Human wellbeing threatened by ‘unprecedented’ rate of biodiversity loss

Landscape of mountains, forests and fields in Guilin, China - iStock/IPBES

[Reposting my story for ChinaDialogue]

Nature’s vital contribution to human wellbeing is deteriorating worldwide at an unprecedented and accelerating rate, with grave impacts likely, according to a major report approved by more than 130 of the world’s governments.

The report, launched in Paris, France on Monday, says fundamental changes are needed to everything from farming and fishing to private investment and governance to ensure the benefits continue to flow.

While such warnings have been heard before, this is the most comprehensive assessment to date, and the first that governments have come together to endorse. The findings are set to influence world leaders who are meeting in China next year and aim to reach a new global agreement on biodiversity.

“The evidence is incontestable,” said Robert Watson, chair of the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES), which produced the report. “Our destruction of biodiversity and ecosystem services has reached levels that threaten our wellbeing at least as much as human-induced climate change. We have a closing window of opportunity to act, and narrowing options.”

Key findings

The report is the result of three years of work by hundreds of scientists who have reviewed 15,000 sources of information. It shows how nature is crucial to humanity, providing food, water, energy and medicines, as well as livelihoods and cultural and spiritual fulfilment. But it shows too that many species are fast declining in range and numbers, and that the services ecosystems provide, such as water and carbon storage, seed dispersal and pollination, are breaking down.

Humanity has “severely altered” three-quarters of the planet’s land surface, it says, adding that 1 million species are threatened with extinction, many within decades. Watson said the continued loss of biodiversity “will undermine the ability of most countries to achieve most of the Sustainable Development Goals”, which all UN member states have pledged to achieve by 2030.

While climate change will make all of this worse, so too could some efforts to prevent global warming. IPBES says, for example, that plantations of bioenergy crops can have negative impacts on biodiversity and on ecosystem services that are key to food and water security.

Costly problems

The report says biodiversity loss and ecosystem destruction  is being driven by a litany of problems including overfishing, deforestation, pollution, agricultural expansion, rising seas, unsustainable hunting, illegal wildlife trade, invasive species and climate change. It also highlights important “indirect drivers” such as rapid economic growth, poorly planned urbanisation and rising per capita consumption.

The IPBES report is global in scope and makes grim reading for all regions. It warns, for instance, that if the current trends continue “there could be a substantial decline in the economic and non-monetary value of nature’s contributions” to people across Asia in coming decades. With its diverse landscapes and rapid development, China exemplifies many of the problems and potential solutions IPBES describes.

The country has established many protected areas and greatly increased its forest area in recent years. But it also faces significant conservation challenges, particularly in its drylands, lakes, rivers and coastal wetlands, of which less than half of the original area remains. These include overexploitation, pollution, extractive industries and invasive species, which IPBES has said are “key biological threats to China’s social development and ecological security”, costing US$17 billion each year.

Vanishing crop variety

According to IPBES, the number of invasive species harming China’s agricultural ecosystems has been growing by about three species a year since 1900, with a faster rate of increase in the past 15 years. This is a huge threat, particularly on China’s 193 million small farms, which are living repositories of crop diversity. But this biodiversity is also threatened by economic forces. In response to market demand, many subsistence farms are being replaced by commercial monoculture. The loss of traditional crop varieties and associated local farming knowledge is removing options that could be crucial to efforts to adapt to a changing climate.

“This is a threat to the sustainability and resilience of the whole traditional farming system,” said Yiching Song, of the Centre for Chinese Agricultural Policy of the Chinese Academy of Sciences. At the same time however, said Song, there is growing demand in China for safe, good quality and varied food because of rising incomes, food safety issues and increasing concern for the environment. “This is good news and an opportunity for crop biodiversity protection and farmer seed system enhancement,” he said.

Bringing about a revolution

Only  “transformative change” can prevent further declines in humanity’s natural life-support systems by 2050 and beyond, says the IPBES report. “By transformative change,” said Watson, “we mean a fundamental, system-wide reorganisation across technical, economic and social factors, including paradigms, goals and values.”

Among other things, the report calls for better ways of producing and using food, energy and water, more inclusive decision-making and governance of natural resources, new frameworks for private investment and incentives for environmental protection. It urges governments to ensure that policies in all areas from health to housing, from defence to finance, take account of biodiversity. And it gives examples of effective policies, practices and governance structures to conserve and sustainably use biodiversity.

