| Causes of
a Human Ecological Analysis
Luc Hens firstname.lastname@example.org
Emmanuel K. Boon (1)
Ecology Department, Vrije Universiteit Brussel, Laarbeeklaan 103, B-1090
– Brussels, Belgium, Tel.:+32-2-477.42.81 Fax:+32-2-477.49.64 -E-mail:
Important biological causes of the loss of biological diversity include
the loss of habitats, the introduction of exotic species, over-harvesting
of biodiversity resources, and homogenisation of species in agriculture.
The common factor of all these elements is that they are human-driven.
This paper analyzes the economic and social root causes behind biodiversity
loss. The analysis is based on both theoretical considerations and case
studies. It entails five axes:
(a) Demographic change: although from a theoretical point of view the
relation between population pressure and the impact on biodiversity
is almost obvious, no systematic attempt has been made so far to analyze
this relationship in a quantitative way.
(b) Consumption and production patterns: global increases of energy
consumption and the use of natural resources drive habitat conversion
world-wide. In this part of the analysis, particular attention is paid
to economic growth, poverty and land tenure aspects, as causes of biodiversity
(c) Public policies entail three major elements: perverse policies
that provide incentives which degrade biodiversity, failure to incorporate
the monetary value of biodiversity into decision making and failure
to integrate biodiversity concerns as a transversal element into policy.
(d) Macro-economic policies and structures.
(e) Social change and development bias.
Although there is ample theoretical evidence of the economic, social
and political causes of biodiversity loss, empirical evidence for most
of these relationships is fragmented, meager or non-existent. More research
in this area is imperative. It is also most questionable whether current
nature-conservation policies provide sufficient answers to these root
causes of biodiversity loss and are able to counteract the loss of biodiversity-related
cultural values, biological species and ecosystems in an effective way.
What is biodiversity?
Biodiversity is a contraction of “biological diversity”
and refers to the number, variety and variability of living organisms.
In its widest sense, therefore, it is synonymous with “Life on
Earth”. It embraces two different concepts: one is a measure of
how many different living things there are and the other is the measure
of how different they are.
Although many definitions of biodiversity exist, the most often-cited
is provided by the “Convention on Biological Diversity”
 in its Article 2. “Biological diversity” “the
variability among living organisms from all sources including, inter
alia, terrestrial, marine and other aquatic ecosystems and the ecological
complexes of which they are part; this includes diversity within species,
between species and of ecosystems” (Box 1).
What is biodiversity
According to the Convention on Biological Diversity, “biological
diversity means the variability among living organisms from all
sources including, inter alia, terrestrial, marine and other aquatic
ecosystems and the ecological complexes of which they are part;
this includes diversity within species, between species and of
ecosystems” . The term “biodiversity”, thus,
refers to the variety of all life on earth, and explicitly recognises
how the interaction of the different components of ecosystems
results in the provision of essential ecosystem services on the
one hand, and social and recreational opportunities on the other,
including being a source of inspiration and cultural identity
A number of concepts have been developed in recent years relating
to indicators and principles for biodiversity management, including
“ecosystem integrity”, “ecosystem health”,
“sustainability”, and “resilience” (the
ability of an ecosystem to withstand stresses and shocks). The
variety of concepts and definitions that abound indicates the
difficulties facing any attempts to establish a practical, working
definition of biological diversity. Perhaps one of the simplest
and most widely accepted definitions used is the conservation
of the maximum number of species. But even then, there are difficulties,
as it is not clear what actually constitutes a species. Some common
concepts for differentiating species have been identified by Brookes
- biological species concept – defines a species as a
group of interbreeding populations isolated from other such groups;
- morphological species definition – defines a species according
to a given set of common features;
- evolutionary species concept – defines a species by its
shared evolutionary history; and
- genotypic cluster definition – uses genetic “gaps”
to distinguish one species from another.
Each of these definitions tries to isolate a species from the
wider concepts of ecosystems and biodiversity, but the variety
of definitions in use indicates the difficulties in such an exercise.
Box 1: What is biodiversity ? .
This definition places emphasis on variability or heterogeneity, rather
than on the objects displaying that variability. It addresses this variability
at three hierarchical levels - genes, species and ecosystems.
The species is the basic unit of classification in biology. Although
a species might be defined as a group of similar organisms that interbreed
or share a common lineage of descent, there is no universal agreement
on how to define a species. Even when the species is the basic unit,
it represents only one level of a complex phylogenetic hierarchy: related
species are grouped in genera, related genera in families, families
in orders, and so on, up to the highest level, the kingdom, of which
five are generally recognised at present (animals, plants, fungi, bacteria
and protoctists). More schematically, the levels of biodiversity are
listed in Box 2.
Species richness measures the number of species within a given area,
giving equal weight to each one. This measure can be used at different
geographical levels (a given area, a country and, ultimately, the world).
It is still the most straightforward and, in many ways, the most useful
measure of biodiversity. World-wide, just 1,75 million of the estimated
13 to 14 million species have so far been described. Most of these described
species are only poorly known in biological terms. There is no comprehensive
catalogue on the known species.
The number or richness of species is obviously a most incomplete measure
of biodiversity. It is complemented by:
(a) Species diversity, which measures the species in an area, adjusting
for both sampling effects and species abundance.
(b) Taxic (taxonomic) diversity, which measures the taxonomic dispersion
of species, thus emphasizing isolated evolutionary species. The basic
idea behind this measure is that biodiversity might be better measured
at higher taxonomic levels (e.g. genera or families). The explanation
is that an area with, say, ten species in the same genus is less diverse
than an area with ten species, each belonging to a different genus.
