Critical crossroads

Ted Turner
calls for an urgent change in attitude towards biodiversity and describes what his foundations are doing to help bring it about

Modern human society is systematically wiping  out life on Earth. This may sound alarmist, but it is true.

Our best scientists now predict that up to two-thirds of all species may be exterminated by the end of this century. If this forecast bears out, many of the animals and plants that comprise the unique natural heritage of communities and countries around the world will disappear. In their place will be a smattering of opportunistic and globally adaptable creatures that thrive in disturbed environments. In other words, envision a world where cockroaches, rats and pigeons take over from butterflies, tigers and parrots.

This epidemic of extinction is one of the foremost crises facing our society, and it threatens to leave the human race with a greatly impoverished planet. Yet, despite the magnitude of the problem, public pressure to act and political will to change the status quo are sorely lacking. Why? We need to do a better job at calculating and articulating the value of biodiversity and at finding innovative ways for biodiversity to ‘earn its keep’.

While the scientific and moral arguments for protecting biodiversity are cogent, they are not enough to win the day. The general public usually does not argue with the abstract value of protecting species and preserving habitat, but it will not be spurred to action until the case is made strongly and repeatedly that it is in everyone’s best interest to preserve biodiversity, even in the face of a world plagued by poverty.

Traditionally, the avenue for attaining wealth has been plundering natural resources, and the history of the United States of America is a telling example. We have chopped down 93 per cent of our old growth forests, ploughed under 98 per cent of our native prairies, and filled in more than 50 per cent of our wetlands. For this, we are now suffering the consequences. A host of species dependent upon these systems are now extinct or endangered, and we wrestle daily with the challenges of poor air quality, urban sprawl and overdevelopment. Our current challenge, therefore, is to promote a new development paradigm where the preservation and restoration of biodiversity becomes a credible alternative to its destruction.

This is not only doable, it is being done. For example, the Turner Endangered Species Fund (TESF), a United States-based non-governmental organization, is working to conserve biodiversity by ensuring the persistence of imperilled species and their habitats. In the process, TESF is working to promote a new way of valuing the land – one not measured in metres or hectares planted, but rather in functioning natural ecosystems and flourishing native flora and fauna. Moreover, TESF projects illustrate that private landowners can substantially contribute to the conservation of nature and still benefit financially.

Conservation measures
At the global level, biodiversity is a core priority of the United Nations Foundation (UNF), a public charity established to support the United Nations and its causes. UNF is using its resources to try to increase the benefits that developing countries will reap by taking measures to conserve their flora and fauna. One specific UNF emphasis is on World Heritage Sites, which are nominated by the nations where they are located and recognized by the United Nations for their ‘outstanding universal value’.
We need to do a better job at calculating and articulating the value of biodiversity

These places, which include the United Republic of Tanzania’s Serengeti National Park, Ecuador’s Galapagos Islands, and India’s Manas Wildlife Sanctuary, contain some of the most important and significant natural habitats in the world for conserving biodiversity. If these great places are to endure, the challenge is to help countries realize benefits from protecting them, from the local level on up. In this vein, UNF has funded an initiative with the United Nations Development Programme and the Small Grants Program of the Global Environment Facility (GEF) to support the development of economic alternatives for communities surrounding World Heritage Sites. The project seeks to promote innovative ways for people living near these sites to benefit from their presence in such a way that does not harm and even enhances conservation objectives.

Benefits need not solely be economic. In an increasingly homogenous world, a country’s natural heritage is one of a diminishing set of truly unique attributes and, as such, should be a unifying force for national identity and pride. As UNF further develops its programmes, it will be looking for opportunities to use World Heritage Sites as vehicles for raising national awareness about biodiversity and the importance of protecting it.

Long-term investment
One UNF project that is worthy of note is in Suriname, where the Government has taken a bold step to protect a vast area of undisturbed tropical forest. The recently designated Central Suriname Nature Reserve, which has been nominated for World Heritage status, comprises about 10 per cent of Suriname’s entire land area. Rather than opting to liquidate this resource for timber extraction, Suriname has instead decided to make a long-term investment in the trees, rivers, birds and animals it contains. UNF, along with Conservation International, the GEF and others, has established a trust fund to provide ongoing revenue for the Reserve’s management. This is a first step toward delivering to Suriname a return on its investment.

The real hope down the road, however, is that Suriname and others who similarly invest in protecting and restoring nature’s wealth will benefit in far larger ways. What might the carbon locked up in these pristine forests be worth one day? How great will the tourist demand be for unspoiled, wild places, as our population grows and we become increasingly urbanized? How important will intact watersheds be for maintaining water quality and quantity for the world’s people? One can only speculate.

We are now at a critical crossroads. We can sit back, accept the status quo and watch as dire scientific predictions become reality. Or we can work together systematically and urgently toward realizing a future where civilization values vibrant ecosystems and healthy wildlife populations as highly as skyscrapers and superhighways. Once we recognize that biodiversity loss is an impediment to human development – and not its natural consequence – we will be able to tackle this crisis head on  

Ted Turner is Vice Chairman of Time-Warner Inc. and founder of CNN.

PHOTOGRAPH: Ronald Wilson/UNEP/Topham

This issue:
Contents | Editorial K. Toepfer | Critical crossroads| Genetically engineered crops... | Sustainable solutions | Protect elephants | Getting it together | CITES: 2000 and beyond | At a glance | Competition | Interpol alert | Deep waters, high stakes | Tall trees and bottom lines | Globalizing solutions | Global Biodiversity... | Walking on the wild side... | Voices of the Earth | Millennium massacre

Complementary articles in other issues:
Sixto J. Incháustegui and Elizabeth Mook: Pride and participation (Small Islands) 1999
Claude Martin: Millennial warning (Looking Forward) 1999
Edgardo Gomez: Fragile coasts (Oceans) 1998
Andrew Hamilton: A vulnerable global heritage (Freshwater) 1998
Arthur Lyon Dahl: Measuring the unmeasurable (Human Settlements) 1996