From Interstate - Journal of International Affairs VOL. 2010/2011 NO. 1
2010: The Year of Biodiversity
The urgency of concern over the earth’s biodiversity has increased over the last couple of decades. This has resulted in the formation of the Convention of Biodiversity which declared in 2002 that it would have achieved a ‘significant reduction of the current rate of biodiversity loss at the global, regional and national level as a contribution to poverty alleviation and to the benefit of all life on Earth’ by 2010.1 Consequently, 2010 celebrates the Year of Biodiversity culminating in the Nagoya World Summit on Biodiversity.
Biodiversity can be defined as ‘the variability among living organisms from all sources including terrestrial, marine and other aquatic ecosystems, and the ecological complexes of which they are part, this includes diversity within species, between species and of ecosystems.2 The impact of biodiversity loss is only beginning to be fully understood now, however many scientists and researchers agree that biodiversity loss will have significant implications for the future well-being of the human society. A crucial factor underpinning biodiversity is the health and efficiency of global ecosystems and the services they provide. Ecosystem services can be defined as the direct or indirect contributions of ecosystems to human welfare.3
These services can be divided into four different categories: (1) Provisioning services that provide food, water, and building of material and pharmaceutical components; (2) Supporting services which enable the maintenance of ecosystems through soil formation, carbon storage and stability of biodiversity, these services also interact and underpin the provisioning services and are therefore indirectly essential to human welfare; (3) Regulating services control the physical and biological processes within an ecosystem that enhance human welfare by regulating climate and water, control soil erosion and contain natural hazards; (4) Finally, socio-cultural services that are the aesthetic, spiritual, recreational, traditional or intellectual services a specific community describe to a natural system. 4
In all these ways ecosystems provide real support and benefits to human society, which through these mechanisms draw food, shelter, clothing and medicine from the diversity of the biosphere. This is particularly true for the poor who draw up to 80 per cent of life support services directly from the biosphere for their day-to-day survival.5
However, the “flow“6 of these services is subject to the resilience of ecosystems and their capacity to adapt to change. Under too much pressure, the resilience of ecosystems is being degraded and their ability to function properly might be undermined. To illustrate, a,loss in marine biodiversity caused by too much pressure on marine ecosystems such as coral reefs is an example of loss in biodiversity as one of the effects of a damaged ecosystem.
Another aspect of biodiversity loss is the particular impact it has on women, their lives and social status in indigenous communities that are dependent on biodiversity. Professor Patricia Howard conducts research into biodiversity and gender studies. Her findings show that women sustain a specific relation to the biophysical environment and that they possess considerable amounts of valuable botanical knowledge. This comes through long traditions of feminine roles as gardeners, gatherers and seed breeders and custodians. As such, women play a significant role in preserving plant diversity This relation between botanical diversity and female access is also conditioned by social status; ‘in many regions, biological resources constitute the greatest part of women’s wealth, providing them with food, medicine, clothing, shelter, utensils and income.’7 Loss of plant diversity would mean a loss of place and “purpose” for women. As already “minor” social actors, it can only contribute to a further decrease in their status and social welfare. Furthermore, Howard claims that ‘the significance of gender relations [botany] not only has implications for research and practice concerned with conservation, but is also crucial to problems such as food security, health, poverty, agriculture, trade and technology development.’ 8
Population growth, market expansion, environmental degradation and rapid decline in foraging resources, endanger access to plant diversity and are increasing the time and labour invested in foraging activities, that are roles disproportionately taken by women. At the same time female foraging rights are being usurped. What is more, reduction of foraged foods in the diet is leading to poorer nutrition and is reducing emergency food supplies. This in turn increases reliance on food purchases that decreases management and erodes local botanical knowledge and use of plant life.9
Taken as “domestic roles”’, the labour of these women dosuffers from a perception of reduced significance, and women themselves as “minor actors”. This is compounded by the nature of the work as being non-monetary, making it all too easy to overlook the importance of biodiversity to sustaining communities and the role of these women in sustainably managing it as such. This important role of women is largely ignored in conservation practices and development projects.10 Howard scrutinises these “domestic” places, the kitchen and the house garden, and suggests that they contain significant plant diversity.11 These combined notions call for a reorientation of conservation policy towards “domestic” spaces of biodiversity.
The Convention on Biodiversity states that ‘biodiversity conservation and sustainable use with equitable sharing of benefits derived from its natural services are the basis of human well- being’.12
This goal can only be met by ‘giving serious attention to women’s knowledge, use, rights and needs with respect to local plant diversity ’.13
It is as such essential to give women a voice in biodiversity policy and decision-making. Such a move becomes essential to securing the future range of plant diversity.
Through women we can also see how biological diversity and cultural diversity come to be closely linked. In consequence, to conserve biodiversity must be taken in relation to culturally diverse practices. We see that, ‘the preservation of biological diversity must be instrumental to achieving human welfare, where “human welfare” is defined not only according to bio physical absolutes, but also to cultural values’.14
This linkage has given rise to a new conceptualization of biodiversity, that of “bio-cultural” diversity. It arises through recognition of this close link between biodiversity and the diversity of human cultural practices.15 This broader concept of diversity, maintains its urgent necessity whilst also urging a new way of conceptualizing these issues.16 The survival and wellbeing of indigenous people then becomes as essential as plant or species conservation. It is claimed that as indigenous societies have adapted to certain environments they have acquired an ‘in depth knowledge of species, their relationships, ecosystem functions and they have learnt how to tailor their practices to suit their ecological niches’,17 these communities possess the knowledge and skill to live without depleting natural resources and thereby preserving biodiversity.
If development or conservation projects come to threaten the survival of these communities, we also see a threat posed to the biodiversity that surrounds them. Full respect for these communities and their requirements will possibly prove one of the most valuable movements towards reversing the decline of biodiversity and ensuring its future preservation.
At the World Summit on Biodiversity in Nagoya, Japan, it was agreed to increase protected land and inland water to 17 per cent (compared to 13 %, now) and 10 per cent (compared with 1 % now) of coastal and marine waters by 2020.18 Nations also committed to a “broad mission” to take action to halt the loss of biodiversity. This manifests in the aim to halve the loss of habitats and the desire to see new national biodiversity plans to chart how each country plans to manage overfishing, control of invasive species and prevent the destruction of the natural world.19
Though a consensus was reached, little in terms of a binding agreement emerged. There also appears little readiness from developed countries to assist the developing world financially to implement the agreements. Representatives seemed more interested in ‘defending national interests than reversing the precipitous decline of animal and plant life on Earth’.
Whether the Nagoya Summit is strong enough to address the ‘the forces that are driving the loss of biological diversity as well as eroding the majority of human cultures’ remains to be seen.20 However it is apparent that a deeper appreciation of biodiversity and its value to the human society need characterize global policy and decision-making. There is also an urgent need to develop a broader understanding of diversity and its functions; one that includes cultural as well as ecological diversity and that gives greater credit to the unique contribution of actors such as women in the process.