As the world moves further in to the 21st century there is no question that biodiversity is under threat from several sources. Perhaps the greatest of them all is the sheer ignorance of what it comprises. Put simply biodiversity refers to the number of species of wild plants and animals country possesses. The late Indian environmental journalist, Anil Agarwal, who founded the center for science and environment in Delhi, used to say that the gross nature product is more important than the gross domestic product for the poor majority in developing countries. One can extend this rhetorical statement to argue threat the greater a country’s biodiversity, the richer it is potentially.
By the 2050 the world is expected to have nine billion people, as against six billion today. The tragedy is that while the biggest source of biodiversity are in tropical countries, they are the least informed about what they possess, leading to charges of “bio-piracy” against the industrial countries which plunder these resources and make extrapolate profits on them.
The UN base convention on biological diversity in place since 1993, which has been signed by most countries, cut the protection it offers to countries to protect their natural resources remains largely on paper.
One of the biggest threats to biodiversity is conversion of forestlands to produce more crops. While it is true that the bulk of the food grown by 2050 will come down increasing the productivity of existing farmland, an additional 120 million hectares will have to be brought under the plough in developing countries in the next 30 years, according to the food and agricultural organization. Most of this will be in Latin America and sub-Saharan Africa as half the unused cropland lies in just seven countries- Argentina, Brazil, Bolivia, Columbia, Sudan, Angola and the democratic republic of Congo (DRC). These are among the 25 most biodiverse countries in the world.
The International democratic conservation of nature estimates that as many as 350 species of bird or 3.5 percent of such fauna may be extinct in 50 years. Birds are vital indicators of the vitality of the ecosystems.
Another danger is to the marine ecosystem largely due to over fishing. As is well documented fishing vessels hunt for main lucrative species like shrimp. When they trawl the oceans they regularly dump the other species beaks in to the sea, which is an ecological disaster. According to United Nations environment programs world conservation monitoring center large species like whaler bird has been hunted to near extinction apart from being polluted from marine sources, the marine ecosystems to cope with a new hazard, which is rapid spread of aquaculture.
Shrimp is being “ farmed” along beasts which the natural balance of these sensitive areas, while a few countries also now breeding species like rana known as chick pea of the sea” – in giant cages submerged in the oceans.
One of the little known and highly controversial, hazards is due to global warming, which is already changing ecosystems at an alarming rate. The inter- governmental- panel on climate change which consists of 2,500 scientists from around the world, estimates that the average global surface temperature surface will be up to two degrees Celsius higher in 2050 and atmospheric accumulation of carbon dioxide will be much higher too. As some areas grow hotter while other’s become cooler or wetter, not to mention the wide spread inundation of low-lying coastal areas, flora and fauna are exposed to drastic changes.
A final threat emanates from genetically modified (GM) crops, which narrow the number of plants being grown on farms. Between 1996 and 1999 for instance the amount of land devoted to such areas in United States shot up from 10 million to 20million. At the turn of the century that half of Soya bean and cotton crop and nearly a third of them was genetically engineered. Apart from secondary for genetic base, there is a risk of some of these genes escaping in to the wild relatives of the crops. GM crops have also known to kill the caterpillars of a species of butterfly, leading to extinction. Elsewhere the spraying of crops with insecticide against which the GM crop was genetically protected has led to the decline of birds there.
Biodiversity offers considerable promise for food, medicine, and fiber. Even before the advent of biotechnology, the world was already far too dependent on four or five main crops for food – rice, wheat, corn, and potato. The grater the variation in plants in different ecological niches around the world, the better is for food security. History is replete with example- where staples were wiped out by disease. On the other hand, there is the example of tropical plant, which can yield for substance 1600 times sweeter than sugar, though scientists have not yet been able to produce commercially.
Many countries that use traditional systems of medicine know only too well that the forest is a storehouse of invaluable plants, which can cure a wide range of ailments. In India, the practice of Ayurveda (a traditional system of medicine) has been very adversely affected by the wanton destruction of forests and other natural habitats in the U.S., a quarter of all drugs sold in pharmacies is derived from plants. Another 13 percent originates from microorganisms and 3 percent more from animals. Thus as much as 40 percent of pharmaceuticals even in U.S are derived from wild plants and animals.
India is an example of a developing country where nearly seven percent of world crops originated including rice, mango and pepper. It is blessed with great variations in climate and topography making it rich in biodiversity. However destruction of the habitats and severe land degradation is posing major threats to these precious resources. This has led to loss of traditional agro-systems, which have high crop and livestock diversity. According to National Biodiversity strategies and action plan (NBSAP), the biggest recent threat the large scale introduction of exotics and modern cross breeds, both as far as plants and domesticated animals are concerned. High yielding varieties of wheat, for instance, have replaced indigenous varieties in the green revolution areas. Extensive cross breeding has threatened the existence of local dairy animals, like Toda buffalo.
NBSAP, drawn up two years ago, recommends might declare certain area off-limits for major development projects. It also calls for an ecosystem tax in cities, since urban areas draw water and wood from forests and a tax on the seed, pharmaceutical, cosmetics and biotechnology industries. Tourists too ought to pay a tax for benefiting from preservation of natural habitats. It has also proposed more public participation through hearings and biodiversity festivals in protecting India’s biodiversity.