Biodiversity not adequately understood

S. Gopikrishna Warrier | Updated on March 12, 2018

The economic linkages of biological wealth are not well articulated in the public domain.

The upcoming biodiversity meet in Hyderabad is an occasion to raise public awareness on the subject.

It is the lesser known of the two framework conventions that emerged at the Rio Earth Summit of 1992; it also deals with a concept more difficult to comprehend. But the Convention on Biological Diversity is the international agreement that protects life on earth, and thereby, should be the base for all environmental discussions.

In 2012, India will host the most important meeting relating to the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) — the 11th Conference of Parties (COP-11) — at Hyderabad, from October 8-19. This fact is hardly known outside environment circles.

This is the first COP of the CBD process, after the United Nations declared 2011 to 2020 as the ‘Decade for Biodiversity'. Judging by past records, COP-11 and its preceding meetings can attract as many as 5,000 participants, including around 100 environment ministers. In addition to chairing the current COP, India will retain the presidency of the CBD process till the next COP in 2014.

Unlike the build-up to the COPs of the United Nations' Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), there is less media and public attention for COPs related to CBD. Each of the COPs related to the Climate Change Convention gets significant media and public attention. The Climate Change COPs in the recent years — held in Bali in 2007, Copenhagen in 2009, Cancun in 2010, and Durban in 2011 — got universal attention.


Though scientific opinion is still shying away from making conclusive connections between extreme weather events (which have been increasing in frequency in the recent years) and climate change, public opinion across countries has started making this connection. For instance, in August 2010, there were two major events happening simultaneously — floods in Pakistan and fires in Russia. The events were heavily reported, and there were references to climate change in the public discussions.

Public perception on biodiversity is much less clear. Though there is a vague understanding of the multiplicity of species on planet earth, there is no clarity on how this diversity gives stability to life, and also provides ecosystem services to villagers and city-dwellers. In India, this situation is ironic, since the country was the first to have a Biodiversity Act in 2002.

Starting almost immediately after the Rio Summit of 1992, the process of developing India's Biodiversity Act went through much public discussion. It legislatively reaffirmed that the biological diversity in the country was its sovereign property. It was built on the three goals of the CBD — conservation of biodiversity, encouraging its sustainable use, and making sure that the benefits arising from its use are equitably shared with those who helped in conserving the biological wealth in the first place.

The Biodiversity Act also put in place a three-tier structure to manage the biological diversity. The National Biodiversity Authority was established in Chennai in 2003. There are 26 state biodiversity boards, and biodiversity management committees in many local bodies.

In comparison, the institutions on climate change are more recent in India. The National Action Plan on Climate Change was released in June 2008 by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to work on eight national missions.


Only in January 2010 did the Government of India constitute an expert panel to develop low-carbon strategies for inclusive growth. The panel, headed by Planning Commission Member Kirit Parikh, was supposed to submit its interim report by April 2010, and the final report by September in that year. However, its interim report was made public only in May 2011, and the final report is still awaited.

Perhaps, the reason why biodiversity isn't so well-discussed as climate change is because the economic linkages of the biological wealth aren't so well articulated in the public domain. The economic costs of a flood or drought are visible, measurable. Deforestation in the Western Ghats, leading to the loss of a few species that are seen only in that location, isn't so tangible.

There have been international attempts at measuring the economic benefits from biodiversity. The report of The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity (TEEB) review process estimates benefits of US$ 3.7 trillion from avoiding greenhouse gas emissions through the conservation of forests. And this is just one ecosystem service function from biodiversity.

Even without complicated economic analysis, it is possible to feel the ecological and economic services from biodiversity in our day-to-day lives, wherever we are. While Delhi gets its drinking water from the Himalayas, Bengaluru and Mumbai get it from the Western Ghats. Even Chennai, on the distant coast, is dependent on the tropical forests in the Western Ghats to trap and release water into the Krishna river.

A river is, after all, a drainage channel for rain water, and only the health of the forests in the catchment decides if it would have water throughout the year.

The Bhavani river, originating from the evergreen shola-grasslands ecosystem of the Nilgiris, has water throughout the year, whereas the adjoining river Noyyal, originating from the less-vegetated mountain tracts, runs dry most months.


The trees in the forests trap atmospheric carbon-dioxide to grow biomass. Similarly, the carbon-rich soil on the forest floor holds carbon-dioxide. Deforestation and degradation of forests releases this into the atmosphere, aggravating climate change. Giving importance to the role of forests to prevent climate change, at the Copenhagen COP, a new instrument called ‘Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation of Forests' (REDD) was introduced, to channel funds for the preservation of forests.

The natural diversity in the form of food crops, land races and varieties has been the basis for agricultural research and food security. With agri-biotechnologies permitting mixing and matching genetic traits from within and outside the species, biodiversity is, and will remain, the driver for global agricultural growth.

The pharmaceutical and biotechnology industries draw their unique molecules from the naturally-occurring biological diversity. Genetic diversity is the basis for the pharmaceutical industry, and the TEEB report estimates that 25-50 per cent of the US$ 640 billion pharmaceutical market is derived from genetic resources. Bio-prospecting, or the process of looking for plant and animal genes that can have commercial prospects later, a $30 million market in 2008, can grow to $100 million in 2020.

Biological diversity across the globe continues to hold mystery, since only 1.3 million out of the estimated minimum of 8.7 million species of plants and animals have been identified. The danger of failing to understand the environmental and economic worth of biodiversity is that many of these species could be destroyed forever, even before they are documented and studied.

The Hyderabad COP provides an opportunity to focus national attention on biodiversity.

(The author is an independent journalist who has worked in international and national environment and development sectors.)

Published on March 02, 2012

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