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Ecosystems protection, a key to development

In March Britain’s Chancellor of the Exchequer Gordon Brown broke new ground in a speech to a gathering of finance and environment ministers from the G8 “club” of leading world economies.
By Tim Hirsch, BBC News environment correspondent

For the first time, a politician in charge of economic policy for a major industrial nation was explicitly stating the inextricable link between environmental degradation and the long-term well-being of the human population.

Mr Brown told his audience: “If our economies are to flourish, if global poverty is to be banished and if the well-being of the world’s people enhanced – not just in this generation but in succeeding generations – we must make sure we take care of the natural environment and resources on which our economic activity depends […] Across a range of environmental issues – from soil erosion to the depletion of marine stocks, from water scarcity to air pollution – it is clear now not just that economic activity is their cause, but that these problems in themselves threaten future economic activity and growth.

And it is the poorest members of the community – those most dependent on the natural world for their survival and those with the fewest resources to buy their way out of unhealthy environments – that suffer the most.”

A few days after Brown delivered his elegant manifesto for integrating environmental and development policies, a meeting was held in New York to finalise the main documents of the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (MA). To the surprise of many of the experts gathered at the UN for the meeting, Brown – or at least his advisers – appeared to have “got” some of the key messages of the assessment before it had even been published.

Crucially, the chancellor recognised that one environmental challenge – the fight against climate change – had the potential to “overwhelm” attempts to meet the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs).

With the arrival of the five-year anniversary of the Millennium Declaration, the analysis contained in the MA could not be more timely. It identifies an alarming decline in the services provided to humans by ecosystems, which, if allowed to continue unchecked, will threaten not just the goal of environmental sustainability but other MDG objectives such as reducing poverty, hunger and disease as well. The continued degradation of ecosystems could jeopardise even goals such as reducing gender inequality and improving access to education.

While it is important to recognise these links, care must be taken to avoid caricature or an over-simplification of the message. The MA does clearly state that social and economic policies will play the primary role in achieving the 2015 targets set out in the Millennium Declaration. However, the General Synthesis Report of the MA finds that “many of the targets (and goals) are unlikely to be achieved without significant improvement in management of ecosystems.”

One of the more striking findings of the MA is that the regions of the world facing the most serious decline in the services provided by ecosystems are the very areas showing the slowest progress in achieving the MDGs. Therefore, in sub-Saharan Africa, Central and South Asia and parts of Latin America, the burden of poverty, hunger and disease coincides with acute deterioration of natural services such as the supply of fresh water, the formation of soils able to support crops and the availability of natural resources such as fish, fuelwood and medicines derived from plants.

Concern for the natural environment is often portrayed as a luxury of the rich, an issue of little consequence to the world’s poor, who inevitably care more about feeding their children than about the disappearance of endangered species. Yet, as Brown recognised in the passage quoted above, it is the poor who are most vulnerable to ecosystem deterioration.

There is thus a clear link between environmental policies and the first of the MDG 2015 targets: to halve the proportion of the world’s population living in poverty. Of the 1.1 billion people living on less than $1 a day, around 70% live in rural areas where they depend heavily on subsistence agriculture, grazing and hunting; activities that require healthy ecosystems.

One problem is that conventional measures of wealth often overlook this dependence. In a study quoted by the MA, for example, it was found that 22% of household income for communities in forested areas came from sources typically excluded from national statistics, such as harvesting wild food, fuel wood, fodder, medicinal plants and timber. So while the conversion of a forest to more “productive” uses such as agriculture may show up as a net benefit to the national economy, it can have a devastating impact on the income of poor families.

Similarly, the MDG target of reducing hunger hinges on improving ecosystem management. Crop and livestock production are recognised in the MA analysis as ecosystem services. Globally they are among the few to show improvement – though at the expense of others such as the watershed and climate functions of forests that could eventually limit our ability to feed a growing population.

And, once again, the regions suffering most acutely from ecosystem degradation are those facing the gravest hunger crises. Sub-Saharan Africa is the only region in the world to have shown an overall decline in food production, made worse by the vicious cycle of poverty and the deterioration of soils in the drylands. Development policies which fail to address this link stand little chance of long-term success.

