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Loss of Biodiversity and Extinctions — Global Issues


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  • by Anup Shah
  • This page last updated

On this page:

  1. Massive Extinctions From Human Activity
  2. Declining amphibian populations
  3. Reptiles threatened by climate change, deforestation, habitat loss, trade
  4. Dwindling fish stocks
  5. Declining Ocean Biodiversity
  6. Inland water ecosystems
  7. Loss of forests equates to a loss of many species
    1. Sustainable Forests or Sustainable Profits?
    2. Illegal Timber Trade on a Large Scale
    3. Legal Timber Trade on a Large Scale
    4. People and Forests
    5. More Information
  8. Misuse of land and resources
  9. Long Term Costs
  10. The Military and the Environment
  11. Attempts to promote biodiversity outweighed by activities against it
  12. Other Related Global Issues and Causes

Massive Extinctions From Human Activity

Despite knowing about biodiversity’s importance for a long time, human activity has been causing massive extinctions. As the Environment New Service, reported back in August 1999 (previous link): the current extinction rate is now approaching 1,000 times the background rate and may climb to 10,000 times the background rate during the next century, if present trends continue [resulting in] a loss that would easily equal those of past extinctions. (Emphasis added)

Research of long term trends in the fossil record suggests that natural speed limits constrain how quickly biodiversity can rebound after waves of extinction. Hence, the rapid extinction rates mean that it could take a long time for nature to recover.

Additionally, as reported by UC Berkeley, using DNA comparisons, scientists have discovered what they have termed as an evolutionary concept called parallelism, a situation where two organisms independently come up with the same adaptation to a particular environment. This has an additional ramification when it comes to protecting biodiversity and endangered species. This is because in the past what we may have considered to be one species could actually be many. But, as pointed out by scientists, by putting them all in one group, it under-represents biodiversity, and these different evolutionarily species would not be getting the protection otherwise needed.

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Reptiles threatened by climate change, deforestation, habitat loss, trade

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Dwindling fish stocks

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Declining Ocean Biodiversity

Increasing rapid ocean acidification, caused by the oceans absorbing more carbon dioxide than usual (because it is emitted by humans more than it should) also affects marine ecosystems, as explained on this site’s climate change and biodiversity page.

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Loss of forests equates to a loss of many species

© Centre for Science and Environment,
Campaign on Forests

A 20-year study has shown that deforestation and introduction of non-native species has led to about 12.5% of the world’s plant species to become critically rare. (In fact, as an example, a study suggests that the Amazon damage is worse than previously thought, due to previously undetected types of selective logging and deforestation.)

A report from the World Commission on Forests and Sustainable Development suggests that the forests of the world have been exploited to the point of crisis and that major changes in global forest management strategies would be needed to avoid the devastation.

What also makes this a problem is that many of the endangered species are only found in small areas of land, often within the borders of a single country.

New species of animals and plants are still being discovered. In Papua New Guinea, 44 new species of animals were discovered recently in the forests. Logging may affect these animals’ habitats, though. The loss of rainforests around the world, where many species of life are found will mean that potential knowledge, whether medicinal, sustenance sources, or evolutionary and scientific information etc. could be lost.

Brazil, which is estimated to have around 55,000 species of flora, amounting to some 22% of the world’s total and India for example, which has about 46,000 and some 81,000 animal species (amounting to some 8% of the world’s biodiversity), are also under various pressures, from corporate globalization, deforrestation, etc. So too are many other biodiverse regions, such as Indonesia, parts of Africa, and other tropical regions.

Sustainable Forests or Sustainable Profits?

The overly corporate-led form of globalization that we see today also affects how natural resources are used and what priorities they are used for.

It is true that cutting down forests or converting natural forests into monocultures of pine and eucalyptus for industrial raw material generates revenues and growth. But this growth is based on robbing the forest of its biodiversity and its capacity to conserve soil and water. This growth is based on robbing forest communities of their sources of food, fodder, fuel, fiber, medicine, and security from floods and drought.

Vandana Shiva, Stolen Harvest, (South End Press, 2000), p.1
(Image source: Wikipedia)

We hear more about sustainable forestry practices by the large logging multinationals. However, what does that really mean? Who is it sustainable for? Society and the environment, or for the logging companies? By replanting trees that will grow quickly and allow them to be felled for sustained logging sounds like a good strategy. However, the trees that are favored for this (eucalyptus) require a lot of water to grow so quickly. As John Madeley points out:

[T]he [eucalyptus] trees achieve this rapid growth by tapping large quantities of groundwater, impoverishing surrounding vegetation and threatening to dry up local water courses.

John Madeley, Big Business Poor Peoples; The Impact of Transnational Corporations on the World’s Poor, (Zed Books, 1999) p.76.

Madeley continues by describing the impact that the use of chemicals to treat woodpulp from the eucalyptus has on local fisheries and on food production. This has had terrible effects on indigenous people within such regions.

Illegal Timber Trade on a Large Scale

Some government institutions even buy illegal timber from pristine forests. For example, it is claimed that UK buys all of its Mahogany from pristine forests in Brazil where 80% of all timber is traded illegally. Even though Brazil has now tried to introduce a moratorium on Mahogany logging for two years, this has been slammed by some as too little, too late.

Legal Timber Trade on a Large Scale

Under much secrecy, there is a push from USA and Asian economies to reduce tariffs for wood and paper products. Also at the WTO Ministerial meeting in November 1999, opening more markets for easier access was the agenda, which included forests.

People and Forests

Quite often we make blanket statements or generalized conclusions that people are the cause of deforestation. While that is true, unfortunately all people around the world are not equal, and it also also follows that some are more responsible for deforestation than others. Often, in forests of the Amazon, Africa, or Asia, forest protection schemes have been promoted that go against indigenous peoples and cultures, rather than work with them.

As Indian activist and scientist Vandana Shiva and others have shown in countless work, indigenous people often have their cultures and lifestyle structured in a way that works with nature and would not undermine their own resource base. For example, in her book Stolen Harvests (South End Press, 2000) she describes how their traditional knowledge has been beneficial to the environment and has been developed and geared towards this understanding and respect of the ecosystems around them.

Hopetoun falls, Australia; an example of trying to preserve nature while allowing tourism. (Source: Wikipedia)

Yet because of blanket conclusions that humankind is responsible for deforestation, we risk assuming all types of societies are equally responsible for deforestation that is damaging to the environment. (This hints then, that for sustainable development projects, a more participatory approach can be accepted by local people, reducing the chance for conflict and distrust and therefore be more likely to succeed as well.)

As the cartoon, further above, from the Delhi-based Centre for Science and Environment notes, logging companies and others can often have a larger impact on deforestation. Industrial agriculture and beef production for example, is a major cause of deforestation in the Amazon, to raise cattle. This is not even for local needs, but to meet fast food restaurant demands in the Northern countries. A combination of geopolitics and economic agreements foster a scenario for such results to occur.

For more on this aspect of people and biodiversity, you can see also the following:

  • Centre for Science and Environment have a lot of resources on such issues. As an example, you can see:
    • Forest campaign
    • Pining for More, an article from their Down to Earth magazine (Vol 10, No 18 February 15, 2001). This article describes how Pine-based sustainable forests are not sustainable at all, and that Pine trees even make forest fires spread rapidly, while degrading local ecology, but grow fast, which is good for business.
  • Participatory Forest Management—Restoring Ecological Health and Enhancing Economic Opportunity in Sub-Saharan Africa, by Todd Beer, Grassroots Globalization Network, Summer 2002. This is a report looking at how local communities in Sub-Saharan Africa can be beneficial to sustainable forest management.
  • Vandana Shiva web site
  • On this web site’s population and environmental stress section, there is in-depth discussion on flawed and missed out assumption regarding ecological limits and factors that affect environmental degradation. These errors lead to often blaming the wrong groups of people for the problems and therefore lead to the promotion of inappropriate policies to deal with the issues.
  • Beef from this web site describes many aspects of deforestation and provides links and sources to other information.
  • Ogiek web site. This web site is about the Ogiek indigenous people of Kenya’s Mau Forest, and highlights an example of how they are being denied to live on their lands, for fears of deforestation issues. Yet, logging companies have an interest in this forest as well.
  • Saving forests: an inspiring success story from India from ID21 provides a summary of findings in India.

More Information

Some possible starting points for additional information include the following:

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Misuse of land and resources

How land is used to produce food can have enormous impacts on the environment and its sustainability. And this often has nothing to do with populations. Take the following as an example:

Junk-food chains, including KFC and Pizza Hut, are under attack from major environmental groups in the United States and other developed countries because of their environmental impact. Intensive breeding of livestock and poultry for such restaurants leads to deforestation, land degradation, and contamination of water sources and other natural resources. For every pound of red meat, poultry, eggs, and milk produced, farm fields lose about five pounds of irreplaceable top soil. The water necessary for meat breeding comes to about 190 gallons per animal per day, or ten times what a normal Indian family is supposed to use in one day, if it gets water at all.

… Overall, animal farms use nearly 40 percent of the world’s total grain production. In the United States, nearly 70 percent of grain production is fed to livestock.

… In Indian Agriculture, women use up to 150 different species of plants (which the biotech industry would call weeds) as medicine, food, or fodder. For the poorest, this biodiversity is the most important resource for survival. … What is a weed for Monsanto is a medicinal plant or food for rural people.

Vandana Shiva, Stolen Harvest, (South End Press, 2000), pp. 70-71, 104-105.

Because industrial agriculture promotes the use of monocultures, rather than a diversity of crops, the loss of biodiversity is leading to more resource usage, as described above. This as well as other political situations such as the motives for dumping surplus food on to developing countries to undersell the local farmers, leads to further hunger around the world.

For more information on land and hunger issues, this web site provides sections on:

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Long Term Costs

If ecosystems deteriorates to an unsustainable level, then the problems resulting can be very expensive, economically, to reverse.

In Bangladesh and India, for example, logging of trees and forests means that the floods during the monsoon seasons can be very deadly. Similarly, many avalanches, and mud slides in many regions around the world that have claimed many lives, may have been made worse by the clearing of so many forests, which provide a natural barrier, that can take the brunt of such forces.

As the Centre for Science and Environment mentions, factors such as climate change and environmental degradation can impact regions more so, and make the impacts of severe weather systems even worse than they already are. As they further point out, for poor regions, such as Orissa in India, this is even more of a problem.

Vanishing coral reefs, forests and other ecosystems can all take their toll and even make the effects of some natural events even worse.

The cost of the effects together with the related problems that can arise (like disease, and other illness, or rebuilding and so on) is much more costly than the maintenance and sustainable development practices that could be used instead.

As an example, and assuming a somewhat alarmist scenario, if enough trees and forests and related ecosystems vanish or deteriorate sufficiently:

  • Then the oxygen-producing benefits from such ecosystems is threatened.
  • The atmosphere would suffer from more pollution.
  • The cost to tackle this and the related illnesses, problems and other cascading effects would be enormous (as it can be assumed that industrial pollution could increase, with less natural ecosystems to soak it up)
  • Furthermore, other species in that ecosystem that would depend on this would be further at risk as well, which would lead to a downward spiral for that ecosystem.

Compare those costs to taking precautionary measures such as protecting forests and promoting more sustainable forms of development. Of course, people will argue that these situations will not occur for whatever reasons. Only when it is too late can others say told you so — a perhaps very nasty Catch 22.