(c) Functional diversity, which assesses the richness of functional
features and interrelations in an area, identifying food webs along
with keystone species and guilds.
However, not only diversity is of importance. Species endemism, that
is whether a species is restricted to (“endemic to”) an
area under discussion, is equally vital. For example, islands typically
have fewer species than equivalent-sized continental areas. They also
usually have a higher percentage of species found nowhere else. In other
words, they have lower species richness and higher species endemism.
Genetic diversity is the variation of the set of genes carried by different
organisms: it occurs on a small scale among organisms of the same species,
among closely related species such as those in the same genus, and among
more distantly related species, in different families, orders, or kingdoms.
Genetic diversity might be characterised by a range of techniques: by
observation of inherited genetic traits, by studying the chromosomes
and their species specific karyotype, and by analysing the DNA information
using molecular technology.
Global genetic diversity is extremely large. It has been estimated that
there are some 109 different genes present in the world’s biota.
The number of possible combinations of gene-sequence variants in a population
is so great that it cannot even be expressed in a meaningful way.
This amazing variation in the genetic code offers opportunities for
evolutionary change, the survival of species, adaptations to a changing
environment, and the formation of new species. More recently, biotechnology
and crop or breed improvement programmes rely on the identification
of genetic material giving rise to desirable traits, and the incorporation
of this material in appropriate organisms.
Species exist in natural settings, within functioning communities and
ecosystems, interacting with other species and the abiotic environment.
Ecosystems function as entities with system-wide properties. Care about
diversity must, therefore, also focus on system-wide aspects, such as
dying coral reefs.
Different classification systems exist to describe ecosystem diversity.
On a world scale, bio-geographic zones, biomes, eco-regions, and oceanic
realms are used. On a smaller scale, one deals with landscapes, ecosystems
and communities (Box 2).
|Cultural diversity: human interactions at all levels
Box 2: The composition and levels of biodiversity .
Qualification of ecosystems on a global scale faces problems. A major
reason for this is that they do not have a clearly delineated identity.
They do not, in general, exist as discrete units, but represent different
parts of a highly variable natural continuum.
To study ecosystem diversity at different levels, geographic information
systems (GIS) are increasingly used, both during assessment and as a
basic management tool.
Biological causes of biodiversity loss
Although biodiversity, in essence, has to do with genes, species and
ecosystems, it is also related to issues far beyond the confines of
biology. Understanding the threats to biodiversity and offering solutions
to them necessitates insights from the socio-economic and applied sciences.
The major source of the recent interest in diversity of life on earth
arises from the feeling of a rapid decline in biodiversity. Extinction
of species is part of an evolutionary process. However, during recent
times, extinction rates are ten to a hundred times higher than during
pre-human times . The main causes for this loss of biodiversity are:
(a) The loss of habitats. Table 1 provides data on human disturbance
of habitats on a world-wide scale. The data show the significant impact
of human activity on world ecosystems. For example, in Europe, only
15% of the continent is classified as “undisturbed”, which
is the lowest percentage world-wide. Loss of tropical forest is the
most highly published aspect of this . Elsewhere, rivers are impounded,
coral reefs destroyed by dynamite, and natural grasslands are ploughed.
5 759 321
53 311 557
33 985 316
26 179 907
20 120 346
9 487 262
13 208 983
162 052 691
|1. Undisturbed: record of primary
vegetation; very low human population density.
2. Partially disturbed: record of shifting or
extensive agriculture; record of secondary but naturally regenerating
vegetation; livestock density overcarrying capacity; other evidence
of human disturbance (e.g., logging concessions).
3. Human dominated: record of permanent agriculture
or urban settlement; primary vegetation removed; current vegetation
differs from primary vegetation; record of desertification or
other permanent degradation.
Table 1: Habitat and human disturbance by continent .
(b) The introduction of exotic species. Many are accidental, as with
noxious weeds and insect pests. Others are deliberate. Foxes, rabbits
and cats, which were taken to Australia aboard European ships, have
decimated Australia’s indigenous wildlife. In freshwater, the
stocking of exotic fish for sport, or (rarely) for food, has caused
at least 18 extinctions of fish species in North American rivers. Catastrophic
changes in the fish biodiversity of Lake Victoria (East Africa) resulted
from the introduction of Nile perch . Eucalyptus, which is indigenous
in Australia, has been introduced in many tropical and subtropical regions
in the world, where the tree merely behaves as a pest.
(c) Over-harvesting by (illegal) hunting, and the systematic cutting
of wood for heating purposes, or charcoal production, are other reasons
for biodiversity loss. The use of medicinal plants might illustrate
this point. In the semi-arid rural area of Southern Cochabamba (Bolivia),
it was shown that, out of 132 inventoried plants that the local people
use for traditional medicinal purposes, 10 were threatened because of
their intensive collection .
(d) Lesser-known causes are due to “knock-on” effects.
Species that are co-evolved with another, such as plants with specialised
insect pollinators, will go extinct if one of the pair goes extinct.
When the last passenger pigeon (Ectopistes migratorius) died in the
early 1990s, so also did two of its obligate parasites, two lice species
. Moabi (Baillonella toxisperma) used to be a common tree in West-Africa.
