Studies Affirm Value of Biodiversity in Meeting Human Needs

The twin goals of meeting humanitarian needs and conserving plant and animal species don’t necessarily have to conflict, according to two studies released at the eighth Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity, held in Curitiba, Brazil, in late March. While even environmentalists have felt uncomfortable giving support to biodiversity over poverty alleviation efforts, there is now further evidence that protecting wildlife and their ecosystems has invaluable, tangible benefits to humans.

The U.N.’s Global Biodiversity Outlook 2 report, released on March 20, acknowledges the view that “every life form has an intrinsic right to exist, and deserves protection,” but goes further to illuminate the specific benefits of biodiversity to humans. Citing the comprehensive Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (MEA) studies published within the past year, the report emphasizes that strong biodiversity is the foundation of healthy ecosystems, which provide immediate goods and services to humanity, particularly the world’s poor.

Much of the human population obtains its food, water, fuel, medicine, and other materials directly from natural systems, ranging from tropical forests to ocean fisheries. Healthy ecosystems also provide many of nature’s most vital services, including filtering pollutants from the air, water, and soil and reducing the impacts of disease outbreaks and natural disasters. Coastal communities affected by the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunamis and last year’s U.S. Gulf Coast hurricanes, for example, experienced increased devastation in large part due to the diminished mangrove forests, coral reefs, or wetlands that previously protected these areas.

The second study, released by the Washington, DC-based World Wildlife Fund (WWF) one day after the U.N. report, found that protecting biodiversity also benefits the world’s poor by providing greater economic opportunities, and that “access to freshwater, health, education and women’s rights often also improve.” The report’s authors note that working to protect a region’s endangered species can simultaneously benefit local people, as both groups often suffer from the same challenges, such as resource loss and habitat degradation.

WWF reports that in Farida, a village in the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, a new education-based program to rejuvenate the river dolphin population not only improved dolphin conservation, but also led to an increase in annual household income from US $736 to US $873 during the survey period. Similarly, efforts to boost the dwindling turtle population in Tortuguero, Costa Rica, have increased ecotourism and created more revenue for the community than it previously generated from turtle meat and eggs.

While conservation-based industries such as ecotourism can directly benefit people’s incomes, maintaining healthy ecosystems is increasingly important for traditional corporate success as well, writes researcher Erik Assadourian in Worldwatch’s State of the World 2006 report. He notes that as the loss of biodiversity leads to degraded ecosystems, the costs and risks of doing business will increase as resources such as clean water become scarcer, regulations increase, and insurance rates skyrocket.

Conservation efforts can therefore benefit all segments of society, not just the very poor. “Biodiversity is the foundation on which human lives entirely depend,” explains Ahmed Djoghlaf, Executive Secretary of the Convention on Biological Diversity. Promoting biodiversity to maintain healthy ecosystem services can be a win-win proposition for people across all social, economic, and geographic borders.

This story was produced by Eye on Earth, a joint project of the Worldwatch Institute and the blue moon fund. View the complete archive of Eye on Earth stories, or contact Staff Writer Alana Herro at aherro [AT] worldwatch [DOT] org with your questions, comments, and story ideas.