Learning from China

One example that IPBES highlights is China’s Sloping Land Conversion Program (or Grain for Green), the world’s largest reforestation effort. By paying farmers to plant trees on their land and providing degraded land to rural families to restore, it has transformed more than 15 million hectares of degraded agricultural land and 17 million hectares of barren mountainous wasteland to natural vegetation. Though at a local level some results have been more mixed.

“The figures are really big — US$40 billion spent, over 30 million hectares of land restored and some 32 million households engaged,” said Himlal Baral, a senior scientist at the Center for International Forestry Research, based in Indonesia. “This is a great restoration effort and many countries can learn lessons from this. It shows that if you put in economic incentives, there is potential to restore degraded and marginal land.” He noted while some of the programme’s benefits such as soil and water conservation and landslide protection are local, the carbon storage achieved by planting so many trees benefits the whole planet.

Ways forward

Having worked in China for several decades, Jianguo (Jack) Liu, a professor at the Center for Systems Integration and Sustainability at Michigan State University is hopeful. “Enormous change has already taken place,” he said. “The government has increasingly paid attention to the environment. That is very positive, of course, but there are still challenges to be addressed.”

Liu pointed out that, in the past, assessments of government officials were based on Gross Domestic Product (GDP) and took no regard of environmental performance. “The higher the GDP, the more likely someone would be promoted,” he said. “Now, they are evaluated by environmental and economic performance. If you have had a bad environmental record, you will be punished and will not be promoted.” Liu said he would like to see this approach “scaled up, implemented and enforced nationwide.”

A new global deal

All eyes will be on China’s efforts to conserve nature next year, when Kunming, the capital of Yunnan province in south-west China, hosts the 15th Conference of Parties to the UN Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD). Representatives of nearly 200 governments will meet there to agree a new 10-year framework to halt biodiversity loss and protect ecosystems. It could be a sombre meeting, as delegates will confirm that progress towards the last agreed targets, set in Aichi, Japan, in 2010, has been abysmal. The IPBES report suggests that most of the 20 Aichi targets will be missed.

“The IPBES Global Assessment tells us how much we have achieved, where we are on track, where we are not, why, and what the options are for moving forward,” said the CBD’s executive secretary, Cristiana Paşca Palmer, who added that it will make an “invaluable contribution” to the process of setting ambitious, achievable targets in the post-2020 global biodiversity framework.

“The assessment also shows that threats to biodiversity cannot be addressed by governments alone,” said Paşca Palmer. “In fact, it underscores the urgent need for transformational change to safeguard nature and the ecosystem services that underpin all life. This requires everyone to get involved – including businesses, communities and individuals – as we lay the foundations for an even more ambitious biodiversity agenda for the next decade.”


Photo credit: Landscape in Guilin, China – iStock/IPBES

This post was first published on 7 May 2019 by ChinaDialogue here, and is reproduced here under a Creative Commons licence.


Cocaine of the sea, ‘epic failure’ and how following the money can limit illegal wildlife trade


Two vaquitas. Only ten more remain.

It has been called the ‘cocaine of the sea’ — the dried swim bladder of the totoaba fish, when smuggled from Mexico to China, sells for US$40-60,000 per kilo thanks to its supposed medicinal qualities. While the fish is critically endangered as a result, the situation of another animal that gets caught in totoaba nets is even more dire. The illicit trade has driven the world’s smallest marine mammal — a kind of porpoise called a vaquita — to almost certain extinction. At the last count, only 12 remained alive.

That’s despite around US$100 million being spent on efforts to save the species in the past ten years, according to wildlife crime investigator Andrea Crosta, who calls it “one of the most important, epic failures in conservation”. Crosta says scientists in boats in the Sea of Cortez have been watching the vaquita population plummet, while behind them on the beach totoaba traffickers went about their work unhindered.

“For years and years, they tried to tackle the vaquita/totoaba issue by focusing only at sea and only on the fishermen,” says Crosta. “The key to stopping totoaba illegal fishing and trafficking is on land, and more precisely by targeting the Chinese illegal traders residing in Mexico.”

“It is a criminal issue that must be put in the hands of criminal experts, not biologists like it has been done for years,” he told me. “I see the same problems around the world, where biologists and conservationists are still in charge of problems that are criminal in nature. We do need biologists of course, but in many cases, they should not run the show.”

