IUCN Congress links people and planet

Posted: 29 November 2004

Author: John Rowley

While the extinction crisis intensifies, the 3rd IUCN World Conservation Congress, held in Bangkok, Thailand, last week, did its best to show how reliable information linked to conservation action can improve the wellbeing of six billion people and the 15,589 species of plants and animals identified in the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Collaborative conservation work, it argued, can reduce poverty and heal the planet

With huge areas of wilderness being lost every day, 1.4 billion people living along rivers with serious water shortages, glaciers and polar caps melting due to a 0.60C increase in temperature, the 5,000 conservation activists at the meeting invited the rest if the world to help reverse the trend.

"The decisions taken in Bangkok have the power to affect every single one of us," said IUCN Director General, Achim Steiner. "They have demonstrated the role of conservation in peace building, poverty eradication, food and water security, health and spirituality, and economic development. The global environmental agenda in 2004 is more than just a manifesto; it is a concern of global relevance and collective responsibility.

"In the 1950s we predicted that the world's natural resources and biodiversity were showing signs of serious degradation. Today, we have a body of evidence that is irrefutable and validates our hypothesis that the planet's resources are used well beyond the levels of sustainability," he said.

Cutting-edge science

A few validated findings set the stage for the Congress debate. These included:

  • 15,589 animals and plants face extinction, shown by the 2004 IUCN Red List of Threatened Species;

  • More than 300 bird species in Asia are threatened due to logging, farming and development;

  • Poor people are most reliant on natural resources, which provide up to 50 per cent of household income. Asia has half the world's population and two thirds of the world's poor. The Sekong forest in Cambodia yields over US$400 per household from various foodstuffs and forest products, in an area where average income is US$ 120.

  • Although 58 per cent of the world's coral reefs are endangered, some progress has been made in preserving these marine marvels;

  • Tthe long-term survival of reef fish, such as groupers and wrasses, retailing at around US$130/kg, is threatened by trade;

  • The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment - the largest study of its kind - found that only four of 22 assessed ecosystem services, such as water purification, have been enhanced through human action, whilst more than half have been degraded;

  • The Muthurajawela Marsh in Sri Lanka and the Luang Marsh in Lao PDR both provides the equivalent of US$5million-worth of water purification infrastructure.

Energy experts who discussed trends and future scenarios at the Congress agreed that continuing reliance on fossil fuels is not an option. They drew attention to the fact that less than 4 per cent of the annual US$240 billion global energy subsidies is being allocated to renewable energy sources, whilst about two-thirds are spent on fossil fuels.

New partners

The Congress showed an unprecedented level of participation by business, the organisers say. "We moved from the 'dialogue of the deaf' to a collaboration with entrepreneurs and business: this shows that biodiversity and sustainability is as important to business as it is to us," said Joshua Bishop, IUCN Senior Advisor.

Among the IUCN inititives unveiled at the Congress, a few stood out:

  • An agreement between NASA and IUCN opens the door to the use of satellite data to help worldwide conservation efforts;

  • A US$3million donation from Oracle will help environmental decision-making on threatened species through improved information;

  • Business and conservation agencies agreed a joint commitment to prevent the earth from warming beyond the 2°C threshold. Developing countries currently bear up to 90 per cent of the impacts of climate change;

  • Vietnam and Lao PDR signed a public commitment to work against the illegal wildlife trade across their border.

  • The IUCN Members Business Assembly voted on over 100 Resolutions and Recommendations on critical conservation policies, including a call for a moratorium on the further release of genetically modified organisms, and the establishment of the World Conservation Learning Network of conservation and development professionals.

Among messages to the Congress was one from Kofi Annan, Secretary General of the United Nations, who said that "Every country, and every individual, has a responsibility to change - to move from an era of exploitation to an ethic of stewardship. We have the science and the green technologies to begin the job today."