causes of biodiversity loss. Due to high fertility rates, many communities are forced to exploit resources beyond their carrying capacities. To meet the demands of an ever-growing population, city boundaries are continually redesigned and forests are cleared, limiting and disrupting the species' niche and making it difficult for them to adapt to varying environments. It also reduces the survival prospects of endangered species (see box on next page).

Progress has been made to prevent the loss of biodiversity and to raise awareness about its crucial role in maintaining ecological balance. In 1975, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) went into effect to eliminate trading of endangered animals. Similarly, the Convention on Biological Diversity was ratified by more than 160 countries and entered into force in December 1993. The United Nations has pledged to ensure environmental sustainability by 2015 as one of its Millennium Development Goals (MDGs).

Misuse of natural resources, such as wood for fuel, land for grazing livestock and water for household chores, all contribute to biodiversity loss. The poor are entirely dependent on the environment for their livelihoods. As the population grows, the pressure on the ecosystem becomes intense. It should be realized that poverty reduction and environmental sustainability are deeply interrelated, and tackling one issue would require attending to the other as well. Many strategies, including ecotourism, agro-ecology, eco-aquaculture and non-timber forestry products, have been developed, which combine poverty alleviation with environmental sustainability measures.

Ecological tourism was introduced in the 1980s, and in 2002 the United Nations launched the International Year of Ecotourism. It encompasses, among others, the conservation of biological and cultural diversity, promotion of sustainable use of biodiversity by creating jobs, sharing socio-economic benefits with local communities, increasing environmental and cultural knowledge, and reducing environmental impact on tourist areas. …

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