Letting a thousand flowers wither

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The world will not halt the rate of reduction of biodiversity by 2010

SEEKING to alleviate poverty, reduce world hunger and protect biodiversity sounds, to your correspondent’s ears, like something a Miss World hopeful might have pledged in the 1980s. In fact, it was what a professor of soil quality at a lesser-known university in the Netherlands promised to a scientific conference that concluded on October 16th.

Addressing hundreds of biologists, ecologists and social scientists who were meeting in Cape Town under the auspices of Diversitas, an interdisciplinary group of researchers, Lijbert Brussaard of Wageningen University outlined progress made towards the Millennium Development Goals agreed by members of the United Nations in 2001. One of the targets was to achieve, by 2010, a significant reduction in the rate of loss of biodiversity. That has not happened. Neither will it do so next year.

One reason why Dr Brussaard and his colleagues are concerned about this is that they believe environmental degradation goes hand-in-hand with poverty. Missing the goal for the environment thus risks missing it for the people who live in that environment.

Writing in Science last month, Jeffrey Sachs, an economist at Columbia University, and his colleagues stated, “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.” Such a link is, admittedly, complex. Dr Sachs called for future efforts aimed at reducing poverty to be monitored for their effects on ecosystems, and thus on the “services”, such as water cleaning and air purification, that such habitats provide for people.

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Another economist, Pavan Sukhdev of Deutsche Bank, told the Diversitas meeting that he had put a price on some of those services. Coral reefs, he reckons, provide services such as acting as nurseries for commercially important fish that would cost up to $130,000 per hectare per year if they had to be paid for. The figures for coastal areas and inland wetlands that, among other tasks, help filter and purify water, were $74,000 and $14,000 per hectare per year respectively.

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