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Ecosystems, economic choices and human well-being


In the past 50 years, human activity has changed the diversity of life on Earth – our biodiversity – more than any other time in history. These changes include biodiversity loss that harms the natural systems, known as ecosystems, which sustain all life on the planet.

The loss of biodiversity is more harmful to some people than others. The rural poor in developing countries are often hit hardest, because they are more directly dependent on the resources and services that ecosystems provide.

The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (MEA), the result of five years’ research by 1,360 of the world’s leading scientists, documents how the growing human population is depleting resources and degrading the ecological systems that provide the fundamentals of life –clean water, breathable air, productive soil and a stable climate. The results are being released in a series of "synthesis reports" throughout 2005, including Ecosystems and Human Well-being: Biodiversity Synthesis (World Resources Institute, Washington, D.C.) published May 19.

In this latest report, the MEA acknowledges that people are integral parts of ecosystems, "with the changing human condition serving to drive, both directly and indirectly, changes in ecosystems." At the same time, it says that changes in ecosystems "cause changes in human well-being."

Ecosystems, especially the tropical rainforests that harbor vast biological riches, provide services that clean our air and water, and provide food, medicines, energy, and raw materials. They regenerate soils and pollinate crops, regulate the climate, control floods, and offer recreational opportunities and spiritual renewal.

Ecosystem services are valued at $30 trillion – more than the combined domestic product of all nations. Degrading them causes economic harm, as well as human suffering. For example, the removal and degradation of mangroves and other coastal ecosystems for development meant the loss of natural buffers to the December tsunami in Asia, increasing the devastation.

Communities closest to an ecosystem are most affected by change and biodiversity loss, the MEA notes. Converting or clearing a forest for cash-crop agriculture or timber means the loss of ecosystem services such as wild sources of food, water for drinking and crop irrigation, firewood and building materials, along with the recycling of wastes into nutrients.

"Richer groups … are often less affected by the loss of ecosystem services because of their ability to purchase substitutes or to offset local losses of ecosystem services by shifting production and harvest to other regions," the report states.

It also makes clear that the benefits that biodiversity provides have not been accurately considered in decision-making and resource management. For example, the costs of lost ecosystem services frequently exceed the benefit of habitat conversion. Such findings, it says, get obscured by economic calculations that fail to properly account for ecosystem services or tend to privilege the gains of one group over the losses of the wider community.

The MEA also cites subsidies for agriculture or extractive industries that distort the relative costs and benefits of ecosystem services. The end result, it says, is that "often the majority of local inhabitants [are] disenfranchised by the changes."

Protecting biodiversity can be justified by economic rationale, but relying solely on the numbers will fail to halt biodiversity loss, the MEA asserts. "Ultimately, more biodiversity will be conserved if ethical, equitable distribution and spiritual concerns are taken into account than if only the operation of imperfect and incomplete markets is relied on," it states.

According to the MEA, biodiversity conservation should be part of strategies and programs for meeting the Millennium Development goals. Conservation in the form of protected areas and habitat restoration enhances development efforts and will be strengthened by inclusion in the planning process, the report says.

Meanwhile, people who have a choice must reduce unsustainable consumption at an individual, community, national and global level. If we are serious about slowing, let alone halting, biodiversity loss, we must use less, and use it more efficiently.

For the immediate future, the MEA’s prediction is stark: "The costs and risks associated with biodiversity loss are expected to increase, and to fall disproportionately on the poor."

Twenty percent of the world’s 6 billion people live on the equivalent of less than $1 a day, and the population is expected to increase by at least 2 billion in the next 50 years. Unless we change how we impact our planet, and how we help developing nations reach their economic goals without destroying their natural heritage, our legacy to future generations will be the loss of much of the biodiversity that sustains life on Earth.

