Today's date:
Fall 2000

Winning the War on Biodiversity Conservation

James D. Wolfensohn
is president of the World Bank. Peter A. Seligmann is chairman and CEO of Conservation International. Mohamed T. El-Ashry is chairman and CEO of the Global Environment Facility.

Pasadena, Calif.–Over the last 10 years the international community has spent some $4 billion to conserve biological diversity. This has paid for a lot of good work, and we have scored some important wins. But overall we are failing to stem the lethal dynamic of chronic poverty and growing population, which is destroying species a thousand times faster than ever before. We need to do conservation differently if we are to cope with the potentially catastrophic impact of these pressures on the natural systems that support life on Earth.

Let us start with one of the success stories. Along the coast of Brazil, the pressures on the Atlantic rain forest are gradually receding as local communities, private groups and state governments work together to put in place an action plan to safeguard the unique habitat they share with 20,000 different kinds of plants, of which more than 8,000 are found nowhere else in the world. They have come to understand and explain to others that there are viable alternatives to deforestation. Increasingly, they see more opportunities in protecting the forest–for tourism and other productive uses–than in cutting it down.

Africa and Asia also offer compelling examples of how we can turn the destructive tide by working together and setting priorities. Projects with strong community support show that it is possible to fight poverty by protecting the ecosystems that underpin water resources, agriculture and rural livelihoods. Unfortunately, there is far more evidence to the contrary: of outright destruction proceeding apace in the face of what are too often uncoordinated attempts to do the right thing.

The result is that some 12 percent of mammal species and 11 percent of birds and plants are threatened with extinction. This is bad news for us all but particularly for poor people in the developing world. For them, conserving biodiversity is not just about long-term welfare. It is about survival, because so many of them depend on the habitats that support biodiversity for their daily needs.

Deforestation in the Sierra Madre watershed in the northern Philippines poses a threat to the region’s biodiversity and people, but also to those in metro Manila hundreds of miles to the south who depend on the Sierra Madre Mountains for their water supply. Meanwhile, the fury of Hurricane Mitch vented on the bare hillsides of Central America set back development in many parts of the region by 40 years.
It is easy to throw up our arms in despair. We have swapped national debt for nature, negotiated international conventions, signed solemn agreements and implemented hundreds of projects. What more can we do? Our three agencies have taken a look at what works and what does not, and tried to come up with a practical approach to better safeguard biodiversity by complementing the many efforts already underway.
If we are to make a real difference, we must involve poor people and communities more centrally in the management of their lives and the stewardship of our shared natural resources. In other words, we need an approach that places ordinary citizens front and center in the fight to conserve biodiversity.

Where to begin? All species and their habitats are important. But some areas are more richly endowed than others. Some 60 percent of all terrestrial species are found in 25 so-called "hot spots" that make up just 1.4 percent of Earth’s total surface area. The list includes places such as Madagascar, West Africa and the Tropical Andes in South America. All are in critical condition and offer enormous returns in terms of species conserved. Arguments about economic efficiency bolster biological ones in suggesting we need to focus more attention on the natural wealth of these places.

Action at the grass roots and geographic focus are only part of the solution. We also need to learn to work together in new, turfless ways. For too long, conservation groups and funding agencies have divided the natural world up into pizza-like slices, with each doing its own thing and failing to coordinate with others working just across the river or mountain range. In the Mayan forests of Central America, park service teams on either side of national borders have no contact with each other, yet they are working on the same ecosystem and confront the same problems. This makes no sense. We must find ways to share our visions, to set priorities together and to forge a consensus about how to go forward.

To this end, our three organizations have joined together to create the Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund with a budget of $150 million. This is a new source of money exclusively for civil-society groups working to protect biodiversity in the hot spots. The aim is to help agencies and communities pull together more effectively and have a greater impact by providing information about what others are doing and underwriting crucial activities that otherwise would not be funded.

The partnership will be flexible enough to ensure that conservation investments achieve maximum impact. Streamlined decision-making procedures will allow quick responses to new threats and for urgent smaller scale projects. Grant guidelines will be available on the Internet, and applications can be submitted online.

We have to move fast if we are to create realistic alternatives for poor people and thereby relieve the growing pressures on the natural environment. This new Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund will help us find solutions that allow poor people to have a better way of life while at the same time conserving the biodiversity on which the long-term survival of us all depends.

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