The fruits are eaten, cooking oil is extracted from the seeds (karite)
and the bark is used for medicinal purposes. For its reproduction, the
plant depends on the elephants. Only these animals swallow and disperse
the moabi seeds. The impressive reduction of elephants in countries
such as the Ivory Coast, Ghana and Benin has had an important impact
on the distribution of the tree.
(e) Homogenisation in agriculture and forestry; in particular, industrial
agriculture and forestry use a limited number of species. Of the hundreds
of species of edible potatoes available in South America, less than
20 are in commercial use in Europe. Although an estimated 7,000 plant
species have been collected and cultivated for food, only 30 contribute
over 90% of the entire global population’s energy needs. The case
of the banana (Musa spp.) is illustrative. Bananas are the fourth most
important food source in the tropics after rice, wheat and corn. They
are cultivated in nearly 120 countries. Farmers use only about 25 edible
sterile banana varieties. The number of varieties is diminishing due
to the spread of pests and diseases and the deterioration of the resource.
(f) Pollution and global environmental change also threaten the world’s
biodiversity. Climate changes affect the distribution of species. Plants
that two decades ago were only found in Southern Spain currently appear
at the foot of the Pyrenees mountains, in the North of the country.
All these causes have one element in common: they are induced by human
activity. This makes human activity the most important source of the
current decline in biodiversity. Therefore, understanding the many aspects
of human influences on biodiversity, and their underlying driving forces,
is of crucial importance for setting priorities and counteracting the
current negative trends.
A human ecological framework of root causes of biodiversity loss
This paper will deal with the main human ecological aspects of biodiversity
loss: the root causes, selected economic and social aspects and the
The analysis of root causes is based on a paper by Stedman-Edwards .
Essential in her rationale is that the causes of biodiversity loss are
indeed habitat loss and fragmentation. However, these drivers are influenced
in turn by human resources use and pollution. She further identifies
five societal root causes, which are essential in understanding biodiversity
loss: demographic change, inequality and poverty; public policies, markets
and politics; macroeconomic policies and structures; and social change
and development biases. The framework on which this rationale is built
is shown in Figure 1. The root causes appear on the left-hand side of
Figure 1: A root-cause framework for biodiversity loss .
Since December, 1999, there are officially 6 billion people worldwide.
The world’s population has more than doubled since 1960, and is
growing at a rate of 1.6% a year. The global population is expected
to reach over 8 billion in 2025 and to stabilise at around 12 billion
people towards the end of this new century. The fastest growth rate
is in Africa, currently growing at an annual rate of 2.9 percent and
heading for a population of 3 billion people towards the end of next
century, around five times the population of today (Table 2). In South
America, the population increases at a rate of 1.7% annually.
|World population (billions)
North and South America
57.0 13.3 9.2 20.5
59.4 13.7 11.9 15.0
58.6 12.8 20.9 7.7
57.0 11.0 23.9 8.1
56.8 10.8 24.5 7.9
Table 2: Human population growth by continent .
Moreover, the population is most unevenly distributed and concentrated
in cities along coastlines and inland waterways. Around 45% of the world’s
population is urbanised but this is unevenly split between the industrialised
(over 70%) and the developing countries (just under 40%). However, the
gap is closing and the urban growth rate in the latter was currently four
times faster than in the industrialised countries and their urbanised
area is predicted to double over the period 1980-2000 .
The relationship between population size, growth and density on the one
hand and biodiversity loss on the other hand is complex. From a theoretical
point of view, there is no doubt that these factors lead to pressure on
land and aquatic resources, especially on food production, but also on
infrastructure such as roads and housing. Concentrations of people in
coastal zones and along other waterways can result in the destruction
of, or damage to, terrestrial, aquatic, and marine biodiversity.
Also, from a historical point of view, the relation between demographic
change and impact on biodiversity is obvious. During archaeological periods,
increases in population have prompted changes in the pattern of land use
through the institution of methods of agricultural production. Thus, with
an increase in population, traditional societies, previously dependent
on hunting and wild plant gathering, found it necessary to turn to agriculture,
initially in the form of shifting (“slash and burn”) cultivation,
then to long fallows, and eventually to permanent cultivation, including
the introduction of permanent livestock.
In general, population growth is associated with the growth of resource
consumption and degradation, expansion and intensification of land use,
increasing poverty, exploitation of marginal lands and the breakdown of
traditional resource-management systems. At the local level, population
growth is often the result of urbanisation, displacement and migration.
Local population growth directly affects the use of resources and their
degradation and often drives habitat conversion in areas important for
biodiversity conservation. At a global level, population growth is continually
raising the consumption of resources (see next section).
In spite of this theoretical and circumstantial evidence, no systematic
attempts have been made to analyse the relationship between demographic
change and biodiversity in a quantitative way. Whether countries with
more rapid rates of population growth have more rapid rates of land conversion
is uncertain . However, some correlation between population density
and land use exists. Countries with high population densities have converted
relatively more land to agricultural use. Latin American and African countries
with high levels of fertiliser use (an indication of agricultural intensification)
are generally those with high population densities. At the local level,
however, the relationship between population density and land use is not
so apparent in many cases. Further work is needed to understand the linkages
between population change and biodiversity loss.
