Biodiversity and Development Cooperation – Two Sides of the Same Coin

Visual van de dag “Biodiversiteit en ontwikkeling: erfgoed op wereldschaal” op 26.11.2015
18/12/2015
Biodiversity and Development Cooperation – Two Sides of the Same Coin
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Reinout Verbeke

How can we protect biodiversity in developing countries, and stimulate their development in a sustainable manner at the same time? This was the key issue that was discussed at Biodiversity and Development, A Global Heritage, the symposium organised by our CEBioS programme. More than twenty speakers presented their views on the importance of biodiversity and ecosystems in developing countries.

Life on Earth has already been through five mass extinctions. The last one, which occurred 65 million years ago, eradicated the dinosaurs and many other species. A number of scientists at the CEBioS Symposium were very outspoken about today’s sixth wave of extinction, which has been caused by humans. As a result of the mass destruction of habitats, pollution, overhunting  and the introduction of exotic species, we are experiencing a biodiversity crisis. According to many of the experts who were present at the event this deserves at least as much attention as climate change.

Preserving biodiversity goes hand in hand with development cooperation. ‘People in the least developed countries are depending enormously on resources from local ecosystems in order to be able to survive’, argues Minister Alexander De Croo (Open Flemish Liberals and Democrats) in his opening statement. ‘Without the water, food, wood and medicinal plants available in their direct environment, they have no chance. When their resources are being taken away, they often have no other option but to relocate elsewhere’. Recent flows of migration from the Sahel in the direction of Europe can partially account for this environmental stress.

During the European Year for Development 2015, the United Nations developed the Sustainable Development Goals. The implementation of these goals is necessary to eliminate famine and extreme poverty in the world and to ensure a sustainable management of land and water on this planet. ‘Protecting biodiversity for the benefit of future generations stimulates the local economy, helps to avoid conflicts, and secures stability in the long run’, De Croo adds.  

Biodiversity Managers

In order to safeguard biodiversity and prevent poverty, one can only provide incentives to the local population to engender a sustainable management of natural resources. For that reason, the Royal Belgian Institute for Natural Sciences (RBINS) has been hosting taxonomists and other biologists from developing countries for a number of years. This usually occurs by means of the Global Taxonomy Initiative. The RBINS and associated institutions provide training and access to all scientific databases and collections. Moreover, we organise courses together on the spot.

The cross-pollination that occurs between our biologists and local colleagues offers new perspectives. RBINS biologist Erik Verheyen, for instance, established the Centre de Surveillance de la Biodiversité (CSB) at the University of Kisangani, Democratic Republic of the Congo. The centre, which employs 38 scientists and technicians, wants to promote biodiversity research in the Congo Basin by bringing together Congolese, Belgian and international researchers. 

Collaboration already resulted in concrete outcomes. Entomologists Patrick Grootaert (RBINS) and Jean Lambert Wetsi Lofete (University of Kisangani), for example, have produced an inventory of edible species of caterpillars in the rain forest of the Kisangani region. Grootaert: ‘There is lack of large mammals and apes in those forests, so the population draws its proteins from insects among other things’. The researchers browsed the local markets to see which caterpillars are sold, when they are exactly harvested, which local names they adopted, and on which host plants they occur. This then resulted into a regional atlas of edible caterpillars, primarily consisting of small emperor moths. ‘We need to learn how to manage the edible caterpillars sustainably, with effective government regulation, so that future generations will have the capacity to utilise them’, says Wetsi Lofete. The researchers have already informed the population extensively through presentations.

Water Quality

The scientific discipline of taxonomy, or the description, identification and classification of species, may also contribute to the improvement of water quality in developing countries. RBINS biologist Frank Fiers and Moïssou Lagnika of the Université d’Abomey-Calavi conducted research on the topic of hand-dug wells in Benin containing water in which copepods live. By determining the composition of the species living in the water, local taxonomists can judge very quickly whether or not the water is contaminated with water from the surface, considering that the latter consists of other species. Subsequently, chemical analysis can provide a decisive answer on whether the water from the well is potable or not, which is of immense importance to the local population. Together with Lagnika, Patrick Martin (RBINS), who is in charge of the project, now studies worm species in the well water of Benin and how they can produce insights into the quality of water.

Listening to the local population

It is crucial that the local population is actively involved with new protection measures. Only then do the initiatives have the opportunity to succeed in the long term. Take for example the Termite en Tin Toumma Natural Reserve in Niger, covering 100,000 km² which makes it the largest of Africa. Conservation biologist of the Institute, Roseline Beudels, has mapped the heavily endangered Addax or white antelope (Addax nasomaculatus) in this region. War, the exploitation of new oil fields, hunting and overgrazing by cattle nevertheless reduce antelope populations. ‘The best guarantee to safeguard the nature reserve from further disruption is to work together closely with communities by involving local leaders, NGOs and schools in the conservation of animal species’, argues Beudels.

The first thing that researchers and development workers need to do is to try to understand the local culture and consider how local people perceive the importance of protecting biodiversity. Abruptly interfering in local customs is often harmful. This came forth out of the closing debate in which natural scientists, social scientists and NGO officials, both domestic and international, participated. Researcher Laura Loko of the University of Abomey-Calavi in Benin explained this with a straightforward example: ‘Development workers built a new water well in a village, but they didn’t realise that the women would rather walk ten kilometres to the old well to talk openly about their husbands’!  

A Common Heritage

Furthermore, at the symposium other speakers had the opportunity to unravel a few more pressing topics. Daniel Pauly from the University of British Columbia talked about the alarming and significant reduction in fish stocks worldwide, while Richard Kock from the Royal Veterinary College, University College London clarified the relation between health, biodiversity and development. In addition, Pierre Meerts of the Université Libre de Bruxelles spoke about the enormous metal pollution around the mines of Katanga in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. ‘Thinking in the short-term is an inherent trait of our genes, and it is troubling’, says Luc Janssens de Bisthoven, head of CEBioS. ‘However, human creativity can resist this and it can develop long-term strategies to turn the tide. Politicians should have the courage to think creatively and look beyond the next elections. The time has come to join the forces between scientists, citizens, NGOs, government and the private sector’.

‘Biodiversity is nobody’s “property”, but a common heritage’, concludes Roseline Beudels. ‘We are obliged to participate in its conservation. That is everyone’s responsibility’.

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