In response to the significance of the MEA’s findings, eight of the world’s leading international conservation organizations – Birdlife International, Conservation International, IUCN-The World Conservation Union, Fauna & Flora International, the Nature Conservancy, Wetlands International, the Wildlife Conservation Society, and the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) – are pledging to work together to conserve ecosystems for the improvement of human well-being. We call on governments, the private sector, civil society and individuals to join us.

Quotes on the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment from the world’s leading international conservation organizations.

"We are prepared to spend vast sums of money on flawed agricultural subsidies such as the European Common Agricultural Policy - now we need to make substantial investments in real, workable schemes that will ensure the natural world is sustained. This report shows us how we can do it."

--Dr Michael Rands, Director and Chief Executive of BirdLife International

"This unprecedented research confirms what the environmental movement has been saying for decades: protecting our planet and its resources is not a special interest, but a human interest. We are overwhelming the Earth’s natural ability to sustain us, and without significant changes in how we manage our ecosystems, we face increased extinctions of species, accelerated loss of resources, and the degradation of our quality of life."

--Peter Seligmann, chairman and CEO of Conservation International.

"The MEA provides compelling evidence of the importance of healthy, functioning ecosystems as the foundation for human well-being. This is no longer a matter for debate and conjecture. We all have a very real responsibility to ensure the continued survival of these natural life support systems, and FFI is working with many partners around the world – with business, within local communities, with national governments and other groups to put the message of the MEA into practice."

--Rosalind Aveling, Director of Conservation, Fauna & Flora International

"The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment makes abundantly clear the inextricable linkage between healthy natural systems and human well being. While the findings are dire, they also offer great hope, if we act now to conserve the integrity of the earth’s ecosystems. Such action must come from the concerted efforts of governments, businesses, NGOs, and local communities. The future of humanity depends on it."

--Steven McCormick, President and CEO, The Nature Conservancy

"The MEA report tells us to learn from our past experience. For example, we know that conversion of wetlands to benefit a few people often deprives many more of the valuable services that were provided when the wetlands were in their natural state. Examples from Thailand to Canada show that the value of wetland services and products to local communities have been grossly under-estimated in development planning."

--Max Finlayson, President of Wetlands International, Co-Chair of the Wetlands and Water MEA synthesis report.

"The Earth’s natural ecosystems provide the food, water, air and other resources that support all human societies. The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment underscores how ecosystem degradation and loss will not only impact the wild species which share this planet with us, but also the potential of humans and all of our aspirations. Only by taking the responsibility to look after our collective home, will we be able to survive and prosper."

--Dr. Steven E. Sanderson, President and CEO, Wildlife Conservation Society

"The MEA brings ecosystems back to the heart of development decision-making by documenting how much we gain from nature every day in the form of ecosystem goods and services. It also highlights the critical yet often overlooked link between poverty reduction and sustainability. In striving for economic and social security we must invest in the maintenance of ecosystem goods and services, as they are literally the foundation for the livelihoods of millions of the poorest." --Achim Steiner, Director General of IUCN – The World Conservation Union

"Ecosystems are capital assets. We don’t include them on our balance sheets, but if we did the services they supply would dwarf everything else in value. The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment delivers this message loud and clear, reflecting the consensus of over 1,300 scientists that ecosystems support human life, and by harming them we harm ourselves. The sooner we realize this and behave accordingly, the better chance we have of meeting human needs sustainably and conserving the diversity of life on earth."

--Dr. Taylor Ricketts, Director of the Conservation Science Program, World Wildlife Fund

Coalition Members and Contact Information

BirdLife International
BirdLife International is a global alliance of conservation organizations working in more than 100 countries which, together, are the leading authority on the status of birds, their habitats and the issues and problems affecting bird life.

