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Author: South African National Biodiversity Institute ( SANBI)

( Article Type: Explanation )

What is Biodiversity?

Biological diversity –or biodiversity – is a term used to describe the variety of life and the interactions between living organisms. This extraordinary variety extends from ecosystems to the species of plants, animals, and other organisms that inhabit the earth, right down to the genes that shape living organisms. It includes people - Homo sapiens - and it is a global natural heritage of immeasurable value. South Africa is particularly blessed when it comes to its natural heritage.


South Africa and Biodiversity

We are the third most ‘biodiverse’ country in the world after Brazil and Indonesia, and one of a handful of mega diverse countries in the world - these are countries that harbour the majority of the earth’s species.

South Africa has made good progress in documenting its biodiversity including birds, mammals, reptiles, frogs and butterflies. It was the first megadiverse country to publish a comprehensive conservation assessment of all its plants (>20,000 species). Biodiversity scientists and practitioners from South Africa have also been leaders in the development of conservation initiatives and championing new approaches to sustainable development.

South Africa’s biodiversity richness is a vital resource that underpins development. All human beings are dependent on living, functioning ecosystems and the services they provide in the form of oxygen, food, fresh water, fertile soil, medicines, fibre, pollination, shelter, climate stabilization and recreation and well-being.

Land degradation and the loss of biodiversity resources (the loss of natural capital) is occurring across South Africa, and decreases society’s ability to adapt and respond to the challenges of increasing povertyclimate change and other environmental risks and vulnerabilities.


Investing in Biodiversity 

Investment in biodiversity and ecological infrastructure is therefore much more than establishing reserves or securing habitat for threatened species – it’s about securing and building the natural capital of South Africa to provide a foundation for resilience and to grow opportunities for reducing poverty and enhancing human quality of life. Ecological infrastructure is increasingly being viewed as an important component of economic development, providing the green infrastructure for service delivery in both rural and urban development contexts.

Currently, investment in the green economy in South Africa is primarily focused on energy related technologies. South Africa has yet to realise the potential to generate significant revenues from investing in its biodiversity resources. Biodiversity-based markets have been successful where they have direct relevance to existing industries (tourismagriculturefisheries, etc) as well as where they have direct relevance to market-based climate change response mechanisms.

Carbon sequestration markets, for example, have been driven by mitigation-based fiscal instruments, and similar incentives are set to develop so as to support ecosystem-based adaptation activities.


The Cost of Natural Disasters 

For many years scientists have been arguing that the biodiversity of intact natural ecosystems is essential for human well-being but it is only recently that studies have started to quantify these benefits. As one example, the World Bank and the U.S. Geological Survey estimate that economic losses worldwide from natural disasters in the 1990s could have been reduced by $280 billion if $40 billion had been invested in ecological infrastructure and preventative measures.

The World Bank also estimated that every dollar invested in disaster reduction measures saves seven dollars in losses from natural disasters. Switzerland has for a long time acknowledged the value of forests in protecting people, settlements and important economic assets (roads, industries, infrastructure, tourism) against avalanches and landslides. The protection afforded by forests was estimated to save US$ 2–3.5 billion per year. Worldwide, organisations are making the case that preventative investment in ecological infrastructure is an ethical and cost-effective way to address the increasing frequency of natural disasters and that an ecosystem approach to disaster management can deliver significant socio-economic benefits.


Case Study - Mamalana Wetland 

A local example of the benefits provided by investing in biodiversity and healthy ecosystems is provided by the Manalana wetland near Bushbuckridge in Mpumalanga, an area inhabited by a highly impoverished and marginalised population of 500 000 people. About 70% of the local people use the wetland in some way for their livelihoods, and 25% depend entirely on it as their only source of food and income. Erosion and degradation of the wetland had resulted in the loss of tons of soil and the subsequent loss of 863 farming plots for 215 local farmers- 2,155 people lost a significant part of their food security.

Working for Wetlands prioritised the Manalana wetland for rehabilitation and a cost-benefit analysis undertaken after rehabilitation showed that the economic value of livelihoods benefits increased by 294% from the degraded state. The wetland now contributes provisioning services (e.g. grazing, crops, crafting materials) estimated at R3,466 per household per year to some 70% of local households. The annual value of the livelihood benefits provided by the rehabilitated wetland far exceeds the cost of the rehabilitation interventions. This investment in ecosystem rehabilitation provided sustainable environmental and social benefits.


