The people who live along and fish the Mekong River within the Stung Treng protected wetland in northeast Cambodia may not be aware that they’re within the boundaries of the Indo-Burma Biodiversity Hotspot—one of 36 global terrestrial regions of very high biological diversity that are under extreme threat. But they know that nature has long provided much of the food they eat and supported their living through the fish and rice they sell. And they have witnessed disturbing changes.
Increasing demand from domestic and foreign markets is putting pressure on the once-abundant fish supply. Poverty and food insecurity have led to increasing land conversion to agriculture and the use of chemicals to improve productivity. These changes are straining the ecosystem’s ability to support biodiversity and local communities.
“In the past we could collect many fruits and vegetables from the forest. There were many big trees in the surrounding area,” said Touch Polen, fish seller and processor from O’Roun Village, in a video interview with WorldFish, a civil society conservation organization working on fisheries in Stung Treng. “Now there is nothing left in the forest. So, we all flocked to the river.”
To help these communities and the ecosystem—including IUCN Red-Listed species that have also traditionally been significant food sources such as the Critically Endangered Mekong giant catfish (Pangasianodon gigas) and the Endangered Jullien’s golden carp (Probarbus jullieni)—civil society organizations such as WorldFish and the Cambodian Institute for Research and Rural Development are working with villages in the area to sustainably manage the fish supply and improve agricultural practices to limit negative impacts. Through such projects, communities are empowered to work with government to manage the sources of their nutrition and livelihoods with a view to the future, and to use approaches such as eco-labeling of rice and other products to maximize the benefits of environmentally friendly agriculture.
This year’s observance of International Day for Biological Diversity is focused on the theme of “Our Biodiversity, Our Food, Our Health.” There’s never been a more appropriate time to talk about the links among these elements. As we stand now in the shadow of twin disasters for the global environment—climate change and the species extinction crisis—we must recognize that biological diversity is life on Earth, and what threatens biodiversity threatens us all. “We are losing biodiversity as never before in human history,” said Carlos Manuel Rodriguez, minister of the environment and energy for Costa Rica, in response to the recently released summary of the global biodiversity assessment from the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES). “We are destroying the life-supporting system of the planet.”
Up to 1 million species are threatened with extinction, many within decades, according to the report. This in turn undermines food production and human health. Striking data found in the report include:
- 23 percent of land areas have seen a reduction in productivity due to land degradation.
- More than 75 percent of global food crop types rely on animal pollination.
- US$235 to US$577 billion is the annual value of global crop output at risk due to pollinator loss.
- More than 9 percent of all domesticated breeds of mammals used for food and agriculture had become extinct by 2016, with at least 1,000 more breeds still threatened.
- US$100 billion: estimated level of financial support in OECD countries (2015) to agriculture that is potentially harmful to the environment.
- 70 percent: the proportion of cancer drugs that are natural or synthetic products inspired by nature.
- +/-4 billion: people who rely primarily on natural medicines.
Approaches like those implemented in the Cambodia projects are precisely the kind of practical, grassroots action that needs to be quickly scaled up, replicated and/or adapted around the globe to move toward the “transformative changes” urged in the IPBES report.
The Global Environment Facility, through its support to entities such as the Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund (CEPF) and the GEF Small Grants Program, has long supported the empowerment of local communities through civil society-based conservation efforts. Other global conservation donors have also contributed significantly to such approaches over the years, funding partnerships that deliver resources to grassroots conservation. The result has been many successful, small-scale conservation efforts that are often limited by a paucity of long-term financial and political resources. But it does not have to be this way.
Relatively small investments go a long way in the world of civil society organizations and can strengthen these entities as partners to governments in pursuit of meeting nations’ obligations to global treaties such as the U.N. Convention on Biological Diversity’s Aichi Targets and the Sustainable Development Goals. A surge in funding to this constituency is one of the most effective and immediate steps the world could take to turn things around.
While this Biological Diversity Day focuses this year on human nutrition and health, these are just a few of the aspects of life on Earth that are at stake when biodiversity’s future is threatened. But it’s not too late. We can change course. And civil society stands ready for the world to fully tap its potential as part of the solution to one of the most important challenges we have ever faced.
CEPF is a joint initiative of l’Agence Française de Développement, Conservation International, the European Union, the Global Environment Facility, the Government of Japan and the World Bank. www.cepf.net