Saving species, saving people

Posted: 20 March 2001

Efforts to secure the diversity of life forms on our planet are failing, in many cases, because the roots of the problem are not being adequately addressed, says the Uruguay-based World Rainforest Movement. Their view is published here in the interest of open discussion

Contrary to what many people believe, those most interested in the conservation of biodiversity are not environmental organisations but local communities, whose livelihoods and cultural survival to a large extent depend on the products and services provided by forests and other ecosystems. For them, the issue is not restricted to the conservation of certain species, but to the conservation of the entire ecosystem.

In the specific case of tropical forests, local communities are facing a number of situations, which are leading to the disappearance of theresources they depend upon. In most cases, they are struggling to protect their forest against government policies. Some of those policies aim at the large-scale extraction of timber, oil or minerals lying within the territories of indigenous peoples and other local communities.

This type of "development" results in widespread environmental destruction, while at the same time offering few benefits to local people, who end up in a far worse situation than before. Other policies aim at energy production and large areas are entirely destroyed or degraded by hydroelectric dams,while local people are "relocated" against their wishes, again in the name of "development".

Road building

But probably one of the most disastrous policies -forlocal peoples and biodiversity - is the opening up of the forest through road building, usually coupled with a colonisation policy and with the concession of large tracts of forests to corporations.

One of the most catastrophic examples of the above is that of the Brazilian Amazon. In the 1950s, the government opened up the forest under the slogan of "a land without men for men without land". This racist policy totally ignored the existence of indigenous peoples, who hadinhabited the territory centuries before the creation of the Brazilian state.

Indigenous people were murdered, repressed, died as a result of illnesses brought in by the colonisers and the result was the extermination of entire indigenous communities and the beginning of the widespread destruction of the Amazon forest that continues until today.Unfortunately, Brazil is but an example and similar situations are still occurring in most of the Amazonian countries and throughout the tropical regions of Africa, Asia and Oceania, with support from multilateral and bilateral Northern institutions and to the benefit of local elites and transnational corporations.

Alien species

If the above were taken into account, the first issue the world's governments should be addressing to preserve biodiversity is precisely that one: the recognition of the territorial rights of indigenous and other local peoples, whose interests are in line with forest conservation.

Biodiversity experts working within the Convention of Biological Diversity are instead focusing on issues such as "invasive alien species" - which undoubtedly is an important problem. They ignore the fact that the mostdangerous "invasive alien species" for forests and forest peoples are those who open up the forest for "development" without taking into account that the forest is "a land with people".

Experts should also be addressing the role played in the destruction of forests and biodiversity by institutions such as the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, Regional Development Banks, Export-Credit and bilateral aid agencies, northern consultancies and corporations andmany other actors. However, to the view of most experts this would be "political" - not scientific - and thus outside their mandate. But they are wrong, because unless those issues are addressed, most of their work in conserving biodiversity will be useless.

Monocultures

Biodiversity experts should also be trying to halt the spread of monocultures, which constitute a major threat to biodiversity, particularly in forest ecosystems. More and more tropical forest areas are being substituted by fast growing eucalyptus, pine, gmelina or acacia tree plantations and the disaster is being hidden under the name of "forest cover". Absurd as it may seem, a forest area converted to monocultureplantations is still considered to be a "forest" -according to the FAO definition - thus hiding the destruction of millions of hectares of some of the most diverse environments on Earth.

Unfortunately, biodiversity experts are still not even challenging this absurd definition.

Finally, it is important to stress that governments are not seriously addressing what is probably the worst threat to global biodiversity:climate change. All the efforts aimed at conserving biodiversity at the local level will be almost totally useless if the industrialised North - and particularly the United States - continue destroying the world's climate through their greenhouse gas emissions. And even worse, some governments - particularly those of the US, Canada, Japan and Australia - are promoting the use of large scale tree monocultures as carbon sinks - in order to avoid the need to cut emissions - thus increasing the problem of biodiversity loss.

Biodiversity loss is not simply "happening": it is the necessary effect resulting from a number of causes and the problem will only be solved whenthose causes are effectively addressed.

For more information about the World Rainforest Movement see http://www.wrm.org.uy