The right to diversity

HM Queen Noor of Jordan describes how human survival depends on conserving the
richness of life, and proposes measures to promote it

Diversity is our richest resource. As individuals, as families, as nations, we rejoice in our uniqueness. We celebrate our originality everywhere – in our professional endeavours, in our human relations, in our cultural identities. Yet we all abuse the most critical level of differentiation – our biodiversity. Every ecosystem, every species, every gene is unique and yet vital in its interaction with other elements for the well-being both of our planet and, ultimately, of humankind.

As we enter the new millennium, we are confronted by the enormous impact our forebears, our generation, younger generations and future generations have had and will have on our planet. We have the statistics and charts which demonstrate our irresponsible misuse of all we have mistakenly taken for granted. We can no longer afford simply to reflect on the insufficient advances being made to stem the mounting degradation. We must unite and act now to reverse it, to ensure that our legacy to future generations is a sustainable, healthy and harmonious planet. We must make the business community, the decision-makers and the general public more acutely aware of the unparalleled loss of our planet’s productive capacity and of how each and every one of us has a role to play in repairing centuries of decline.

Biological diversity, or biodiversity, describes the sheer variety of life on Earth – plants, animals and micro-organisms and the ecosystems and ecological processes of which they are a part. We cannot yet fully grasp the enormity of the interrelations among all ecosystems, species and microscopic organisms, so vast and complex is their network. Some 1.4 million species have been scientifically described. But biologists believe there are at least 13 million, and maybe 50 million or more.

We are only dimly aware of the future effects of our actions, as we do not know the full consequences of losing a species or a habitat. That is why we, and all generations, must take greater responsibility for our actions. We must resist the temptation to exploit biodiversity resources for short-term gains at the risk of undermining their long-term value.

Vital contribution
Wild species and their genetic variations make contributions worth billions of dollars to agriculture, to medicine, to industry every year. Sponges from the Caribbean, for example, combat rejection of organ transplants. Plant-based medicines provide primary health care to some 75 per cent of the world’s population, mostly in developing countries where commercial alternatives are unaffordable or unavailable. Nature-oriented tourism now represents 40 to 60 per cent of all international tourism.

Many of nature’s products are consumed directly without ever passing through a market, and so have little or no monetary value in an increasingly market-driven and globalized economy. But many indigenous and local people rely on them for survival.

Indeed the survival of all humanity depends on biological diversity. While the value of each individual species isn’t always apparent, collectively they provide the base for perpetuating human life on Earth. Yet we are destroying biodiversity at an alarming rate. The pressure on species and ecosystems has never been greater. We all contribute to this every time we destroy the habitat of a species, every time we introduce an invasive one, whether intentionally or not. We are responsible whenever we cause or permit pollution, climatic change, deforestation or desertification. And the alarming growth of human population – increasing from approximately 1 billion at the beginning of the 19th century to more than 6 billion today – has led to massive overexploitation of our dwindling natural resources.

Accelerating extinctions
Estimates of the rate of loss vary, but ecologists agree that we will lose possibly half of all species on Earth within this century. Extinction, of course, happens naturally, but recent findings indicate that it is taking place at least ten times faster than previously believed. The depletion of the world’s tropical forests provides one dramatic indicator of this. Home to 50 to 90 per cent of life’s diversity, they are being destroyed at a rate of about 17 million hectares annually – an area four times the size of Switzerland.
Humanity is part of nature and all parts of it – not just humankind – have an inherent right to exist
The many reasons for destruction of biodiversity include desperate human need, ignorance, shortsightedness, greed – and often a combination of all of these. Poverty and environmental degradation are often interrelated. Lack of money drives many people – and countries – to exhaust their natural resources through deforestation, unsustainable fishing and agriculture, illegal mining or the wildlife trade: the list is endless. People are obliged to strip their resources bare to meet the demands of local and international markets. They are then forced to adopt short-term survival strategies to eke out a living: longer-term resource management becomes an unaffordable luxury.

Enormous scientific strides have led the way to more sophisticated technology, sounder conservation policies and legislation, and more widely adopted international conventions. But this technical approach is not enough. Conservation must begin in the minds and souls of people. Effective approaches must encompass measures based on both science and emotion, and channel the energy, knowledge, motivation, time and money of the millions of people around the world who care about nature towards conservation objectives.

Starting point
Our values are formed through our ethical and religious traditions and our schooling – and these, perhaps, present starting points for action. The ethical and religious values of biodiversity are rooted in the understanding that humanity is part of nature and that all parts of it – not just humankind – have an inherent right to exist. Future generations have a similar right to know and enjoy them and to choose to use them or not.

Our religious beliefs should have a critical impact on our attitude towards nature conservation. The perception of nature may vary from one faith to another but, ultimately, all religions unite in conserving biodiversity. They should enhance and expand precepts and initiatives to translate this into everyday actions by the faithful.

Education is also vital. Conserving biodiversity must be based both on preserving traditional knowledge and on modern understanding. These require basic schooling and capacity-building. How can we succeed while 20 per cent of the world’s population is illiterate and more than 110 million children – almost all in developing countries and two-thirds of them girls – do not attend school? These children, when they grow up, will be ill-equipped to make crucial choices about resource consumption and reproduction. We must encourage schools and universities in every country to include awareness-building in their curricula and to promote programmes to help make humanity the guardian, rather than the predator, of biodiversity.

All people derive comfort and delight from the diversity of nature and the miracles of life. For millennia, its aesthetic value has been expressed through art, poetry, song, literature, music and dance. The privilege of admiring the miracle of life should be a perpetual right for future generations. It is our solemn duty to ensure that they, like us, can benefit from its bounty and enjoy its richness.

Our generation’s opportunity and challenge is to transform our newfound awareness of the long-term dangers associated with the continued destruction of biodiversity into positive actions that allow us to both protect and to use our global life assets. If we fail, this third millennium may be the last

Her Majesty Queen Noor of Jordan is Patron of IUCN, The World Conservation Union, and RSCN, Royal Society for the Conservation of Nature in Jordan, a Member of the WWF International Board of Trustees and Honorary President of Birdlife International.

PHOTOGRAPH: Soo Wee Ming/UNEP/Still Pictures

This issue:
Contents | Editorial K. Toepfer | The right to diversity | Gain, not pain | Changing course | From summit to summit | Empowering the poor | The environment millennium | Focus On Your World | Competition | A critical priority | Flashing indicators | Sea changes | No wires attached | Now for vigorous action | Malmö Ministerial Declaration | Young, impatient and soon to be in charge | Green spot in Africa

Complementary articles in other issues:
Issue on Biological Diversity, 2000, including:
Maritta Koch-Weser: Getting it together
Ted Turner: Critical crossroads
Issue on Culture, Values and the Environment, 1996, including:
John Gummer: Valuing the environment
Fazlun Khalid: Guardians of the natural order
Robert May: Melding heart and head (Beyond 2000) 2000
L.Val Giddings: A new green revolution (UNEP – Looking Forward) 1999
Vernon Heywood: Mapping the web of life (UNEP 25) 1997