Consumption, Inequality and Poverty
Patterns of production and over-consumption are important causes of
biodiversity loss. For example, global increases in consumption of energy
and natural resources drive habitat conversion and over-use of ecosystems
worldwide. Per capita consumption of materials and energy is the highest
in Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) countries,
followed by countries with economies in transition. This is illustrated
in a convincing way by ecological footprint analysis. This analysis
indicates e.g. that the total demand of nature by a modal US citizen
equals 10 time the demand of a local Indian or Nigerian . Lowering
materials and energy consumption from existing levels will reduce pollution
and extraction processes, which damage biodiversity. Unfortunately,
however, economic systems today tend to encourage higher consumption
and production rates and fail to take biodiversity and environmental
requirements into account. At the existing high levels of consumption,
particularly in the industrialised countries, there is an urgent need
to increase the efficiency of resource use. This might be the first
step to alleviating the pressure on the environment and on biodiversity.
Economic growth might itself be a cause of environmental degradation.
Although in theory it is the ratio of demand for environmental resources
to economic activity which matters from an efficiency point of view,
in practice, economic growth indeed leads to increased use of energy,
resources and biodiversity degradation.
The importance of production and consumption patterns as fundamental
drivers of environmental degradation and biodiversity loss has been
sharply discussed in chapter 4 of Rio’s Agenda 21. More than 10
years after the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development
(UNCED), making consumption and production patterns more sustainable
seems to be one of the most difficult areas to be addressed by governments
worldwide. Nevertheless, a broad range of instruments is available to
do the job. For example, the removal of perverse incentives and the
use of environmental taxes can help to internalise costs and move towards
full market pricing. Education about the impacts of consumption is equally
crucial for modifying consumption patterns. Eco-labeling and product/service
certification are useful tools for making the consumer understand the
impacts of consumption on biodiversity loss. For society, these instruments
are particularly useful when they support sustainable production processes.
Also, the impact of international trade policies and regimes on sustainable
production processes is of extreme importance. Economic globalisation
should be weighed against environmental destruction. To deal with the
debt-biodiversity relation, dept-for-nature swaps are an attractive
instrument showing the advantage of short term results.
The Plan of Implementation of the World Summit on Sustainable Development
(2002) stated that changing consumption and production patterns was
an area where only most limited progress was made on implementing Rio’s
Agenda 21. It therefore advocated, among others, the above-mentioned
In third-world countries, many development policies, programmes and
projects threaten biodiversity. Plastics are more abundantly used in
cities in developing countries than in OECD countries. Especially after
the fall of the Berlin Wall, economic growth and free- market economics
became the prevailing credos worldwide.
There are several reasons for thinking that poverty, particularly in
situations where people depend directly upon consumption of biodiversity
or other natural resources for survival, is a cause of habitat loss.
Estimates of the coincidence of poverty and environmentally marginalised
places depend directly on the definitions of poverty and marginality
employed and, therefore, vary widely. Nevertheless, it has been estimated
that 60% of the world’s poor live in areas of low agricultural
potential, which can be equated to ecological vulnerability. Poverty
prevents people from assuming long-term economical and environmental
attitudes. Poor farmers, fishermen, nomads and other users extract what
they can from the environment to support themselves. These populations
have little time or resources left to invest in resource conservation
In general, there exists a vicious circle of poverty, resource degradation
and further impoverishment. Land degradation - both a result and a cause
of rural poverty - has direct and indirect impacts on biodiversity as
it forces changes in production patterns, migration and frontier expansion.
The poor are disproportionately located in marginal lands and fragile
ecosystems. Moreover, the poor are thought to make particularly damaging
use of the environment when traditional systems of resource management
break down as a result of socio-economic change.
Particular attention has been paid to questions of land tenure. Poor
farmers often have no tenure or uncertain tenure of their land, which
leads directly or indirectly to inefficient use of resources and environmental
degradation. In Mexico, some 70 to 80 percent of the 40 million hectares
of the country’s temperate and tropical forest is located in ejidos
-communal farms- divided into family or individual plots. For the past
40 years, inhabitants of the ejidos have converted forests into agricultural
and pasture lands. This helped to make Mexico one of the countries with
the highest rates of deforestation in the world.
The view that poverty relief must have precedence over environmental
concerns is gradually being replaced by the idea that poverty relief
and sustainability are closely linked. In other words, development must
precede environmental concern or clean-up should be replaced by the
idea of sustainable development.
Structural adjustment programmes (SAPs) and the huge debts of the developing
world are often cited as fundamental causes for resource use and habitat
and biodiversity loss. The view of the world’s leading economic
institutions is mixed. SAPs, for example, often require the removal
of economic distortions, such as subsidies, which encourage prolific
resource use, and may favour biodiversity conservation. On the other
hand, SAPs may encourage an increase in export drives, which induce
land conversion for export crops or favour the culture of international
cash crops over indigenous species. In the same way, external debt may
encourage a similar export-oriented policy in an effort to secure foreign
exchange to meet debt repayments.
Public policies at the national level
There is very little doubt that government policies significantly impact
biodiversity, both positively and in destructive ways. With regard to
the causes of biodiversity loss, three main types of policies have been
(a) Perverse policies that provide incentives that degrade biodiversity.
Tourism, agriculture, forestry, energy, mining water, transport, construction
and communications sectors can have adverse impacts on biodiversity.
In the Maldives, coral reefs are destroyed and threatened by the fast-expanding
diving tourism and the obtention of materials for the construction of
In Germany, agriculture is the main sector responsible for endangering
species. Agriculture has been identified as the source of a threat to
513 species, 72 percent of species on the Red List of threatened and
endangered species .