The issue of food production also illustrates the danger of focusing narrowly on policies designed to meet a specific MDG objective while failing to recognise the negative impacts which can arise from the destruction of ecosystems. The expansion of crop and livestock production into the Brazilian Amazon and savannas, for example, may lead to a short-term increase in the total availability of food. However, this expansion may also result in future problems of soil erosion, loss of pollination services and instability of the regional climate, which could in turn cause increased long-term hunger.

The MDG objectives relating to disease, child mortality and maternal health have less obvious links with the state of ecosystems, but they are nonetheless well illustrated in the MA. One of the diseases singled out in the targets, malaria, has been closely associated with the disturbance of tropical ecosystems through deforestation; it is also linked to climate change. A rise in temperatures in Papua New Guinea, for example, is expected to spread malaria-carrying mosquitoes to highland areas where human populations have less resistance to the disease. The health of mothers and babies also has clear links to lack of nutrition and inadequate supplies of fresh water, issues that are both strongly affected by the deterioration of ecosystems. Degraded environments which produce large areas of standing water, for example, can be breeding grounds for a range of diseases.

Even those MDG objectives which at first appear to be influenced by purely social factors can also have important links to environmental choices. An interesting observation in the MA is the impact of deforestation and unsustainable use of freshwater sources on gender equality and education. A mother who has to spend much of her day – often accompanied by her daughters – walking to collect scarce firewood or carrying water from a remote well has little time to devote to family responsibilities. These tasks can also be a major factor in keeping girls away from school.

Equally, in rural societies, it is often the women who have the primary responsibility for growing staple crops like rice, wheat and maize. Therefore, it is the women who will bear the brunt of environmental degradation that threatens this essential household activity.

Therefore, for many of the Millennium Declaration objectives, long-term success or failure may be strongly influenced by the extent to which development policies take into account the responsible management of ecosystems. A major complaint within the MA is the low priority recipient countries give to environmental factors in the preparation of the poverty reduction strategies they submit to lending institutions or bilateral donors. With recognition of these links from leading players such as the British chancellor, it will be interesting to see whether they are given a more prominent role in future overseas development programmes.

However it would be wrong to see this issue as one that affects only the developing world and the aid programmes designed to enhance the well-being of its populations. Another of the key messages of the MA is that consumption and wealth-creation in richer societies can have “negative trade-offs” in the availability of ecosystem services to the world’s poor, thus jeopardising the MDGs.

One example is the massive over-exploitation of the world’s marine fish stocks. This has led to anomalies such as the negotiation of coastal fishing rights off West Africa for European super-trawlers, depriving local subsistence fishing communities of valuable sources of protein.

Perhaps the primary example, however, is climate change. As Brown observed, failure by the industrialised world to take serious steps to reduce greenhouse gas emissions may jeopardise progress towards meeting the MDGs. It is the drylands of Africa, the low-lying delta of Bangladesh and the glacier-fed mountain croplands of South America which stand to lose most from accelerated global warming.

Therefore, achieving the MDGs is not just a matter of “greening” development policies. It requires the developed world to look very closely at the impact of its own behaviour on the entire planet.

The UK presidency of the G8 this year would have been the ideal platform from which to firmly anchor these links as part of a new approach to the debate over greenhouse gas emissions. Armed with the MA analysis, supporters of radical steps to curb fossil fuel combustion could make a strong case for this being as much a part of the development agenda as increased overseas aid or fairer trade rules.

Yet in the run-up to the Gleneagles summit in July, the priorities of Africa and climate change set by the United Kingdom’s Prime Minister Tony Blair were largely portrayed as separate issues. Spectacular progress made in areas such as debt cancellation, development funds and Aids treatment stood in stark contrast to the loosely-worded compromises on global warming.

In a sense, that the G8 heads of government may have felt less pressure to act decisively on climate change than on other issues on their agenda is not surprising. In the sensational channelling of worldwide public opinion through events such as the Live 8 concerts, global warming and its implications received scarcely a mention.

A major challenge remains, therefore, for those urging closer coordination between environmental and development policies. Until pop stars and their fans can be mobilised to shame politicians into radical emission cuts or protection of tropical forests, the gains from Gleneagles may yet be “overwhelmed” – to use Brown’s own phrase – by degradation of the natural systems on which we all depend.

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