Biodiversity countdown to 2010

Posted: 10 February 2004

The future of mountain ecosystems and the extension and care of protected areas are two of the priorities for some 2,000 delegates attending a global conference on the Biodiversity Convention in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

The conference will also focus on the target, agreed at the previous meeting of the Convention Parties, to try to cut back the enormous rate of biodiversity loss by 2010. This, according to the World Conservation Union (IUCN), will require "unprecedented efforts to adapt human activities to the needs of natural systems."

Activities such as agriculture, forestry, fisheries, transport, tourism and land planning will all have to be transformed, it says, if sustainable livelyhoods are to be preserved.

Ways will also have to be found, IUCN says, to establish effective systems of protected areas, protect landscapes, combat alien species and integrate biodiversity objectives into financial, development, trade and aid policies. The organisation has developed a Countdown 2010 initiative to try and secure specific commitments from governments and private industry.

Poor protection

It also hopes to build on last year's Parks Congress which celebrated the fact that over 11 per cent of the Earth's land surface is now 'protected'. But, it points out, much of that protection remains ineffective. Many so-called protected areas are threatened by habitat loss, fragmentation, policy and management weaknesses and unsustainable exploitation. And there are big gaps in the coverage of many species and biomes, with less than one per cent of the marine environment protected and freshwater areas badly under-represented.

Another focus of attention will be the call, at the World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD), for the benefits from genetic resources to be shared out fairly, so that developing countries and indigenous people can benefit from the wealth created by native plants and organisms.

It is a point which is bound to be picked up by protesters from Hawaii where lawyers have complained about the selling of biogenetic resources to private corporations, and the rapid expansion of biotech experiments in that state, threatening what they regard as a healthy diet of local, natural foods.

Cloud forests

The emphasis on mountain biodiversity stems from the growing awareness that more than a half of the world's population relies on mountain water to grow food, produce electricity, sustain industry - and to drink. Special emphasis is being put on the Mountain Cloud Forest Initiative - a partnership programme to protect a vital part of the mountain ecosystem of over 60 countries, including many tropical islands. Cloud forests have exceptional concentrations of biodiversity and are a major water source.

According to the first comprehensive survey of these fragile worlds, prepared for the meeting, cloud forests cover an area of just under 400,000 square kilometres, or less than 2.5 per cent of the globe's tropical rain forests.

One surprising finding is that, contrary to previous estimates, the majority of these moist humid forests are found in Asia rather than Latin America.

Indeed, the report, Cloud Forest Agenda, estimates that 60 per cent of cloud forests are found in Asia with around 25 per cent in Latin America and 15 per cent in Africa.

Water Supplies

The report makes it clear that conserving and restoring cloud forests is not a only a matter of aesthetics or a love of nature, but one of crucial economic importance for millions of people.

The ability of cloud forests to strip and retain moisture from cloud and fogs is key to abundant, clean and predictable water supplies in many areas, especially during dry seasons. The cloud forests of La Tigra National Park in Honduras provide over 40 per cent of the water for the 850,000 people living in the capital, Tegucigalpa.

Other cities where cloud forests supply significant amounts of water include Quito, Ecuador, Mexico City and Dar Es Salaam. All the water used by the Tanzanian capital in the dry season for drinking and powering hydro-electricity originates in the cloud forests of the Uluguru Mountains.

The study, compiled by researchers from the UN Environment Programme's World Conservation Monitoring Centre (UNEP-WCMC) and colleagues from IUCN and UNESCO is the first major report of the Mountain Cloud Forest Initiative.