Why biodiversity is everyone’s business

This year is the International Year of Biodiversity and it is time that we remind ourselves of the major impact that biodiversity has on our businesses says Dr Bob Scholes, ecologist at the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research and chair of the Group on Earth Observations Biodiversity Observation Network. There is after all a direct relationship between the economy and biodiversity.

As far as most businesses are concerned, biodiversity has nothing to do with operations. This is a dangerous misconception. The steep decline in biodiversity – just as severe as the catastrophe that wiped out the dinosaurs millions of years ago – has everything to do with business.

This becomes self-evident when you consider the causes of the decline. These include over-exploitation of natural resources (fisheries, forests and grazing lands), destruction of habitat by agriculture, mining, urbanisation, the introduction of invasive alien species, air and water pollution, and the changing climate.

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What can be done?

Farmers play a crucial role in preserving our biodiversity. As custodians of more than 80% of the land, they have a huge impact, both positive and negative. Often relatively small changes in land-use practices can have enormous biodiversity benefits, both on and off the farm.

Farmers can protect the biodiversity of their environments by managing non-cultivated areas like riparian fringes, field edges and wetlands. This can be done by applying an appropriate disturbance regime of grazing, mowing and burning and keeping these areas connected to one another.

Rivers must be looked after by practising good soil conservation and controlling alien species. The use of pesticides and fertilisers must be kept to the level that is ‘just sufficient’. Any excess ends up in rivers. Often going for 90% of the maximum yield rather than 100%, saves money and helps biodiversity.

Farmers must manage their grazing lands sustainably. Light to moderate grazing is actually good for most forms of biodiversity. Avoid using chemicals, and where unavoidable, use selectively and responsibly.

Another reason to pay attention to biodiversity is because a growing part of South Africa’s wealth depends directly on having a rich and attractive environment.

Tourism is one of the emerging money makers of our economy and nature-based tourism plays a major role. About a fifth of South African land is now under wildlife – and only a third is owned by the state.

The illusion of innocence

If you think about it, the most valuable asset harvested from South African soil may turn out not to be diamonds or gold, but the freesias and other bulbs from the Cape that became the basis of a huge horticultural industry in the Netherlands.

An increase in biodiversity can be just as lucrative as it can be a second income stream for farmers, through ecotourism, hunting, fishing and biodiversity-based products like wildflowers, honey and venison. If certain standards are met, the farm products can be ‘green labelled’, creating a premium market. Biodiversity also supports fruit production through pollination and it helps reduce certain pests and diseases.

Finally, another reason why everyone is a stakeholder in biodiversity is that the perceived independence of modern, urbanised societies from the workings of nature is an illusion. An urban executive is just as dependent on the air, water and food from ecosystems as a farmer is.

Ecosystems function because of the biodiversity they contain. The abundance and variety of species is a valuable buffer between us and disaster. Think of it as a portfolio investment. What savvy investor would put all his savings into one share?

Our biodiversity is declining because of the increasingly unsustainable demands we place on the planet. The other 10 million or so species deserve a bit of respect, even if for no other reason than it being in our own best interests.”

Compiled by Lindi van Rooyen from an opinion piece by Dr Scholes entitled Nature’s Economy.

Contact Dr Scholes on 012 841 2045 or e-mail [email protected].