Social costs to some segments of society can also be high. Take for example the various indigenous Indians of Latin America. Throughout the region, as aspects of corporate globalization spread, there is growing conflict between land and resources of the indigenous communities, and those required to meet globalization related needs. The following quote from a report on this issue captures this quite well:

Many of the natural resources found on Indian lands have become more valuable in the context of the modern global economy. Several factors have spurred renewed interest in natural resources on Indian lands in Latin America, among them the mobility of capital, ecological limits to growth in developed countries, lax environmental restrictions in underdeveloped nations, lower transportation costs, advances in biotechnology, cheap third world labor, and national privatization policies. Limits to logging in developed countries have led timber transnationals overseas. Increased demand and higher prices for minerals have generated the reopening of mines and the proliferation of small-scale mining operations. Rivers are coveted for their hydroelectric potential, and bioprospecting has put a price tag on biodiversity. Originally considered lands unsuitable for productive activities, the resources on Indian lands are currently the resources of the future.

Indian land rights and decisionmaking authority regarding natural resource use on territories to which they hold claim threaten the mobility of capital and access to resources—key elements of the transnational-led globalization model. Accordingly, increased globalization has generally sharpened national conservative opposition to indigenous rights in the Americas and elsewhere in the name of making the world safe for investment. The World Trade Organization (WTO), free trade agreements, and transnational corporations are openly hostile to any legislation that might create barriers to investment or the unlimited exploitation of natural resources on Indian lands. The result has been a growing number of conflicts between indigenous communities and governments and transnational corporations over control of natural resources.

Laura Carlsen, Indigenous Communities in Latin America: Fighting for Control of Natural Resources in a Globalized Age, Americas Program, (Silver City, NM: Interhemispheric Resource Center), July 26, 2002.

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The Military and the Environment

Many military forces of the world also have an effect on the environment. Sometimes, the scale of problems they leave when they move out of a training area or conflict is considerable. In some nations, such as the United States, the military can be exempt from many environmental regulations.

By no means a complete set of examples, the following illustrate some of the issues:

  • In the Gulf War and Kosovo crisis, the US and UK used depleted Uranium which have environmental consequences as well.
  • In the Vietnam war, the US used Agent Orange to defoliate the entire Vietnamese rainforest ecosystem. The effects are still being felt.
  • In the Democratic Republic of Congo, various forces often kill gorillas and other animals as they encroach upon their land.
  • In Okinawa, the large US military bases also affect the environment for the local population.
  • Vieques, Puerto Rico, the US use live rounds in bombing ranges, and low altitude flying for training. This also has had an effect on the environment.
  • A report prepared by the Institute for Policy Studies, April 2000, called The International Grassroots Summit on Military Base Cleanup provides a lot of details and many more examples.

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Why is it that these problems seem to be in developing countries? Don’t they know how to take care of their environment? That is what many ask in the industrialized nations. What people in the richer countries often fail to realize is that often their very own lending hand has been the one that takes most of what the environment has to offer, often in an unsustainable way. The debt that the poor countries are in has led to the stripping of resources in order to pay back what is owed. To learn more:

  • This web site’s look at Consumption and consumerism provides a deeper look at the enormous costs to society and to the environment by certain consumption habits. Given that the culture of consumption is so central to most societies today, it is often the system itself that is very wasteful.
  • This web site’s page on Debt and the Environment has more about the effects of debt on poverty and the environment.
  • this web site’s page on structural adjustment has more details of how debt has occurred and the structural adjustment policies that have led to governments stripping their environmental resources, reducing the cost of labor, exporting more to the industrialized countries, often without feeding their own people first, repaying more debt than spending on health or education, and so on.
  • We have seen a glimpse of how the environment is related to global policies that have caused poverty and how poverty can affect the environment. Slowly, projects are helping at the local level for people to take ownership of their environment and help foster a sustainable development cycle. However, globalization, in its current form may have additional effects on the environment too. To learn more about how trade and poverty in general are related, go to this web site’s section on Trade, Economy, & Related Issues.
  • The Genetically Engineered Food section in this web site also discusses issues to do with patenting foods and seeds and introduces issues to do with the importance of agricultural diversity and other issues related to patents on genetic resources.

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  • by Anup Shah
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