Mining is traditionally a most impacting sector on the landscape and
on biodiversity. In the Ghanaian gold-mining sector, which is mainly
concentrated in the tropical south-western region of the country, attempts
exist to counteract the effects of the surface clearing, which is the
basis of mining activities. Companies are forced to re-green the deforested
areas after mining activities. The companies do so, however, using plants
from the international catalogue of the Food and Agriculture Organisation
(FAO) rather than the original indigenous plants.
In the Brazilian Amazon, development projects have included large-scale
road building, mining, dams, and colonisation schemes. In the lowland
tropical forest of the Chapare region of Bolivia, 55 percent of the
original forest were cut down and the land use changed between 1988
and 1998, after the government decided to promote this region for agricultural
development. Oil concessions, coca plantations and a number of crops
such as pineapple, pepper, maracuja, banana and palm, which are advocated
as alternatives to the coca plants, replaced the original forest. However,
after depletion of the soil, huge areas left behind are prone to erosion
In the fast-developing Halong Bay area in Northern Vietnam, 40 percent
of the land cover changed during the period 1988-1998. The main element
of change in this area was the original dense forest, which declined
rapidly: of the 2010 ha cover in 1988, only 335 ha remained in 1998.
Dense forest mainly changed to degraded and secondary forest . Box
3 provides more details about the study quantifying this type of fast
Halong bay is the core area of
the Quang Ninh province (Northern Vietnam) that borders China
on the North and the Gulf of Tonkin on the East. Quang Ninh is
one of the areas in Vietnam characterised by rapid economic, social
and environmental development. Using LANDSAT TM images, land cover
changes during the period 1988-1998 were studied . The changes
were classified into three main groups: coastal features, natural
land features and human features. These main groups were further
subdivided into 22 different mapping categories.
The study shows that by 1998, 39.9 per cent of the 1988 land cover
had changed. The results also indicate:
(a) a fast expansion of the human features: during these 10 years,
the area of urban settlements doubled and the area for coal-mining
activities increased by 75 per cent.
(b) the coastal area changed in a complex way, driven by expansion
of urbanisation, aquaculture activities, agriculture and mangrove
expansion (replanting and natural colonisation of tidal flats
(c) the original dense forest in the area rapidly declined: of
the 2,010 ha cover in 1998, only 335 ha remained in 1998. Dense
forests mainly changed to degraded and secondary forests.
In more detail, the investigation of the evolution of the national
land features shows that:
(a) the limited area of natural dense forest which remained in
1988, after a period of intense deforestation, is even more dramatically
reduced. Of the 2,010 ha of dense forest in 1988, only 335 remained
(b) the expansion of the areas for the non-indigenous eucalyptus
and pine plantations is remarkable. The increase of 85 per cent
(almost 4,500 ha) is, at the same time, the largest area of gross
change during the period studied.
(c) the tree cover and the nature of the natural ecosystems changed
substantially. Overall, the forest cover was reduced by more than
4,000 ha. However, within this picture, the contribution of plantations
The data show that these rapid development patterns are associated
with important losses of biodiversity. Policies determining this
type of development are a major cause of biodiversity loss.
Box 3: Rapid loss of natural landscape features in the Halong
Bay area (North
All these examples show how government policies can be most devastating
to biodiversity. These policies have in common the fact that they serve
traditional development goals, such as industrialisation, export expansion,
increased food production and poverty relief. In most of these cases,
natural resources provide a cheap way to support economic growth.
(b) Failure to incorporate environmental values, including the value
of biodiversity, into the decision-making process. According to the
free-market economic rationale, environmental values, including the
value of biodiversity (loss), should be fully reflected in the price
of a product or service. The underlying assumption is that, if the value
of biodiversity is made fully evident in the price mechanisms, this
will reduce degradation substantially. At least in theory, governments
can compensate for this type of market failure by imposing taxes or
levies. There are, however, different problems:
(-) Calculating the price of biodiversity loss is not easy. Different
been proposed and most of them have been used with more or less limited
success. But none of these methods can capture the full value of biodiversity
quantitatively. The fundamental reason for this is that biodiversity
insurance value for the generations to come, which is never taken into
Moreover, valuing biodiversity is faced with serious ethical problems
(-) Probably, a sustainable use of environmental resources through market
is only possible when the resource base is small, the possibilities
substitution are limited, and the control over resources is tight. Some
societies fulfil these conditions, but few still maintain the control
environmental resources. New users, such as the colonists in Chapare
do not meet these conditions, given the insecurity of tenure, the apparently
extensive frontier, and open access to environmental resources.
(-) Imposing taxes for environmental reasons coincides with fundamental
psychological problems and lobbying practices. In Belgium, an environmental
tax law, voted by more than two-thirds of the parliamentarians in 1995,
has hardly been implemented after subsequent lobbying by industry and
related groups. The main reason is that price adjustments will influence
existing production patterns too profoundly. Curative measures were
therefore preferred over preventive interventions on the product market.
Markets related to forest biodiversity include timber and non-timber
products. Among the latter, a wide series of fruits, vegetables, snails,
honey, mushrooms, nuts, seeds, a wide range of micro-foods, pharmaceuticals
and cosmetics are found. But the forest also offers many environmental
services. These services include soil fertility enhancement, protection
from erosion and against floods, regulation of water supply and the
protection of biodiversity.
Traditionally, no one pays for these services : they are considered
as “common”. Early valuation attempts include taxes and
land-owner rights. More recently, in the face of budgetary constraints
and increasing liberalisation, many governments have increased their
use of market-based instruments to value biodiversity. Examples of these
market-based instruments used to promote improved forest management
include new revenue systems based on stumpage value, reform of subsidies,
tax exemptions, performance bonds and the promotion of forest certification.
