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Conservation Planning (Systematic)

Author: Gillian Maree and team ~ CSIR

( Article Type: Explanation )

The science of systematic conservation planning aims to identify and set aside representative examples of all biodiversity to ‘biodiversity banks’ as proactive protection against future modifications. Such conserved areas become heritage resources for sharing our biodiversity heritage with future generations as well as benchmarks against which human modification of ecosystems can be measured in the long term. Biodiversity pattern and the ecological and evolutionary processes that maintain and generate species are the primary considerations of the planning process.

Loss of biodiversity inevitably leads to ecosystem degradation and the subsequent loss of important ecosystem services. Moreover, this tends to harm poor rural communities more directly, since poor people have limited assets and infrastructure and are more dependent on common property resources for their livelihoods, while the wealthy are buffered against loss of ecosystem services by being able to purchase basic necessities and scarce commodities. Our path towards sustainable development, poverty alleviation and enhanced human wellbeing for all is therefore completely dependent on how effectively we manage and protect biodiversity.

The current reality is that species are becoming extinct at a rate estimated to be 100 to 1 000 times greater than rates recorded through recent geological time. Amphibians and freshwater fish are thought to be, respectively, the world’s most and second-most threatened groups of vertebrates. Poor planning in the identification and designation of areas for biodiversity conservation has exacerbated the extinction problem. Historically, most areas that have been designated for conservation purposes were selected in an ad hoc manner and not specifically for conservation purposes. More recently, and partly in order to avoid conflicts, conservation efforts have focused on areas of relatively low human population or low economic potential – which in turn often results from factors such as unproductive soils, steep slopes or high altitudes. However, the majority of biological diversity (as measured by the number of species) tends to occur in lower elevations, warmer climates, and coastal areas that are more attractive to human occupation and use. These areas tend to have a much higher associated opportunity cost, and are generally disproportionately degraded in comparison to less-populated areas.

Traditionally, reasons for conserving biodiversity focused on biodiversity pattern, emphasising the intrinsic importance that people place on species and habitats. Supporters of this approach believe that the future generations have the right to enjoy these species and habitats. Even more compelling arguments in recent times (such as the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment) have linked biodiversity to ecosystem services, which are strongly correlated to poverty reduction and quality of life. These arguments reason that our dependence on biodiversity is absolute: without it, human beings would not be able to survive. All our food is directly or indirectly obtained from plant species and other photosynthetic organisms. Apart from the direct benefits of biodiversity from the harvest of domesticated or wild species for food, fibres, fuel, pharmaceuticals and many other purposes, humans also derive benefit from its influence on climate regulation, water purification, soil formation, flood prevention and nutrient cycling; and the aesthetic and cultural impact is obvious. These benefits to people fall into the broad category of ‘ecosystem services’ (see also Ecosystem services and human wellbeing below), and can be summarised into provisioning, regulating and cultural services that affect people directly, and indirect supporting services which maintain the other services. These services affect human wellbeing through impacting security, quality of life, health and social relations, all of which influence freedom and choices available to people.

Ecosystem services and human wellbeing
Ecosystem services are the benefits that humans derive from functioning ecosystems. These include provisioning services, such as food and water; regulating services, such as water regulation and purification; supporting services required to maintain other services, such as nutrient cycling; and cultural services, such as recreation and spiritual services. Changes in these services affect human wellbeing through impacts on security, the basic material for a good life, health, and social and cultural relations. These constituents of wellbeing are, in turn, influenced by and have influence on the freedoms and choices available to people. When ecosystem services are impaired this inevitably leads to a narrowing of livelihood choices and an increase in the vulnerability of the poor.

Associated Sustainable Development Articles: