Conservation With a Human Face

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.