A set of new economic instruments has recently been launched in this
context. It includes bio-prospecting rights to investigate the potential
applications of biodiversity in the pharmaceutical or cosmetic sector;
biodiversity credits; research credits; biodiversity concessions provided
to environmental Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs); tradable development
rights and conservation casements.
(c) Government failure to integrate environment in development policy.
Since there are pervasive links between economic and environmental quality,
most economic policies affect the environment in one way or another.
Therefore, it is imperative to incorporate the environmental dimension
in all sectors of policy making as a transversal concern in decision
Effecting this integration in all sectors of a given economy and relevant
subsets of the political process was, to a large extent, the hope of
the environmental movement in the late 1980s and its advocate for sustainable
development. Policy integration is also acknowledged in the Convention
on Biological Diversity , which states in Article 10 that: “Each
Contracting Party shall, as far as possible and as appropriate: (a)
Integrate consideration of the conservation and sustainable use of biological
resources into national decision making”. Moreover Article 6 (b)
requires the states to “integrate, as far as possible and as appropriate,
the conservation and sustainable use of biological diversity into relevant
sectoral or cross-sectoral plans, programmes and policies”.
In practice, however, the integration of environmental concerns as
an over-arching theme in all policy domains seems difficult to reach
and is known as “integration failure”. There are different
reasons for this phenomenon. However, lack of information, environmental
awareness, decision-making inertia and a too-limited societal basis
constitute the major causes. A major instrument to incorporate biodiversity
concerns in decision making on plans, programmes and policies is strategic
environmental assessment (SEA). However, worldwide, integrating SEA
in policy is a slow process. It is a missed opportunity that, in contrast
to Agenda 21, the Plan of Implementation of the World Summit on Sustainable
Development (WSSD, Johannesburg, South-Africa, 2002), does not recommend
the use of SEA.
Macroeconomic policies and structures
The impact of international markets on prices of biodiversity resources
is of core importance in regulating their use. This impact is even more
significant with an increasing globalisation of the world economy. Nevertheless,
the role of macroeconomic factors in biodiversity loss is difficult
to quantify, given the large number of intervening variables between
global and national economies and local decisions about resource use.
To analyse the role of macroeconomic factors as drivers of local resource-use
patterns, two main lines of thinking prevail today:
The neo-classical view suggests that “improvements” in a
government’s macroeconomic policy, such as trade liberalisation
and exchange-rate deregulation, will improve resource-use patterns.
Trade liberalisation and free-trade regimes can have positive impacts
on biodiversity when free trade is associated with the reduction or
removal of distortions and, when prices reflect true values of biological
resources, free trade can improve their allocation. Or phrased in another
way: where proper policies for environmental protection and sustainable
development are in place, trade liberalisation will co-implement and
reinforce those policies. Where they are not, trade liberalisation will
exacerbate existing environmental problems and promote development that
is not environmentally sustainable.
The second line of thinking is driven by political economy. This theory
focuses on macroeconomic structures. It posits that changes in macroeconomic
policy, without changes in the underlying power and market structures,
may worsen resource-use patterns.
The analysis of cases shows that there is truth in both of these approaches.
It equally shows how complex the link between macroeconomic policies
and the environment is. Nevertheless, in relation to biodiversity, a
set of specific comments is important:
(1) Uniformity: the shift toward production for large, often global,
markets drives towards uniformity in the products. Mono-cropping, mechanisation
and increased use of chemical inputs, often a prerequisite for participation
in these markets, replace more diverse ecosystems and small-scale farming
methods. They all lead to a reduction in the diversity of crops and
(2) Log export bans: have been used in the past. They were based on
the argument that reduced harvesting would be induced by the artificial
reduction in export demand. Because of the complexity of macroeconomic
mechanisms, in countries such as Costa Rica and Canada, the experience
with this instrument is mixed. However, limited or more directed export
bans that focus on restricting exports of logs derived from old-growth
forests may avoid the potential of adverse environmental effects.
(3) Species trade restrictions: The Convention on International Trade
in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) reflects the consensus
of its 130 Parties that selective trade restrictions are necessary to
protect species that are threatened or endangered by trade. Empirical
evidence suggests that trade measures taken under this agreement are
effective. In Zimbabwe, the Convention had a clear impact on the elephant
population. In its turn, this seemed to create the necessity of controlled
hunting and ivory trade as a correction of the Convention mechanisms.
Culture, social change and development bias
Development is widely understood as an increase in consumption and production
and the committed use and transformation of natural resources. Even
when this social change is politically and economically driven, there
also exists a social and cultural preference for this type of development.
Culture has a direct influence on the population, economic activities,
settlement patterns, political structures and other factors affecting
biodiversity. It is undeniable that the failure to incorporate sustainability,
including biodiversity conservation, into the current development paradigm,
has to an important extent a cultural basis.
Culture influences biodiversity at different levels:
(1) In many places there is a cultural bias against natural areas,
which are seen as uncivilised and underdeveloped. This might explain
the enormous land clearing which has taken place in Europe since the
Middle Ages and in the Americas since Europeans arrived there. A similar
cultural outlook sees indigenous peoples, and their resource-use practices,
as being in need of development and civilisation. This driver of colonialism
until the 1960s has led to the complete destruction of traditional societies
and the protection they afforded to biodiversity.
