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biodiversity

From iconic species to iconic case studies

Iconic species – the panda, the tiger, the bald eagle, and even the small but spectacular corroboree frog – have been the vehicle for spreading the environment message.  That message can change and become more subtle. 

 Photo © Ryan Rayburn/World Bank

Mr Zoellick’s message at the launch of the Tiger Initiative in 2008 focused on integrating “environmental concerns ...  into the mainstream of development and operational plans”.   His statement in relation to the National Geographic’s “Vanishing Icons” photo exhibit (in the World Bank headquarter's atrium in DC) advanced the discussion to the tiger’s “largely untapped potential to spur balanced development”.  The conditions and actions needed to improve the habitat of the tiger are closely related to those needed to improve the livelihoods of local communities and vice versa.

Some plant communities are emerging as iconic ecosystems.  The mangroves are the best example.  Their role as a habitat and breeding ground for so many species, as a resource for local people and in coastal protection are listed again and again.  They feature in the recent WRI publication “Banking on Nature’s Assets” which forcefully makes the case that Multilateral Development Banks can strengthen development by using ecosystem services and describes some of the case studies and tools we have to help do this.

But we are also seeing the emergence of “iconic case studies” and this is a concern to me. 

How close to the edge?

Nicola Cenacchi's picture
How close to the edge?
   Photo © iStockphoto.com

In September, a diverse group of scientists—among them the Nobel laureate Paul Crutzen—presented in the journal Nature a new framework to analyze sustainable development at a global scale. This framework recognizes that humans have now become the main driver of global environmental change, and that our impact on the planet is growing stronger.

We are affecting every one of the major natural processes which are important for our own welfare, wrecking the ability of earth systems to regulate themselves, and buffer disturbances. In fact, our actions may be shifting earth processes to a completely new state that is a far cry from the extraordinarily stable conditions (in the entire history of planet earth) that allowed the development of human civilization since 10,000 BC. In the words of Paul Crutzen and colleagues, we have entered a new geologic era, the “Anthropocene”.

Our pressure on the planet appears more and more troubling as our understanding of earth processes improves. There is increasing evidence that many earth systems and biophysical phenomena do not change in a linear fashion, but rather experience abrupt changes when thresholds are crossed.

In Defense of Diversity

Nicola Cenacchi's picture

Svalbard Global Seed Vault. Photo © Mari Tefre/Global Crop Diversity Trust

If you are not familiar with it, I highly recommend taking a look at the TED website. TED is a small nonprofit devoted to “Ideas Worth Spreading”. It organizes conferences where people from different fields and walks of life, scientists, engineers, and politicians, can present their ideas and projects.

The talks are filmed and made available for free on their website, which now contains a vast collection of brilliant presentations and speeches, always informative and at times downright jaw-dropping (in fact, “jaw dropping” is one of the categories you can use to scan through the presentations.)

The presentation that recently caught my attention is one by Cary Fowler, about the importance of genetic diversity in agriculture. Dr Fowler is Executive Director of the Global Crop Diversity Trust, whose mission is to conserve Earth’s agricultural biodiversity. Jointly funded in 2004 by FAO and Biodiversity International the Trust worked with the Norwegian Government and the Nordic Gene bank to create the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, also dubbed by the media “the Doomsday vault,” which was officially opened on February 26, 2008.