Friday, 12 February 2010

Banking on biodiversity

FEB 11 - Kathmandu Post
By Navin Singh Khadka

While my base London seems to be confused amid controversies surrounding climate change, a week elsewhere gave me a break to realise that there were other equally pressing environmental issues. One of them is biodiversity, the theme the United Nations has dedicated this year to and which happens to be quite relevant to Nepal. It kept on coming up during brainstorming sessions in Chiang Mai, Thailand where journalists from almost two dozen countries had gathered for a training course last week.

Interestingly, the training of trainers was on climate change itself, but it was biodiversity that caught my imagination as it featured significantly during my fellow trainers’ presentations. This is something even small countries like Nepal can contribute to — unlike in climate change mitigation which is more or less massive carbon emitting big boys’ show.

And the good news is the country does have a sound track record on protecting biodiversity — huge swaths of areas protected and conserved as it has. But with a steady rise in population and unending unstable politics, biodiversity has not been free from threats. No wonder Nepal’s flora and fauna are making it to the red list that contains names of endangered species.

But for ordinary citizens who have been longing to live peacefully and with some sense of political and economic stability, conservation of, for instance, yellow frogs or some kind of fern hardly makes sense. So does for their political leaders, most of whom neither know nor are simply interested in the issue. And yet, Madhav Kumar Nepal’s cabinet, while meeting near Everest base camp before the Copenhagen climate summit last December, did make some biodiversity-related decisions.

With the extension of the Bardia national park and the announcements of new conservation areas — Api-Nampa in Darchula district and Gauri Shankar in Ramechhap and Dolkha districts — the government could boast that it was not just talking hot air. Although the decision has drawn criticism from local communities and civil societies from the forestry sector.

Back from Copenhagen, Prime Minister Nepal spared some time to roll up his sleeves and rub shoulders with conservationists to weed out an alien plant species Mikania macarantha (water hyacinth) from a section of the Chitwan National park. If it was not a publicity stunt, symbolically, this is the kind of attention the country’s biodiversity needs at a time when natural systems have come under tremendous human pressure. The air we breathe, the water we consume and the materials we use for sheltering — to cite a few examples — need to undergo natural processing before they actually become consumable. This is where natural systems come in, and they won’t be there without healthy biodiversity.

The international conservation union, IUCN, has been stressing securing natural systems in the fight against climate change.

“Conserving nature can help reduce greenhouse gas emissions (mitigation) and help us adapt to the impacts of climate change,” the world’s biggest conservation organisation says. “Biodiversity can do for the planet what a healthy immune system can do for an individual: It can help us be more productive and adaptable to change but its loss can make us more vulnerable.”

When it comes to dealing with impacts of climate change, adaptation has been identified as a key mantra for the least developed countries. Building embankments against floods or taming landslide prone areas, for instance, may be one way of adapting to the consequences of climatic change. Scientists, however, also say that if you have well conserved forests, they would help you minimise losses from climate change-triggered landslides or to some extent prevent droughts even. And if a long awaited protocol comes into being, experts say, genetic resources of financially poor but biodiversity-rich nations can be exploited in a way that brings benefits to all.

“Benefits derived from genetic resources may include the result of research and development carried out on genetic resources, the transfer of technologies which make use of those resources, participation in biotechnological research activities, or monetary benefits arising from the commercialisation of products based on genetic resources,” the UN convention on biological diversity says.

“One example of monetary benefits could be the sharing of royalties arising from patented products based on genetic resources.”

Whether the protocol comes of a Convention on Biological Diversity summit to be held in Japan in October this year remains to be seen. And even if it does, will it really bring benefits to poor countries is another big question. In the World Summit on Sustainable Development in 2002, governments from around the world had agreed to achieve a significant reduction in the rate of biological diversity loss by 2010. The year is here, and all indications are that the deadline will be missed as the UN and international conservation organisations believe that the ongoing loss of species around the world is already affecting human well-being.

The regional picture is no better either. For all the lofty talk of the governments in the region to conserve cross-border Himalayan ecology in an integrated and coordinated way, we are yet to see matching actions. The upcoming SAARC summit to be held in Bhutan has climate as its main agenda. Will it be different from the regional grouping’s previous tall talk — and talks only, we will see. Meantime, Nepal can carry on doing what it can to conserve its own biodiversity. When climate change-triggered natural disasters strike, it will certainly pay. Not the climate sceptics who increasingly seem to be confusing this part of world.

(The author is a BBC journalist based in London)

No comments: