Biodiversity Coldspots: Ecological Sufficiency, Not Expediency

The desirability of targeting conservation spending towards biodiversity
hotspots
, to the degree presently occurring, is seriously questioned in the
current issue of the journal American Scientist. Biodiversity hotpots are regions
that have high concentrations of endemic species (species found nowhere else)
and have already suffered a high degree of habitat destruction. This is a VERY
important article. In a measured, scientific manner the authors raise issues of
profound importance for prospects of achieving biodiversity protection and
global ecological sustainability.
More and more scientists and advocates are warning that directing conservation
funds nearly exclusively to hotspots is “bad investment advice” and “may be a
recipe for major losses in the future”. This is particularly true as “the hot-spot
concept has grown so popular in recent years within the larger conservation
community that it now risks eclipsing all other approaches”. I and other
ecological contrarians have raised this issue many times in our writings over
past years.
Targeting conservation towards the 1.4% of the Earth's land which holds nearly
half of the World's vascular plant species has become highly in vogue in recent
years. Groups as diverse as the World Bank and Conservation International
have championed the approach. The other big conservation players such as
The Nature Conservancy and WWF implicitly favor this approach through
placement of their offices and their prioritization processes. Conservation
International alone has reaped hundreds of millions of dollars in donations to
pursue the approach. Yet the hotspot concept has largely not been critically
examined.
Conservation in the broad sense is not well-served by focusing too exclusively
on biodiversity to the detriment of ecosystem functionality and other measures
of ecological importance. What is to happen to the other 98.6% of the Earth's
land mass? These non-hotspot areas are referred to as “Biodiversity
Coldspots” in the article. Many biodiversity coldspots provide crucial global and
local ecosystem processes, contain unique evolutionary lineages and rare
species, encompass the last major wilderness landscapes, provide habitat for
wide-ranging animal species, and may have national policy environments more
conducive to conservation success. And all coldspots would benefit from
higher levels of protection, conservation management and restoration.
The article summarizes the conundrum nicely: “If we measure success simply
by tallying up total species protected, we risk the folly of allowing major
ecosystems to degrade beyond repair simply because they do not provide
lengthy species lists”. Such an approach “could well bring on an unfortunate
side effect: more degradation of global ecosystems than would take place if a
more broadly based strategy were used”. And my favorite quotation from the
article: “How much of a victory would it actually be if people did manage to
conserve only the 1.4 percent of the Earth's land surface… The reality is people
must make conservation progress everywhere”.
The biodiversity hotspots concept was initially intended largely as a temporary
triage measure, and does have merit in this regard. But it has inaccurately
become the accepted primary paradigmatic solution to the “biodiversity crisis” -
a classic example of failing to see the forests through the trees. It is a
feel good strategy that secures lots of money for the big corporate NGOs, and
provides environmental cover for the World Bank's general environmental
neglect. Indeed, foundations, international agencies and NGOs “have been
seduced by the simplicity of the hotspot idea”.
Sure, conservation prioritization schemes are necessary. But not at the
expense of feel-good solutions that do not achieve the ultimate conservation
goals of global ecological sustainability and lasting improvements in the human
condition. It is noted in the review of the article below that “even if people
succeeded in preserving a single viable population of every species on earth…
the human race would die out unless it managed to protect the ecosystems that
support broader populations of plants, animals and people too.”
Conservation leaders are sending the wrong message at the wrong time
because it is less threatening to entrenched political, economic and social
interests than the truth. Biodiversity hotspots as THE conservation strategy is
as far as the big boys think they can go without rocking the boat. Society can
continue consuming for consumption's sake, remaining large primary forests
can be plundered, and disparities in social justice and economic conditions are
not an environmental issue. For how much longer can conservation solutions
be proposed that are inadequate to the task at hand?
The global ecological situation is such that the Planet, humanity and all its
occupants are imminently threatened. The major challenge facing conservation
is not “saving” some species rich remnants as non-viable museum like eco-
relicts of the past. In addition to more focus upon protecting, conserving and
restoring spatially extensive forest and other terrestrial ecosystems, we must
set out to 1) increase the scale of conservation funding exponentially, 2)
communicate accurately and urgently the need to pursue policies that are
sufficient rather than expedient, and 3) build political resolve to do so.
Together these priorities should 4) seek to foster and bolster an ecological ethic
in all, build recognition of the living Earth, and emphasize the oneness
of the human family.
The World is in a period of self-denial. Perhaps the greatest challenge facing
conservation is development of persuasive communication techniques adequate
to illuminate the importance of biological and ecological processes to our lives,
while there is still time for ambitious remedial policy options, and before the
global ecological system collapses. I and many thousand of other small NGOs
and individuals remain committed to investigating and expounding upon what is
sufficient for ecological and species sustainability, rather than what is expedient
or sells well.

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