Biodiversity - the way forward

The increasing evidence of the importance of natural capital means that South Africa cannot afford for biodiversity to be marginalised when it comes to national priorities. To elevate the status of biodiversity in local and national decision-making, we need to clarify its relevance for different communities and ensure that the value and benefits are understood across the full spectrum of audiences. We need to show how these benefits are aligned to South Africa’s developmental needs such as job creation, food security and the provision of basic services.

People working in the biodiversity sector know that biodiversity delivers on all these imperatives and that the basic information we have on our biodiversity provides an essential foundation for identifying and leveraging benefits.

Associated Sustainable Development Articles:

Eco-Logic , Sustainable Development ~ A Spiritual Imperative

Associated Organisations:

50/50 SABC , Africa Earth Observatory Network , Bathusi Environmental Consulting , Biophile Environmental Magazine , Botanical Society of South Africa , Cape Action for People and the Environment (C.A.P.E.) , The Cape Times Caltex Environmental Awards , Cape West Coast Biosphere Reserve , Cat Conservation Trust , CEN Integrated Environmental Management Unit , Marine Research Institute (Ma-Re) - University of Cape Town , City of Cape Town Nature Reserves , CRH CLANAHAN & ASSOCIATES , Department of Environmental Affairs , Department of Water Affairs , Doug Jeffery Environmental Consultants , DST-NRF Centre of Excellence for Invasion Biology , Eco-Activities , Eco-ist (The) , Eco Scapes , Local Biodiversity Solutions , Endangered Wildlife Trust - USA , Environmental Education and Resources Unit - EERU (University of the Western Cape) , Environmental Evaluation Unit , Ezemvelo KwaZulu-Natal Wildlife (KWAZULU-NATAL NATURE CONSERVATION SERVICE) , Succulent Karoo Ecosystem Programme (SKEP) , South African National Biodiversity Institute (SANBI) - Biodiversity Education and Empowerment Programmes , Green Trust (The) , Institute of Natural Resources , IUCN-The World Conservation Union-South Africa Office , Mountain Club of South Africa (Cape Town Section), (The) , Nama Karoo Foundation , The National Association of Conservancies/Stewardships of South Africa (NACSSA) , National Research Foundation(NRF)(The) , Natural Scientific Services , Oryx Environmental CC , Whale Coast Conservation , Percy FitzPatrick Institute of African Ornithology - DST/NFR Centre of Excellence , Rozendal Farm , The South African Environmental Observation Network (SAEON) , South African Institute for Aquatic Biodiversity (SAIAB) , South African National Biodiversity Institute , South African National Parks , Tree Society of Southern Africa , Treverton College and Preparatory , Wilderness Action Group , Wilderness Foundation SA , Africa Media Online , Working on Fire , WWF South Africa , Cape Town Environmental Education Trust (CTEET) , Endangered Wildlife Trust , Nature Conservation Corporation, The , Renu-Karoo Veld Restoration CC , Pest Free SA , Bee Farming Academy , Animalia Zoological & Ecological Consultation , Environmental Assurance , Balance Design , West Coast National Park , South Africa Organic Sector Organisation (SAOSO) , Ogilvyearth , Strategic Environmental Focus , Green Expo Africa , Simply Green Magazine , Natures World of Wonder , Green Peace SA , Avondale Wine Estate , Delheim Wines , Addo Elephant National Park , Agulhas National Park , Augrabies Falls National Park , Bontebok National Park , Camdeboo National Park , Garden Route (Tsitsikamma, Knysna, Wilderness) National Park , Golden Gate Highlands National Park , Karoo National Park , Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park , Mapungubwe National Park and World Heritage Site , Marakele National Park , Mokala National Park , Namaqua National Park , Mountain Zebra National Park , Table Mountain National Park , Tankwa Karoo National Park , Kruger National Park , |Ai|Ais-Richtersveld Transfrontier Park , FynbosLIFE , GreenMatter , The Healthy Catchment Alliance: an EWT, WESSA and CSA partnership in freshwater ecosystem conservation and the generation of water-linked livelihoods , African Climate Reality Project - Food & Trees for Africa , Confronting Climate Change Initiative , ERM