Before there was the Insights blog, there were the Insights books. One of the first, on sustainable development, mentioned “a magical place, seemingly untouched for thousands of years”, on the Poland-Belarus border. Well, this “last remaining fragment of a primeval forest”, Białowieża National Park, is about to be touched, by loggers. The decision has sparked an impassioned debate, in Poland and far beyond. Forests seem to be anchored deep in the psyches of many peoples. There is even a theory that the story of the Garden of Eden refers to deforestation in the Middle East 10,000 years ago, and three millennia later, The Epic of Gilgamesh would describe how the gods curse Sumeria because the hero cut down the sacred forests.
The OECD is as Jungian as the next intergovernmental organisation, but on International Day for Biological Diversity we’re angsty about the loss of forests and other forms of life for material as well as subjective reasons. Biodiversity worldwide is in decline as the pursuit of economic growth and development leads to the conversion, and in many cases over-exploitation, of natural resources for inputs to production and consumption.
The theme of Biodiversity Day this year is “Mainstreaming biodiversity; sustaining people and their livelihoods”. According to World Bank figures, “natural capital accounts for an estimated 30% of total wealth in low income countries compared to only 2% in OECD countries”. Developing countries could learn a few (negative) lessons from what happened to the developed countries on their way to OECD status. The European Potato Famine of the 19th century killed in more or less direct proportion to the lack of diversity in the poor’s diet, with a million victims in Ireland where a third of the population relied almost exclusively on potatoes for food. The Dust Bowl that devastated the North American prairies in the 1930s was in large part due to farmers destroying the grass that held the topsoil in place.
If biodiversity is so important, and neglecting or damaging it so harmful, why don’t countries “mainstream” it? For a start, although preserving as many species as possible goes back as far as Noah’s Ark (based on Gilgamesh), biodiversity as a scientific concept is recent, dating from a 1985 US National Research Council/National Academy of Sciences forum on biological diversity, while the term “biological diversity” itself first appeared in Raymond F. Dasmann’s 1968 book A Different Kind of Country.
Even so, most of us probably have a pretty good idea of what biodiversity means. But what about “mainstreaming”? Outside the OECD and like-minded institutions, it now has a faintly negative connotation – mainstream media, mainstream tastes for instance. There are various definitions, but they all give the idea that it involves integrating biodiversity into growth and development processes and in sector policies in a systematic way (notably in agriculture, forestry and fisheries, among others).
This is going to be extremely difficult in practice, whatever the rhetoric. One of the main reasons biodiversity isn’t adequately mainstreamed is that it has to compete with other (often more visible) national priorities for growth and development, so there is insufficient political recognition of biodiversity and the underlying ecosystem services it provides. Hopefully, the new Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) will help to change this and raise the profile of biodiversity to a higher political level. Two of the 17 SDGs focus on biodiversity (terrestrial and marine).
The way in which the political will for change comes about reminds me of one of the grim conclusions of another Insights book, on fisheries. Fishing is a good illustration of how the unsustainable exploitation of natural resources poses a problem of political economy. The impetus for change is often a major catastrophe, such as the collapse of the industry when the fish stocks suddenly disappear. However, doing what is sustainable may mean a sudden, visible, loss for a small group of people who can organise to block change, while the benefit is much more long-term, less visible and less important on an individual basis, so there is less political pressure to implement what would be the best, long-term solution overall. An OECD contribution raised a similar point at a Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) event in Montreal earlier this month, citing “Long timeframes for mainstreaming results to occur” as one of the challenges that also arises in the context of mainstreaming biodiversity in development co-operation.
Another lesson from fisheries is that biological systems do not behave in a linear fashion. You may think a slow decline in fish numbers gives you time to find a solution, or that stocks may recover as they did sometimes in the past, but when an ecosystem reaches a tipping point, change can then become sudden and catastrophic. And usually, that tipping point is only identifiable afterwards, it can’t be forecast.
That’s why the CBD, the organisers of today’s campaign, are so worried about the interactions of a number of complex systems. Take what they say about fishing, to stick to that example. Overfishing, pollution and unsustainable coastal development are contributing to irreversible damage to habitats, ecological functions and biodiversity, going on to say that “Climate change and ocean acidification are compounding such impacts at a time when the rising global population requires more fish as food, and as coastal areas are becoming home to a growing percentage of the world’s population”.
With respected bodies like the Paleontological Research Institute at Cornell University estimating that because of human actions, current extinction rates are up to 100 times greater than they would have been otherwise, it’s getting urgent not just to act efficiently. Clunky administrative procedures in international and national programmes are a problem, as is the fact that typical projects have a 4 or 5-year cycle rather than the 10-15 years needed to make a difference. As well as that, monitoring and evaluation of mainstreaming efforts have to be more robust than at present to allow you to know what works and what doesn’t.
The SDGs’ targets for life below water and life on land are ambitious but achievable, and they’re certainly far more attractive than the alternative presented in Gilgamesh, where the Annunaki, the seven judges of hell, raise their torches, lighting the land with their livid flame. Don’t say you weren’t warned.
The CBD, like the UN climate change convention, has a Conference of the Parties, COP. CBD’s COP 13 in Cancun, Mexico in December this year, will also be focusing on mainstreaming biodiversity as its overarching theme.
Summary Record of the OECD workshop on Biodiversity and Development: Mainstreaming and Managing for Results, 18 February, 2015
Biodiversity and development co-operation OECD Development Co-operation Working Papers