|Wednesday, 06 June 2012|
An ongoing environmental problem occurring in pockets of a small percentage of the world's land area but at already extremely rapid rates is the loss of biodiversity.
Biodiversity loss - the quantity and variety of ecosystems, species, and genes - is now tragically experiencing its worst level and scale of destruction and impoverishment of plant and animal life in the last 65 million years. Its worst manifestation, the extinction of species, now also known as speciocide, is the global ecological problem viewed to be moving the most rapidly. Worldwide, mass extinction of species, estimated at between 150 and 200 every 24 hours, is already taking place at rates regarded as between a thousand and ten thousand times the natural rate of extinction.
What makes matters worse is that extinction of each species is irreversible. Once it transpires, the species is gone forever and the loss permanent. This new surge emerges as the latest in a series of six massive waves of extinction over eons. All these previous waves sprung from such naturally-occurring forces as heavy volcanic activity, ancient climate change or an asteroid crash wiping out the then dominant group of species, the dinosaurs, 65 million years ago. What spells the difference in this latest speciocide mega-wave is that now it is the activity of the dominant species itself, humankind, principally triggering the mass extinction of other species.
Human society emerged and flourished within an intricate and dense web of life in ecosystems, including rainforests, mangroves, and coral reefs. It draws strength and sustenance from the delicate balance of life, cycle of water, and chain of food, in which each species, from the smallest to the biggest, plays a special role. And only recently did scientists draw solid conclusions culled from experiments that in an ecosystem, a large number of species is needed to maintain a multiplicity of services such as supply and purification of water, production of nutrients and food, and storage of carbon. This stems from the fact that ecosystems are highly complex, with different sets of species important for different years, at different places, for different services, and under different global change scenarios, such as climate or land use change. A new study has likewise shown that biodiversity in terms of variety of species is a key factor in overall growth and productivity of plants. In addition, the large populations of each species encouraged in biodiversity foster more variation in its genes, and thus its greater resilience in adapting to the stresses and changes in its environment.
The abundance and variety of species is especially high in the tropics where rainfall and forest green water are plentiful. And the endemism, or rate of uniqueness of species to their native region, is highest in tropical archipelagos and small islands such as the Philippines, whose number of endemic species, over half of its 52,177 described species, is at par with those of Brazil, a country 28 times its size.
And yet, this highly complex and supportive web of life that cradled humankind in its growth and development is fast being torn and frayed by humankind itself. Large percentages of species are already threatened and at risk of extinction - 20 percent of plants, 13 per cent of birds, almost 20 per cent of vertebrates, and 31 per cent of amphibians. Moreover, for all four categories, the percentages of those threatened are rising rather than receding. But the threat could be even much greater, considering that scientists recently estimated that only 14 per cent of species - as few as nine per cent in the case of the ocean - are actually known. In other words, many more may be lost forever before even being discovered, each possibly a crop pollinator, soil nutrition enricher, or medical lifesaver (given that 60 per cent of people worldwide depend on plants for medicine).
The key points in the web, also the weakest and most vulnerable, are analogous to what scientists and environmentalists label as biodiversity hotspots. Numbering 39 worldwide, these regions that have at least 1,500 endemic species of vascular plants, also have all already lost at least 70 per cent of their endemic species. They occupy a mere 2.3 per cent of the world's land area reduced from at least 11.8 per cent in the past, but their endemic species make up 50 per cent of the Earth's plant species and 42 per cent of its terrestrial vertebrate species. They now bear the brunt of the impact of five major drivers of biodiversity loss.
Classified as one of 17 mega-diverse countries, the Philippines takes just pride in being the world's richest in biodiversity - the highest in fact in marine fish - and in the rate of discovery of new species. But it should also be a source of public shame and soul-searching that it is also identified as among the world's top biodiversity hotspots, in effect, the hottest of the hotspots, the most threatened of the threatened.
The first and foremost driver of biodiversity loss is habitat loss and degradation. The continuing deforestation of 13 million hectares worldwide - with the Philippines having one of the highest deforestation rates in the past decades - by logging and conversion to plantations and farms, ranks among the leading causes of speciocide.
Coral reefs also continued to take a severe beating, not the least in the Philippines where deforestation inflicted sedimentation damage, while trawl, cyanide, and blast fishing in the past 50 years alone shrunk the country's healthy coral reefs from 2.7 million hectares to only 27,000 hectares or one percent in pristine condition, and to less than 135,000 hectares or five percent in excellent condition.
