Policy ForumEcology

Biodiversity Conservation and the Millennium Development Goals

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Science  18 Sep 2009:
Vol. 325, Issue 5947, pp. 1502-1503
DOI: 10.1126/science.1175035

The Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) are designed to inspire efforts to improve people's lives by, among other priorities, halving extreme poverty by 2015 (1). Analogously, concern about global decline in biodiversity and degradation of ecosystem services (2) gave rise in 1992 to the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD). The CBD target “to achieve by 2010 a significant reduction of the current rate of biodiversity loss” was incorporated into the MDGs in 2002. Our lack of progress toward the 2010 target (3, 4) could undermine achievement of the MDGs and poverty reduction in the long term. With increasing global challenges, such as population growth, climate change, and overconsumption of ecosystem services, we need further integration of the poverty alleviation and biodiversity conservation agendas.

The links between poverty and the environment are, unsurprisingly, complex (5, 6) (Fig. 1). Some attempts have been made to identify a relation between development and biodiversity, but these have yielded mixed results (5). Action is urgently needed to identify and quantify the links between biodiversity and ecosystem services on the one hand, and poverty reduction on the other, while taking into account the global, regional, and local drivers of biodiversity loss in poor areas.

Tackling the root causes of both biodiversity loss and poverty can lead to complementary positive results. For example, reducing population pressure by promoting voluntary reductions in fertility in impoverished regions could support conservation of biodiversity and faster poverty alleviation (7). However, there may be complex trade-offs, especially in the short term. Trade liberalization, for instance, might increase the supply of food commodities and could reduce prices in food-importing countries, which would remove some pressure on these countries' natural habitats. But reductions in trade barriers might also lead to increased production in food-exporting countries where commercial agriculture could increase vulnerability to deforestation, pests, diseases, and/or natural disasters, and might reduce the availability of ecosystem services (8, 9). Nevertheless, countervailing efforts to maintain biodiversity must be sensitive to human needs if they are to retain public support (10).

The scientific and development policy communities should focus on jointly articulating and addressing the critical research questions that, when answered, will help ensure that poverty alleviation and conservation efforts produce win-win outcomes, or at least minimize harm to either agenda. To ensure greater synergies, we suggest the following actions. Attention must focus on constructing and meeting a new biodiversity target for the remaining MDG period and beyond. The next target should be more specific, similarly time-limited, reasonably achievable, and should address the consequences of biodiversity loss globally and for the most vulnerable people and societies. It should be supported by a small set of indicators (11) that measure trends in the state of biodiversity and ecosystem services, drivers of biodiversity loss and activities to safeguard biodiversity.

Fig. 1.

Map of poverty and potential biodiversity loss, showing the level of poverty (proxied by the log rate of human infant mortality) combined with the log number of threatened species of mammals, birds, and amphibians per one-degree grid square (Behrmann equal-area projection). White areas represent missing data. Data from (14) and (15).

We need evidence-based interventions that can address both poverty reduction and environmental sustainability. In agriculture, for instance, we can use existing land more efficiently; we can pursue development that protects or enhances biodiversity; and we can improve productivity in ways that maintain ecosystem services, through institutional changes to secure better access to seeds, markets, and expertise, combined with adaptive applications of technologies (12). Similarly, finance and technology for adaptation, disaster management, and reduced emissions from deforestation and forest degradation (13) are particularly important in helping developing countries deal with climate change.

Future projects should explicitly monitor the impact poverty alleviation efforts have on ecosystems and their services; similarly, conservationists must better document the impact their interventions have on the poor. Ideally, interdisciplinary science that helps to identify the most cost-effective solutions will ensure that future environment and development projects are implemented, not just simultaneously, but in an integrated fashion.

Poverty alleviation and biodiversity agendas need to be jointly presented to policy-makers. Establishment of a proposed Intergovernmental Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services to complement the existing Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change may provide a means to enhance the quality and timeliness of the inter actions between scientists and policy-makers at national scales and above. The GLOBE International Commission on Land Use Change and Ecosystems, made up of senior legislators from the G8+5 and several developing countries, provides another opportunity to bring policy-makers and scientists together. Similar initiatives will also be needed at the subnational scale.

The United Nations will convene a summit in 2010 to consider the second 5-year review of the MDGs and to catalyze action ahead of the 2015 MDG target year. We must advise policy-makers and civil society organizations on the most critical initiatives needed to achieve the MDGs while preserving biodiversity and ecosystem services.

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