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Investing in biodiversity is investing in our future

/ 12:18 AM May 25, 2016

With presumptive President-elect Rodrigo Duterte’s agenda getting to be progressively developed, the observance of International Biodiversity Day last May 22 offered a timely reminder of the need for and importance of effectively managing the country’s natural wealth.

Few places in the world are as rich in biodiversity as the Philippines, which is considered one of 18 mega-biodiverse countries. The country is known to harbor more diversity of life per hectare than any other country in the world. This immense natural wealth—and this is a remarkable asset—however, faces significant risk. Over exploitation and unsustainable practices, encroachment on forested areas, pollution, over-fishing, poor land management, and natural disasters exacerbated by climate change are contributing significantly to an alarming rate of biodiversity loss.

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So what’s at stake? Some 52,000 recorded plant and animal species (the Philippines ranks fifth globally in the number of plant species); a total of 464 reef-building coral species, or nearly half of all known coral species in the world; an estimated 10,000 aquatic species, or approximately one fifth of all known species globally. In fact, the country’s marine waters are seen as the epicenter of marine biodiversity on earth.

Worryingly, this natural abundance is now on a watch list of biodiversity hot spots.  The Philippines has at least 700 species threatened with extinction. Forest cover has dwindled to a meagre 7.2 million hectares or 24 percent of the country’s total land area. Only 2 percent of the coral reef areas are in excellent condition.

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These numbers are not just a concern of aesthetics, of preserving natural beauty; they are also a critical economic and social issue. Biodiversity managed effectively can help reduce poverty, preserve livelihoods and traditional lifestyles, and make a significant contribution to national economic growth.  Note, almost 70 percent of the country’s population is dependent on the environment and natural resources for a living.

These resources utilized sustainably can make a remarkable difference in the lives of many Filipinos. Global sales of pharmaceuticals derived from genetic resources account for $75 billion to $150 billion. A study commissioned by the UN Development Programme found that the net present sustainable bioprospecting value of the Philippines’ forests is approximately $36 million annually in perpetuity. The goods and services provided by the marine coastal resources of the country are estimated to be over $556 million annually. And, of course, the correlation between conserving natural beauty and generating significant revenue from tourism is obvious.

If biodiversity management becomes effective, it will produce revenue, which in turn will provide the financing for biodiversity management. If the condition of their biodiversity is improved, the ecosystems’ contribution to resilience-building of communities and to mitigating the effects of anthropogenic and natural pressures (e.g., climate change), will become better and their ability to provide ecological goods will be enhanced. These are virtuous circles, indeed. So whether it is an economic or social argument, or something driven by a broader concern to ensure that highly diverse areas remain so, it is clear that we must immediately secure and enhance what is left of these resources.

A number of measures can be readily adopted.

First, spending on biodiversity has to increase. The government expenditure for biodiversity conservation during the period 2008-2013 is 0.08 percent of the GDP—and that is only 0.31 percent of the national budget.

Second, immediately secure the remaining pockets of biodiversity. For example, there are 1,816 “marine protected areas” (MPAs) throughout the Philippines, covering more than 400,000 ha. The challenge, however, is that only 10-15 percent of these MPAs have been effective in protecting the resources in them.

Finally, provide the incentives to consolidate and increase R&D investment in characterizing the country’s genetic pool in biodiversity areas.  Fast-tracking the translation of R&D results into commercialization through the private sector will provide not only significant returns on investment but a strong source of revenue for government.

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The repercussions of biodiversity loss are much more expensive than the cost of sustaining, protecting and managing biodiversity. The quantity and quality of water, food, pharmaceuticals, energy—almost everything that sustains life—suffer. We need to move quickly to viewing biodiversity as an investment that can deliver significant economic and social returns. It is possible. It is promising. And it would provide a major contribution to both economic development and poverty reduction in the

Philippines.

Titon Mitra is the country director of the UN Development Programme in the Philippines.

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TAGS: Biodiversity, Rodrigo Duterte, UN Development Programme
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