Crosta — a co-founder of the Elephant Action League and creator of the wildlife crime whistleblowing initiative WildLeaks — says the cartels buying up the totoaba swim bladder and smuggling it to China are also involved in money laundering. “This means you can get them for other crimes, instead of using environmental law, which is too weak.”

The totoaba trade is just a small slice of a very lucrative pie — worldwide, the illegal wildlife trade is worth tens of billions of dollars. It is driving dozens of species towards extinction while enriching criminal syndicates. As a recent conference in London heard, a widespread ‘evidence failure’ is thwarting efforts to stop it. Crosta says the decline of the vaquita is a prime example.

Last month, the UK government announced a £3.5 million boost boost for the approach he advocates, with what it calls “the largest known project of its kind to crack down on financial crimes associated with the illegal wildlife trade”. Among other things, it will support investigations of money laundering and tax evasion to disrupt criminal networks and target high-ranking bosses.

On the same day, Prince William, the Duke of Cambridge, launched a ‘wildlife financial taskforce’. More than 30 banks and financial institutions have signed up and pledged to “not knowingly facilitate or tolerate financial flows that are derived from illegal wildlife trade and associated corruption”. They will share resources and intelligence in an effort to disrupt flows of money generated through illegal wildlife trade.

“We cannot afford for this fight to be a priority solely for conservationists anymore,” said Prince William, Duke of Cambridge in a speech to launch the initiative. “It is an issue for all of us. We need to take these criminals on from every direction. One particularly vital way is to follow the money.”

Crosta welcomes the news — with a caveat. “Everyone is repeating the mantra ‘follow the money’ but they don’t know what it means in concrete,” he told me. “And it’s very, very difficult to do it, as a lot is done in cash or through payments systems like WeChat or even cryptocurrencies. You need intelligence if you want to follow the money for real.”

But even the best intelligence seems unlikely to save the vaquita. The next fishing season for totoaba will begin in February or March when, once again, the Sea of Cortez will be full of illegal gillnets.

“I don’t think the last vaquitas can survive another fishing season like we saw this year,” says Crosta, “So it’s critical to act now on the Chinese traders in Mexico and stop the supply chain, from the sea to China. If, once again, they focus only on the fishermen we will lose the vaquita.”

As the species slips ever closer to extinction, Crosta says its story carries an important lesson for broader efforts to combat the illegal wildlife trade. “Stop giving biologists and scientists the responsibility to tackle complex transnational criminal endeavours like wildlife trafficking,” he says. “It’s a criminal problem, with capital C.”

Photo credit: Paula Olson (NOAA) / Wikimedia Commons

Pastoralists in the Media: Three ‘E’s please

Once upon a time, not so long ago, we were all mobile. Movement was what enabled our ancestors to track resources that were here today, gone tomorrow. In parts of the world where water, pasture or good hunting are not constantly available, mobility is still the key that unlocks scattered resources. It is the key to resilience. And as the climate changes, this ancient strategy could become more important.

Yet in many countries, governments marginalise mobile pastoralists and would prefer them to settle instead of roaming the land. Dominant policy narratives cast pastoralism as a backwards, unproductive activity that takes place in marginal fragile areas, where unpredictable rainfall leads people to overgraze and damage the land.

New research coordinated by the International Institute for Environment and Development with funding from the Ford Foundation has identified gaps in such policy narratives in the Indian, Chinese, Kenyan and global contexts. These policy narratives overlook both the dynamics of dryland ecosystems and how dryland communities have long learnt how to live with and harness variability to support sustainable and productive economies, societies and ecosystems.

The narratives ignore the ways that mobile herding can increase people’s resilience in a changing climate. They also ignore the three ‘E’s –the economic value of pastoralism, the environmental benefits that herding brings to rangelands and the equity that should be at heart of good policymaking.

The role of the media

Media stories both contribute to and reflect the dominant policy narrative around pastoralism. As part of the project, I analysed media stories on pastoralism from Kenya, China and India and surveyed dozens of journalists in those countries (see the full research paper or a four-page summary). I found significant gaps – and inter-country differences – in how journalists perceive and portray pastoralists and pastoralism.

