#01 Biodiversity
Ronnie de Camino Velozo

Conserving biological diversity and the protection of forests in Latin America

We human beings are always advocating for diversity: languages, races, religion, sexual preferences, political convictions, biological diversity, etc. If we defend all these types of diversity, it is because we feel that firstly, they are necessary and secondly, they are being threatened locally or globally.

There are different definitions of biological diversity, but we will take the one given in the Millennium Ecosystems Assessment, a serious enterprise in which numerous scientists actively participated: "Biodiversity is the variability among living organisms from all sources, including terrestrial, marine, and other aquatic ecosystems and the ecological complexes of which they are a part; this includes diversity within species, between species and of ecosystems."

In the case of biodiversity, our concern relates to the wide range of ecosystem goods and services provided by biodiversity itself (there are other services provided by forests, such as carbon balance and water that are not directly related to biodiversity). From a forest we can expect provisioning services (wood and non-wood forest products like food and medicine), regulating services (water flow, carbon flow provided by the ecosystem's diversity), cultural services (landscape, recreation and religious places, cultural services also related to biodiversity) and supporting services (pollinators, the basis for food security, etc.) Thus, societies and people depend on ecosystem services, especially those related to biodiversity for their livelihoods (in any kind of space). When biodiversity starts disappearing or is threatened, society is also impacted negatively. Ironically since humans are also part of biodiversity, our negative impact on biodiversity also threatens our own existence.

Tropical and subtropical forests have around 30,000 species and a high degree of endemism in amphibians, birds, mammals and reptiles. In comparison, tropical and sub-tropical grasslands, savannas and shrublands have around 7,900 species of the same orders, but with a lower rate of endemism. Of the total forests throughout the world, 21% are in Latin America where 47.3 % of the land and 1.9 hectares per capita is covered by forests (three times the average forest availability for a citizen of the world), like indicated in the FAO's State of the World's Forests.

Of the 1,407 million total hectares of tropical forest, 49% is in Latin America and the Caribbean which means that a high proportion of terrestrial diversity is in the forests of this region.

This richness is an asset for Latin America, but at the same time there are enormous losses in forest cover and biodiversity taking place. Of the total global deforestation of 7.32 million hectares from 2000 to 2005, 61% occurred in Latin America (WRI, 1990-1999, Earth Trends, The Environmental Information Portal ).

Biodiversity exists in a discrete ecosystem or landscape, but offers global ecosystem services because these benefit our global society. Society needs biodiversity; it contributes to provisioning, regulating, cultural, and supporting services which generate direct use value and indirect use value. There are people who want to have forests because of their direct value (food, fibre, etc.), option value (the potential for producing food or medicines in the future) or their existence value (the desire of some segments of society to conserve forests because they like them).

Why then is biodiversity being lost when it is so important for society? The answer is easy: because the tenants of forests do not receive payment or sufficient compensation for conserving these forests to maintain biodiversity. Global society seems willing to pay to lessen deforestation and the degradation of forests, but primarily with the objective of reducing the emissions that contribute to climate change and not expressly to conserve biodiversity.

Rainforest in Latin America

Forest dwellers, forest owners and rural people in general will conserve and improve forests to provide ecosystem products and services if, and only if, it benefits them directly or indirectly. This means global and national policies need to operate by inclusion (giving people an incentive that improves their livelihood and quality of life), and not by exclusion (ordering people to use resources wisely).

Since we have the problem of millions of hectares of forest being lost, appropriate incentives must be put into place. But existing national and international systems have failed to provide solutions to reduce deforestation, degradation and lost of biodiversity that correspond to the magnitude of the problem. Things operate by default: the contribution of governments, especially those of developed countries, is defined by a restricted political perspective and not set according to what is needed.

Another big problem in facing the reduction in biodiversity is related to the way in which resources are allocated and projects are designed: there is no real sense of urgency and also no conception of the long run, meaning that commitments need to hold over a long period of time.

Additionally, since the destruction of nature has a lot to do with the development model that dominates the world, it is also necessary to set limits on many variables that model the present and the future: slowed population growth, restrictions on consumption patterns, institutional social responsibility (the state, the corporations, the NGOs, and society in general), and governance to implement a serious agenda.

How much longer will we need to wait for real solutions?