(2) The prevalent current development strategy stresses liberal markets,
reduced government intervention, and private property. The model justifying
this economically focussed strategy claims a linkage between developed
economic (capitalist) and political (democratic) structures and concern
for conservation. They are presented as a package. Whether this ideology
is correct can be doubted. For instance, the bias of many developing
countries in favour of urban over rural areas and in favour of industry
over agriculture reflects this understanding of development and does
not necessarily include an effective bio-conservation policy.
(3) In this process, traditional cultures are being lost. These indigenous
cultures have very different relationships with resources. Sedentary
peoples, in particular, have developed systems of taboos and prescriptions
related to resource use that both protect and enhance biodiversity.
The modernisation of these traditional societies leads to loss of traditional
knowledge about sustainability and the “undiscovered” values
of biodiversity (such as medical cures or diets based on micro-foods)
and the disruption and loss of traditional institutions for managing
resources. An example of the cultural context of biodiversity for indigenous
people is described in box 4. The research among the Impeti-Emberá
in the Republic of Panama shows that they give importance to biodiversity
in a context that reflects the utility of plants for the community.
This provides complementary information on the value system scientists
have developed to evaluate biodiversity.
of culturally determined traditional knowledge on biodiversity can
be illustrated using a study carried out among the Emberás
in Panama . The members of this indigenous group are of South
American origin and currently live in Panama and in Columbia. Their
total population is about 50,000, of which 18,000 live in Panama.
Of the five main indigenous groups in Panama, the Emberás
are considered to reflect their traditional life styles most closely.The
research aims to define the importance the Emberás give to
rare plant species. Using various methods ranging from workshops
to formal questionnaires, participatory observation, and ecological
inventory, it was possible to establish the list provided in table
3. This list is based on data gathered by the contribution of over
90% of the 50 households in the area of study.
||Food baskets, posts for houses, hen cages
||Wrapping buns and tamales, utility baskets, wrapping food
covered with salt, hats
||Structural elements for decorative chunga baskets, chaume,
utility baskets, wrapping for buns, bellows, hats
||Chunga Astrocaryum standleyanum
||Decorative baskets, posts for houses, food, sugar presses,
ornamentation for the shaman’s home, hoe blades, spears
||Chaume, posts for houses
||Flooring, fencing, para cinta y chuso
||Pliers, food, arrows, construction materials
||Body and hair painting, soothing skin lotion
||Pillions, utility baskets, food, ornamentation for jaïbana
houses, beverages, chaume, sugar cane press heads, flooring,
||Stairs, dolls, river rafts for cargo, plates, pillows
||Construction materials, axe handles, food
||Traditional Emberá woodwind instruments
||Substance for the purpose of hardening and protecting teeth
||Food baskets, binding for the construction of materials,
||Dye for chunga fibres
||Animal sculpting, construction materials, black dye for
Table 3: List of Plant Species deemed Cultural Priorities
by the Ipeti-Emberá Community*
* The number of plants is based on a sample of 50 quadrants
of 24 meter-diameter each and represents the total number of individuals
found. The frequency of use was obtained by a questionnaire administered
to all households in the village. The answers are coded as follows:
1 – weekly harvest; 2 – monthly harvest; 3 – annual
harvest; 4 – biennial harvest; 5 – infrequent harvest,
about once every five years; 6 – rare or non-existent harvest.Twenty-two
plant species were ascribed a significant traditional value by the
villagers; without exception, all of these plants have a use. Eight
tree and eight palm species used to build houses and for various
domestic purposes (basket-making, food, thread) were found. Three
species provide raw materials for Emberá craftwork - one
of the largest sources of income for the community. Finally, three
species are important for their symbolic or spiritual value.The
study then searched for a relationship between species abundance
and importance. The abundance of the plants was determined by sampling
150 24-metre-diameter quadrants. The abundance of the plant species
on the Ipeti territory varied between zero and 2071. Six species
were counted with more than 200 individuals, and five more were
present in the quadrants by more than 20 individuals. For eight
species, fewer than 10 plants were found. The Emberá were
unanimous in considering four plant species to be particularly important:
chunga (fibre for woven baskets), guagara (roofing for the huts),
jira (flooring in the huts) and kipara (a vegetable dye used in
body painting). The ecological inventory showed that, while 3 palm
species are found abundantly, kipara is rare, with only nine individuals
counted. The researchers concluded, therefore, that there is no
relationship between utilisation, importance and abundance.The whole
of the research shows that the Emberá place importance on
biodiversity, or rather on the renewable resources that are its
most tangible expression, according to a value system fundamentally
different from that of scientists. The value of biodiversity seems
to be intimately linked to the utility of a species.
Box 4: Plant species of cultural importance for the Panamanian
These findings should not lead to an over-romanticisation of indigenous
cultures. Far from all these societies live in a sustainable way. Moreover,
the readiness with which many of them embrace the Western production
and consumption methods is noticeable. But, they offer many examples
showing that alternative cultures that have sustainability and biodiversity
protection embedded in their social organisation gradually change to
incorporate the Western development model.
The human ecological analysis looks for the reasons for biodiversity
loss beyond the often-cited biological causes, such as habitat loss
or the introduction of exotic species. By pointing out the economic
and social drivers of habitat loss and related biodiversity threats,
the human ecological analysis provides a most useful complement to the
biological analysis of the biodiversity problem.
