Reconciling poverty eradication and conservation

Speech by IUCN Director General Julia Marton-Lefèvre at the international conference “Reconciling poverty eradication and quality of the environment: what are the innovative solutions?” Paris, France, 27 June.

Poverty in the landscape

The links between poverty and environment have been widely discussed ever since Indira Gandhi sparked a global debate on the relationship between poverty, economic growth and environment in her famous remarks at the 1972 Stockholm Conference that “Poverty is the greatest polluter”.

Today, just one year before the 40th anniversary of the Stockholm Conference and 20 years since the Rio Earth Summit, the moment is right to reflect on how far we have come in our thinking and action on achieving poverty eradication and biodiversity conservation goals.

Despite some remarkable achievements on both fronts, poverty is still far from being history while biodiversity is increasingly becoming one.

With the exception of climate change, aid flows to environment and conservation have been declining and are far below the levels needed to combat poverty and sustain the world’s ecosystems—and this trend is set to continue as many governments are putting their aid budgets and priorities under close scrutiny in response to the ongoing economic and financial crisis.

Dispelling the myths

However, one thing is for sure. Over the past four decades, we have generated many myths about poverty and environment that today we must dispel.

The first myth is that biodiversity—the variety of life on Earth—is simply something “nice to have”, once the more pressing human needs have been met.

Today we have an overwhelming scientific and, increasingly, economic evidence that our very survival on this planet is not possible without the life-support services provided by nature—food, water, medicine, shelter, clean air, and so on.

All of us, but particularly the world’s poor, depend on these essential products and services that healthy biodiversity and ecosystems provide.

And yet we are losing these vital natural assets faster than ever before.

Escalating extinction

Last week, IUCN published the latest update of its flagship Red List of Threatened Species, which found that of some 60,000 animals and plants assessed, a staggering 19,265 species are currently threatened with extinction.

Two-thirds of the world’s ecosystems are in serious decline and some are close to the so-called “tipping points”.

For example, 70% of coral reefs worldwide are threatened or destroyed. These ecosystems provide food, storm protection, jobs, recreation and other income sources for more than 500 million people worldwide with an average annual value estimated at $172 billion, according to the groundbreaking study The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity, or TEEB.

The second myth deals with the role of nature in the livelihoods of the poor.

Time and again, we were told that natural resources, for example forest products, are, at best, a “safety net” for the poor during the times of hardship and are generally of marginal importance for their wellbeing.
Natural capital

However, as early as 2005, the World Bank in its landmark report Where is the Wealth of Nations? recognized that natural capital is an important share of total wealth in low-income countries. The Bank also suggested that managing natural resources must be a key part of development strategies.

Today we know that forests, for example, deliver a previously unaccounted for US$130 billion of direct, tangible benefits to 1.6 billion of the world’s poorest people each year—more than the total development aid from donor countries!

Moreover, the TEEB study tells us that natural ecosystems such as wetlands, coral reefs and forests account for up to 89% of the so-called “GDP of the poor”, meaning the source of livelihoods for poor communities.

For example, in Burkina Faso, an IUCN project supported by the French Development Agency has found that 80% of poor households’ income is linked to the protected Nazinga forest.

Finally, we must challenge the biggest myth of all that is reflected in the theme itself of this conference—that we need to somehow reconcile poverty eradication and biodiversity conservation.

In IUCN’s view, investing in nature can be a cost-effective strategy to lift people out of poverty and propel sustainable economic growth.

Taking action

Already, several countries are beginning to take notice. One recent example is Rwanda’s bold initiative to achieve a country-wide reversal of the current degradation of soil, water, land and forest resources by 2035.

IUCN was closely involved in developing this initiative and will support the Rwandan government in turning the environment into a significant driver of national development.

Worldwide, more than 1 billion hectares of deforested and degraded lands—an area larger than the size of Canada—are available for restoration. Imagine the kind of opportunities for green jobs and for biodiversity conservation such restoration initiatives could open up!

Today, we have less than five years before the United Nations deadline to halve the number of the world’s poorest people and less than 10 years to meet another global deadline to halt the loss of biodiversity.

Both will require renewed leadership, innovation and cooperation.

We must rethink how we, as a global community, view biodiversity. Nature can offer solutions to some of the biggest development challenges—health, energy, food security, and the list goes on.

A wise investment

It is time we stopped considering nature as expendable and any related expenditure a write-off. It is time to recognize nature for what it truly is: a wise investment choice and a not-to-be-missed opportunity for sustainable poverty reduction.

If we are to step up our investments in nature, we also have to make sure that we get them right. Development assistance needs to be directed to remove long-standing and discriminatory barriers to sharing nature’s benefits equitably, to ensure that those who contribute most to conserving natural assets have a say in how they are managed, and that their rights are respected.

When this does happen, the benefits for both people and nature are magnified.

For example, Namibia has since independence invested in and empowered local conservancies which today manage some 130,000 hectares of prime wildlife habitat, generating over 1,000 jobs and supporting conservation of rare and endangered species such as the black rhino.

This is a real success story for poverty reduction and biodiversity conservation, which has benefited, since the very beginning, from the support of the Fonds Français pour l’Environnement Mondial. This is exactly the kind of innovative approaches we are looking for to combat poverty through sustainable use of natural resources.

Another pioneering example is the new Livelihoods Fund established by the Danone Group in partnership with IUCN and the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands of International Importance. This new Fund, with an initial investment set at 30 million Euro, will reward local community efforts in Africa, Asia and Latin America, to get carbon credits from ecosystem restoration projects such as wetlands, as well as sustainable agroforestry and energy projects.

Looking ahead to Rio

2012 will be a big year for the environment– not only will the international community convene in Rio de Janeiro next June for the UN Conference on Sustainable Development, but IUCN will also host its own World Conservation Congress just a few months after Rio.

The slogan of the 2012 IUCN Congress is Nature + which captures the fundamental importance of nature and its inherent link to every aspect of our lives.

These two major international events, as well as the next conference of the parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity in India, will be an excellent platform to put nature where it truly belongs—at the heart of sustainability and of the wellbeing of our planet and its nearly 7 billion people.

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