From Nov. 17 to 29, representatives from countries all around the world will meet for the 2018 United Nations Biodiversity Conference. During the conference held in Sharm El Sheikh, Egypt, the global community will discuss ways to halt biodiversity loss and protect the world’s ecosystems.
But why should we care about what governments do to address the issue of biodiversity? What is biodiversity anyway, and what does it have to do with the rest of us?
Here are the short answers. Biological diversity, or biodiversity for short, refers to the richness of life on Earth. Biodiversity helps in providing food and water to billions of people. It also provides very valuable services to the economy. It provides services to you right now, even if you do not know it. Ultimately, it might end up saving your—or your loved ones’—life.
Unfortunately, biodiversity is declining around the world, and the global community is racing to find strategies to stop this decline before it is too late. For a couple of reasons, those of us in the Philippines or who are Filipino citizens have a special role to play in these efforts. First, the Philippines is one of the most biologically diverse places on Earth. Second, biodiversity in the Philippines is seriously under threat.
Let me expound on the above points.
There are several ways to measure biodiversity. It can be measured in terms of how many different kinds of living things there are (in other words, how many species). It can be measured in terms of the variety of genes. It can also be measured in terms of the variety of ecosystems.
Whatever way it is measured, conserving biodiversity is important for so many reasons. Here are three of them.
First, biodiversity provides services that are necessary for humans. For example, a diversity of plant life and soil microbes is important in purifying and protecting our water supplies. According to the Biodiversity Information System for Europe, ecosystems such as forests and wetlands “provide clean water at a much lower cost than man-made substitutes like water treatment plants.” For so many around the world, these ecosystems are the only thing supplying them with clean water.
Second, biodiversity protects human health and saves human lives. For example, biodiversity is known to regulate and control the spread of infectious diseases. One way this can happen is through the suppression of disease-carrying organisms such as flies and mosquitoes. As a result, damage to biodiversity can translate to the spread of epidemics. According to the Co-operation on Health and Biodiversity, the outbreaks of “SARS, Ebola, Marburg, Hantavirus pulmonary syndrome, avian influenza and malaria have been attributed to human impacts on biodiversity.”
Biodiversity also protects human lives by decreasing the damage from natural hazards. For example, forests protect communities from flash floods. Similarly, mangrove forests also protect nearby communities from storm surges. According to one research, the loss of mangrove forests would put 3.5 million people and roughly $400 million at risk.
Third, biodiversity provides the resources to improve human health. For example, many Filipino scientists are fighting to protect the country’s biodiversity because many of our local organisms are likely sources of medical products ranging from pain relievers to new antibiotics that can replace our increasingly ineffective arsenal. One of these days, you will probably need a medical treatment that would not have been possible were it not for biodiversity.
This list could be a lot longer. Biodiversity improves air quality and agriculture, provides billions of pesos in ecological services, feeds millions of people, has high cultural and aesthetic value, and so on. Ultimately, there should be one in this long list of reasons to convince you to join the fight.
As mentioned above, we in the Philippines are in a special position to protect biodiversity. The Philippines is one of the world’s 17 “megadiverse countries” and has been called the “center of the center” of marine biodiversity in the world. On the flipside, the Philippines is also one of the world’s “biodiversity hotspots”. These hotspots are places where biodiversity is both high and under serious threat.
The threats to biodiversity are huge and interrelated: habitat destruction, pollution, over-exploitation, and climate change. We humans are transforming the face of the Earth because of our growing population and its corresponding demands for resources, energy, and space to live and grow food. The wheels of the global system seem to relentlessly turn toward further destruction of our environment.
However, we can help address this issue if we use the political process to nudge our government to honor its international commitments to protect biodiversity. We can also harness the power of social movements to pressure the big economic players to help in the efforts to preserve the richness of life on Earth.