Although there is ample evidence for the theoretical background behind
the policy, economic and social drivers of biodiversity loss, experimental
evidence for most of the causes of this loss is fragmented, meager or
non-existent. Although many of these relationships are complex, it is
imperative to enhance research on the causal links between biodiversity
loss on the one hand and economic policy, production and consumption
patterns, culture, internalisation of environmental costs, globalisation
of the economy and poverty and inequality on the other hand. Theory
alone offers insufficient arguments to tackle the current root drivers
of biodiversity loss.
Of core importance in this discussion is the question as to whether
conservation policies will be able to compensate for the current fundamental
root causes of biodiversity loss. Current policies in this area include
Rio’s Biodiversity Convention, the CITES Convention to limit trade
in endangered species and a wide array of national policies on nature
conservation. Both the international and the national policies are characterised
by a great deal of reactive reflex towards the drivers of biodiversity
loss. Few regulations, such as the Biodiversity Convention and its royalties
aspect proposal, entail proactive measures. Moreover, the Biodiversity
Convention is outstanding in that it is not only targeted towards conservation,
but takes the different dimensions of sustainable development into account.
It is, therefore, important to develop more mechanisms and regimes of
this kind, not only to prevent further degradation of the biodiversity
resources, but also to reverse the current trend of continuous loss
of biological species and cultural assets.
1. CBD-Convention on Biological Diversity, UNEP-United Nations Environment
Programme, Handbook of the Convention on Biological Diversity (Earthscan
Publications Ltd., London, UK, 1992).
2. S. P. Johnson, The earth summit: the United Nations Conference on
Environment and Development (UNCED) (Graham & Trotman, London, 1992).
3. Commonwealth of Australia. The national strategy for the conservation
of Australia’s biological diversity. Commonwealth Department of
Environment, Sport and Territories, Canberra, Australia, 1996.
4. M. Brookes, The species enigma, New Scientist, 111, 1 (1998).
5. OECD, Handbook of incentive measures for biodiversity. Design and
implementation (Paris, France, 1999).
6. V. H. Heywood, I. Baste, (1995) Introduction (in Global biodiversity
assessment, V.H. Heywood Ed. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge,
UK. 1995), pp. 1-19.
7. A. R. E. Sinclair, The loss of biodiversity: the sixth great extinction
(in Conserving nature’s diversity, G.C. Van Kooten, E.H. Bulte,
A.R.E. Sinclair Eds., Ashgate, Vermont, 2000), pp. 9-15.
8. A. R. E. Sinclair, Is conservation achieving its ends? (in Conserving
nature’s diversity, G.C. Van Kooten, E.H. Bulte, A.R.E. Sinclair
Eds., Ashgate, Vermont, 2000), pp. 30-44.
9. OECD, Saving biological diversity. Economic incentives (Paris, France,
10. S. L. Pimm, Extinction, in (Conservation Science and Action, W.J.
Sutherland Ed. Blackwell Science, Oxford, UK, 1998).
11. C. J. Ureña Hinojosa, C.J. Diversidad, classificación
y uso de plantas medicinales en la communidad de Apillapampa de la provincia
Capinota del Departemento de Cochabamba. Thesis Maestria in Ciencias
Ambientales (Universidad Mayor de San Simón, Cochabamba, Bolivia,
2001). (In Spanish).
12. N. E. Stork, C.J.C. Lyal, Extinction and co-extinction rates, Nature,
366, 307 (1993).
13. P. Stedman-Edwards, Root causes of biodiversity loss. An analytical
approach (WWF-WorldWide Fund for Nature, Washington DC, 1998).
14. International Bank for Reconstruction and Development, Washington,
World Development Report 1999/2000: Entering the 21st century (Oxford
University Press, New York, 2000).
15. J. A. McNeely, M. Gadgil, C. Leveque, C. Padoch, K. Redford, Human
influences on biodiversity (in Global biodiversity assessment, V.H.
Heywood Ed. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK, 1995), pp. 711-821.
16. R. E. Bilsborrow, H.W.O. Okoth Ogendo, Population-driven changes
in land-use in developing countries, Ambio, 21 (1), 37 (1992).
17. N. Chambers, C. Simmons, M. Wackernagel, Sharing Natures Interest.
Ecological Footprints as an Indicator for Sustainability (Earthscan
Publications Ltd., London, UK, 2000).
18. OECD, State of the Environment (Paris, France, 1991).
19. M. L. Bruckner-Bazoberzy, Evolucion del paisaje: alternativas de
ordenamiento sostenible en la region del Chapare. Master degree thesis
(Universidad Mayor de San Simon, Cochabamba, Bolivia, 1999). (in Spanish)
20. L. Hens, E. Nierynck, Tran Van Y, Nguyen Hanh Quyen, Le Thi Thu
Hien, Land cover changes in the extended Ha Long City area, North-Eastern
Vietnam, during the period 1988-1998 (Proceedings of the International
Conference on Tropical Ecosystem Structure, Diversity and Human Welfare,
15-18 July, 2001, Bangalore, India), Env. Dev. Sust. 2, 235 (2001).
21. J. P. Revéret, A. Weber, Economics and biodiversity management,
(in Governing Global Diversity, P.G. Le Prestre Ed. (Ashgate, Hampshire,
UK, 2002), pp. 233-246.
22. F. Blais, Fair and equitable sharing of benefits from
the exploitation of genetic resources: a difficult transition from principles
to reality (in Governing Global Diversity, P.G. Le Pestre Ed. Ashgate
Publishing Ltd., Hampshire, UK, 2002), pp. 145-158.