Saturday, September 26, 2009

Editorial: The United States Has to Revive Participation in the Global Network of Bioreserves

The saola, a species discovered in 1992
never seen in the wild by a scientist
down to a couple of hundred
or perhaps a couple of dozen animals
no one knows which!

A recent editorial in Science magazine by Harold Mooney and Georgina Mace states:
Global responses to the deterioration of biodiversity have been slow to emerge, but next month the United Nations (UN) Environment Programme hosts a meeting* in Nairobi, Kenya, to discuss the next steps in establishing a new science/policy interface for biodiversity and ecosystem services.The response in this arena still lags far behind negotiations related to climate change, but the meeting is a chance to boost international action, based on strong scientific evidence. An important motivation for creating this interface is meeting the goals of international multilateral agreements, including the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), the UN Convention to Combat Desertification, and the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands. Unlike the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, which has the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, these environmental conventions lack a pre-convention science assessment and have no provision for subsequent government-endorsed, independent science. The meeting in Nairobi will debate, among other issues, how best to make up for this crucial omission.

Why is a robust biodiversity science/policy interface so important? The human population continues to mine the natural capital of Earth to support its growth, but the impact of this loss on human well-being is not widely understood in either public or policy spheres. Biodiversity is the building block of ecosystems that capture carbon and energy and cycle water and nutrients from the soil. These processes, and the structure of ecosystems that control them, benefit society with food, fuel, clean water, and climate regulation—so-called ecosystem services. The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (MA), supported by UN agencies and nongovernmental organizations, concluded in 2005 that 60% of ecosystem services worldwide have become degraded, mostly in the past 50 years, primarily because of land-and ocean-use practices.

We lack information on global and local trends in most biodiversity components at the level of genes, species, and ecosystems, as well as baselines and standards for their assessment. We will certainly miss the CBD's target for reducing the rate of biodiversity loss by 2010 and also miss the 2015 environmental targets within the UN Millennium Development Goals to improve health and livelihoods for the world's poorest and most vulnerable people. Changes in ecosystems and losses of biodiversity have continued to accelerate. Even the most conservative estimates suggest that an area of tropical rainforest greater than the size of California has been destroyed since 1992, mostly for food and fuel. Species extinction rates are at least 100 times those in pre-human times and are expected to increase.
The UNESCO program on People, Biodiversity & Ecology is an important part of the world scientific community's organization to understand biodiversity and how it may be protected. Specifically,UNESCO has created the World Network of Biosphere Reserves which innovate and demonstrate approaches to conservation and sustainable development. They are of course under national sovereign jurisdiction, yet share their experience and ideas nationally, regionally and internationally. There are 553 sites that have been added to this network by the governments of the countries in which they occur, including 49 that were added to the network by the United States in the early days of the program. (The United States was very much involved in the network in its early days, and was indeed influential in its conception.)

U.S. scientists remained involved in the UNESCO program even after the United States had left UNESCO, and indeed the State Department included funds in its budget to support such involvement for a number of years. However, participation dropped off and reached a nader during the Bush administration even as the United States returned to membership in UNESCO. It is now time to restore U.S. participation in the program. Perhaps most important is for U.S. scientists involved in ecosystems approaches to protecting biodiversity to return to full scientific participation with their peers in the other 106 countries with bioreserves in the network. It is also urgent to review the status of the U.S. bioreserves included in the network and the status of research within them.

The United States had a national committee for liaison with the program, but that committee was abolished at the request of the Executive Director of the U.S. National Commission for UNESCO several years ago. The UNESCO Secretariat requires a point of contact in the United States for the program, and with the abolition of the national committee that responsibility devolved on a State Department employee who is not a scientist. A scientist working in the field of biodiversity and/or bioreserves should be identified and made the point of contact as soon as possible. Ultimately, however, a committee should be again created in order to include a broad range of expertise on biodiversity and bioreserves; no one scientist has a broad enough view of the field to understand the full scale of relevant U.S. scientific efforts. That committee should also provide information and recommendations to the U.S. National Commission for UNESCO, as do committees alread in Oceanography and Earth Sciences.

John Daly
(Note the opinions expressed in this editorial are those of the author alone, and do not necessarily represent those of Americans for UNESCO or any other organization.)

No comments: