Conservation with a human face

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By Jean-Michel Severino and Peter Seligmann

PARIS – The world is witnessing a drastic decline of its natural capital. Plant and animal species worldwide are vanishing at an unprecedented pace – 100 to 1,000 times the natural extinction rate.

The planet’s most endangered ecosystems are located in developing countries, and thus depend on some of the world’s neediest communities for their preservation. Conversely, the poor are the first to suffer from deterioration of their natural environment. But in the developing world, immediate economic needs often override long-term imperatives, and protecting a fragile environment is rarely a priority at the national level.

The biodiversity hosted by the world’s developing nations provides both local and global services. Local, because the most fragile communities often rely for their survival on the biological resources that surround them, which constitute a precious source of food, energy and income. The World Bank estimates that natural capital constitutes a quarter of total wealth in low-income countries, compared to 3% in the highly developed economies. Global, because the array of services that natural ecosystems provide, such as clean air and fresh water, benefit people far beyond national borders.

Destruction of these precious natural environments generates international ills. Consider climate change: few people realize that tropical forest destruction accounts for 20% of overall carbon emissions – more than the world’s cars, trucks, and airplanes combined. Halting the cutting and burning of tropical forests, which are found almost exclusively in developing nations, is among the most readily achievable and effective possible steps to reduce carbon emissions.

On the grounds that the environment in developing countries provides unique ecological services to the whole of mankind, some argue that their populations should not exploit the natural resources on their territories. But this would be ethically wrong, because developed nations have largely destroyed their own primary forests and ecosystems on the path to industrial development, and continue to import large quantities of raw material extracted in developing countries. It would also be ineffective, because developing countries will – legitimately – refuse to assume by themselves the burden of protecting the world’s biodiversity to the detriment of their economic growth.

Thus, what is needed is a means to reconcile the task of helping some of the world’s poorest people with that of protecting irreplaceable ecosystems. Addressing this two-fold challenge implies expanding the ability of local communities to manage the natural resources on which they depend.

The Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund (CEPF), an international initiative launched eight years ago, is based on the principle that local communities themselves are the best trustees of the environment that surrounds them, and that their economic growth will advance their capacity to care for nature. By focusing on “biodiversity hotspots” – regions with unique and highly threatened natural environments – the CEPF relies on the common-sense principle that protecting what nature provides for free is a crucial element of sustainable economic development. The Fund, by delivering financial and technical assistance to people and places that need it the most, has helped create more than nine million hectares of new protected areas – a region larger than Portugal.

Such conservation-based development projects prove that economic growth and environmental protection are not incompatible. On the contrary, mounting environmental challenges in some of the world’s economically deprived regions will not be overcome in a context of poverty. Development agencies and environmentalists must thus urgently work toward the convergence of development and conservation priorities. This is the kind of progress the world needs if it is to address effectively one of the most pressing issues of our time: providing a healthy, sustainable planet for rich and poor alike.

Jean-Michel Severino is CEO of the Agence Française de Développement. Peter Seligmann is Chairman of the Board and Chief Executive Officer, Conservation International.

Project Syndicate

Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2008.

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