Editorial: Towards sustainable development

Published in The Hindu on July 1, 2005

Biodiversity on this planet is shrinking faster than ever and over the past century, the extinction of species has reached unprecedented levels, or 1000 times their natural rates. Almost a quarter of the mammals, around a third of the amphibians, and 12 per cent of the bird species are facing extinction. The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment report titled “Ecosystems and Human Well-Being,” backed by the United Nations and prepared by scientists from 90 countries, states that the damage wrought by humans on biological diversity over the last 50 years has been formidable. The demand placed on the ecosystems is bound to grow further in the coming decades with increasing population and the consequent rise in consumption of biological and physical resources. Some of the ecosystems have already reached their peak capacity to provide services. Human induced impacts on ecosystems have severely affected global climate while some 40 per cent of the agricultural land has been degraded in the past half-century. Nearly 60 per cent of the gifts of the natural world, dubbed “economic services”, are either already degraded or are heading in that direction. And, the destruction of ecosystems is bound to continue with economic growth. One of the ways to stop this is to make people directly benefit by conserving the ecosystems. For instance, economic incentives for leaving the forests uncut are only now beginning to be devised. With human well-being so closely tied to ecosystems, the plundering and destruction should cease immediately.

The only solution for this malady is sustainable development, which implies preserving biodiversity for continued food security. For instance, the report points out that a hectare of mangrove left intact in a country like Thailand is worth more than $ 1000. The value drops to $ 200 when it is intensively farmed. But ever-growing demands on already degraded ecosystems seriously affect the prospects for sustainable development. The poor are particularly vulnerable. While the rich can access the benefits of ecosystems at a higher price, the marginalised population loses out. For the nearly 50 lowest-income countries located in the tropical and sub-tropical regions, with the population set to treble by 2050, increasing agricultural productivity becomes imperative. This will exert significant pressure on their ecosystems. Unfortunately, the human-induced climate change will see agricultural productivity of the tropics and sub-tropics compromised. This makes it necessary for the governments of the world to quickly understand the importance of spatial and temporal scales while dealing with the ecosystems. Any improved ecosystem management to enhance human well-being will call for a change in policies relating to rights and access to resources. While the imperative of development cannot be ignored, the need for giving the poor equitable and secure access to ecosystem services cannot be overlooked either.