The second driver is the unsustainable use and over-exploitation of natural resources, including hunting and over-fishing. According to the United Nations (UN) Environment Program, poaching and illegal trade of wildlife remain rampant, exacting a heavy toll in particular on heavy mammals last year, when the western black rhinoceros prized by traders and traffickers for its supposedly medicinal horn was officially declared extinct.
A third driver is alien invasive species (AIS) or plants, animals, and microorganisms introduced outside their natural distribution area and prone to destroying native species. Although mainstream media and popular culture stoke fear of invasion of the planet by imaginary extra-terrestrial species, it largely ignores actual real-life invasion by alien species, and damage to ecosystems costing an estimated US$ 1.4 trillion yearly worldwide. Over 11,000 AIS stalk Europe alone, 15 per cent causing economic harm. In the Philippines, among the most invasive alien species have been two Pterygoplichthys species of suckermouth sailfin catfish (also known as janitor fish) that threaten the survival of native species in the biodiversity-rich Agusan Marsh, Asia's largest marshland, and together with the knife fish, that of Laguna de Bay as well. These carnivorous species, first bred as ornamental aquarium fish by hobbyists, found their way into these ecosystems, sharply driving down endemic fish populations and income of small fishers. Seven of every 10 fish now caught in Laguna de Bay are said to be knife fishes. Proliferation of the invasive alien water hyacinth or water lily aggravated flooding in Mindanao.
Then there is the fourth stressor, pollution, mainly from toxic agrochemicals, synthetic nutrients, and mining that wreak havoc on the biodiversity of the ocean, soil, and inland waters.
The final major driver of biodiversity loss is climate change. The irreversibility of each loss of species, together with the limited concern by media and the public over biodiversity loss compared to climate change, have sometimes prompted a number of scientists to raise the alarm that biodiversity loss may be, or is indeed, the more pressing problem. This may well be true, but from a broader and longer view, they are actually much intertwined and reinforce each other. Deforestation, a form of biodiversity loss, accounts for 18 to 20 per cent of climate change. Conversely, climate change also drives biodiversity loss in an accelerating and massive way. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, climate change will place up to 50 per cent of biodiversity at risk and could cause the loss of as much as 88 per cent of coral reefs in Asia in the next 30 years.
To manage the world's biodiversity is to conserve what remains in the world's hotspots and naturally restore what is already degraded in the face of habitat loss, especially of natural forest and coral ecosystems. This has largely taken the form of protected areas, such as natural parks and rainforestation. Today, these protected areas cover 13 per cent of the world's land surface but remain inadequate and need to be expanded to at least 18 per cent. Protected areas encompass a mere one per cent of marine waters worldwide and need even more drastic expansion.
In the Philippines, officially declared protected areas span over 2.13 million hectares of land, or 7 per cent of the country's land area, and 1.37 million hectares or 0.6 per cent of marine waters. Still, as with the rest of the globe, there is need for greater coverage.
However, quantity is not only the problem. The quality of protected area management generally leaves much to be desired, rated on average as only 30 per cent effective worldwide. Unfortunately, this dismal assessment was drawn up, too, for the Philippines in particular. Much of the problem was traced to underfunding. Department of Environment and Natural Resources Secretary Ramon Paje has recently said so himself in relation to Philippine marine resource management. Elsewhere, too, wildlife organizations and parks are in dire need of resources to beef up security and training of anti-poaching personnel and tracker dogs.
Compounding this state of affairs is that all the five major drivers converge to bolster one another. Indeed, the obvious problems confronting biodiversity such as underfunding and poor ecosystem management are all too real. But they cannot but be underlaid by even more fundamental factors. This matrix of challenges may be even said to boil down to an undervaluation of biodiversity not just in government budget priorities or commercial payment terms. A sea change must take effect through a broader socio-economic, cultural and moral paradigm that reshapes how biodiversity is basically viewed and treated as a source of wellbeing, quality of life, and common good.
Nevertheless, this next decade appears more encouraging than the previous one with the global launching of the UN Decade on Biodiversity 2011-2020 last December. Among its most welcome hallmarks are commitments by 193 governments and parties to revise their national biodiversity plans, set concrete national biodiversity targets, and respect, promote, and encourage the traditional, sustainable knowledge and use of biodiversity by indigenous and local communities.
Alongside this, many empowered communities are embracing strong and adequate ecological values and are at the forefront of the effort on the ground to conserve or naturally restore biodiversity. Thus, they are in the best position to locally manage the environment effectively and backed up by government policies and resources, even though they may still lack the all-round support and development required. As long as they continue to hold on fast to these biodiversity values, the prospects for finally bringing this speciocide to a just end appear brighter.