  • In Kenya, pastoralists feature mostly in ‘bad news’ stories of conflict and drought. They appear vulnerable and lacking in agency. Stories make almost no mention of the benefits that pastoralists bring.
  • In China, the media presented pastoralists as the cause of environmental degradation and as (generally happy) beneficiaries of government investment and settlement projects.
  • In India, newspapers tended to portray pastoralists with more pity, as people whose rights to grazing land had been taken away and whose livelihoods were at risk as pastures dwindle and locally resilient livestock breeds disappear. Overall coverage of pastoralism in India was rare, however, and journalists there stated that pastoralists are ‘invisible’ to editors of national newspapers.

In all three countries, important topics such as climate change, and the links between mobility and resilience were under-reported. While 51% of Kenyan articles mentioned drought, only 3% mentioned climate change.

Very few articles in any of the three countries referred to the economic importance of pastoralism (4% in Kenya, 12% in China and 15% in India) or the fact that meat and milk pastoralists produce contributes to food security outside of pastoralist communities (1% in Kenya, 4% in China and 10% in India). The voices of pastoralists feature in less than half of the articles about them (41% of articles in Kenya, 36% in China and 25% in India). Stories that focused on women and children were even less common.

Towards improved narratives

Incomplete media coverage of pastoralism helps to sustain partial narratives that underpin policymaking and this prevent pastoralists from fulfilling their potential to provide food and sustain resilient livelihoods in a changing climate.

Yet opportunities to reframe pastoralism abound. In Kenya, for instance, an alternative narrative could show how the new constitution could work best for the drylands and their communities. In India, an alternative narrative could show how herding is part of the wider dryland agriculture system that can increase food security in the context of climate change. In China, an alternative narrative can relate how support for pastoralism can increase food security and better manage rangelands for economic benefits.

Journalists and editors can act to create more balanced, nuanced and accurate narratives around pastoralism. This will involve reporting on the economics of pastoralism, as well as on the other values of pastoralism that are harder to price. It will involve a better understanding of mobility and markets, of resilience and vulnerability. It will require journalists and researchers to communicate better together and it will require the media to give more voice to the pastoralists themselves.

Donors and development agencies can act to encourage more accurate, relevant and useful media coverage of pastoralism by supporting training programmes, opportunities for journalists to travel to areas where pastoralists live, and initiatives that bring together journalists, pastoralists, dryland researchers and policy makers.

The test of success will be whether future media reports of pastoralism do more to cover the three ‘E’s – environment, economy and equity.

This post was first published on 13 May 2013 on the Agriculture and Ecosystems Blog of the CGIAR Research Program on Water, Land and Ecosystems.

A changing climate demands change in narratives

Last year I wrote — here and here — about my study of how media portrayals of pastoralists in China, India and Kenya can contribute to policy narratives that limit people’s resilience to climatic variability. IIED has now published my research and a short briefing paper that presents the main findings and recommendations.

Here is a summary of the research paper, which you can download here [PDF].

Resilient food systems depend on appropriate policies that enable people to take advantage of their own adaptive capacity. Pastoralists use their mobility to take advantage of resources – pasture and water – that are patchily distributed in space and time. Pastoralism can make major contributions to food security, livelihoods and economic prosperity. However, these benefits often go unacknowledged – by policy makers, donors and the public at large. This is in part because of development and media narratives that paint pastoralism as something bad that needs to change. This paper explores how the media portrays pastoralism. To do so, we analysed the content of newspaper articles about pastoralists in Kenya, China and India, and also invited journalists in these countries to complete an online survey and telephone interview. We identified significant gaps – and inter-country differences – in the media’s portrayal of pastoralists.

And here is a summary of the briefing paper, which you can download here [PDF].

Mobile pastoralism contributes substantially to food security, livelihoods and economic prosperity, and can increase resilience to climate change; but policymakers, donors and the public at large tend not to appreciate its benefits. Policy narratives portray pastoralism as an outdated practice, and the media stories that help shape policy processes and public opinion often contribute to these false portrayals. An IIED study analysed the content of stories from media outlets in Kenya, China and India, and surveyed journalists in each country. It identified significant knowledge gaps and inter-country differences in how journalists perceive and portray pastoralists and pastoralism. The analysis also found that media outlets in these countries under-report climate change, the economic value of pastoralism and the links between pastoralist mobility and resilience. Journalists, researchers and pastoralist communities need to work together to improve media coverage of pastoralism, and by doing so highlight pastoralism’s potential contribution to sustainable development in a changing climate.