Ade Long
Head of Communications
BirdLife International
Wellbrook Court, Girton Cambridge CB3 0NA, UK
Tel: +44 (0)1223 279812
Fax: +44 (0)1223 277200
mobile +44 (0)7779 018332

Conservation International
Conservation International (CI) believes that the Earth’s natural heritage must be maintained if future generations are to thrive spiritually, culturally, and economically. Our mission is to conserve the Earth’s living heritage-our global biodiversity-and to demonstrate that human societies are able to live harmoniously with nature.Founded in 1987, CI is an innovative leader in global biodiversity conservation. Our scientists, economists, communicators, educators, and other professionals work with hundreds of partners to identify and overcome threats to biodiversity. CI employs more than 800 people around the world; the majority are based in countries where biodiversity is most threatened, and most are citizens of the country in which they work.

Tom Cohen
Media Relations Director

Fauna & Flora International
Fauna & Flora International’s (FFI) mission is to conserve threatened species and ecosystems worldwide, choosing solutions that are sustainable, based on sound science and that take account of human needs. Renowned for its science-based approach, FFI has pioneered sustainable conservation work that tackles problems holistically, providing solutions that simultaneously help wildlife, humans and the environment. FFI is widely respected for its close collaborations with in-country organizations, cooperation with government and civic agencies, efficient utilization of funds from national and international sources, and its ability to work at the community level. FFI has ensured many lasting conservation successes through local solutions, led and owned by local people.

Dave Beamont
Fauna & Flora International
Great Eastern House
Tenison Road, Cambridge Cb1 2TT UK
Tel 44 (0) 1223 571000

The Nature Conservancy
The mission of The Nature Conservancy is to preserve the plants, animals and natural communities that represent the diversity of life on Earth by protecting the lands and waters they need to survive. Founded in 1951, The Conservancy now works in 28 countries and all 50 U.S. States. Science guides our work by identifying Earth’s most important natural places. Using innovative tools, we protect and restore these priority places. We achieve lasting results by finding common ground with communities and partners. Working together, we can ensure the diversity of life on Earth and enrich the quality of life now and for future generations.

Jennifer Denney
Senior Communications Manager
The Nature Conservancy Worldwide Office
4245 Fairfax Drive
Arlington, VA 22207, USA

Wetlands International
Wetlands International works globally, regionally and nationally to achieve the conservation and wise use of wetlands, as a contribution to sustainable development.

Wetlands International is an independent, not-for-profit, global organisation supported by Government membership from all continents of the world. It works through 17 offices - in Africa, Central and Eastern Europe, South, East and North Asia, Oceania, and South America; with its head office in Wageningen, the Netherlands. The work of Wetlands International is supported by extensive Specialist Group networks and tens of thousands of volunteers.

Wetlands International Head Office
Wageningen, The Netherlands
Tel: +31 317 478854
Fax: +31 317 47885

The World Conservation Union
Created in 1948, IUCN – The World Conservation Union brings together 82 States, 111 government agencies, 800 plus NGOs, and some 10,000 scientists and experts from 181 countries in a unique worldwide partnership. IUCN’s mission is to influence, encourage and assist societies throughout the world to conserve the integrity and diversity of nature and to ensure that any use of natural resources is equitable and ecologically sustainable.IUCN is the world’s largest environmental knowledge network and has helped over 75 countries to prepare and implement national conservation and biodiversity strategies. IUCN is a multicultural, multilingual organization with 1000 staff located in 62 countries. Its headquarters are in Gland, Switzerland.

Elroy Bos
Programme Communications Coordinator
IUCN - The World Conservation Union
Rue Mauverney 28 - CH 1196 - Gland - Switzerland
Direct: ++41 22 9990251
Fax: ++41 22 9990025
Mobile: +41 79 2134670

The Wildlife Conservation Society
The Wildlife Conservation Society saves wildlife and wild lands. We do so through careful science, international conservation, education, and the management of the world’s largest system of urban wildlife parks, led by the flagship Bronx Zoo. Together, these activities change individual attitudes toward nature and help people imagine wildlife and human beings living in sustainable interaction on both a local and a global scale. WCS is committed to this work because we believe it essential to the integrity of life on earth.

Alison Power, 718-220-7166
Stephen Sautner, 718-220-3682,

World Wildlife FundKnown in the United States as World Wildlife Fund and recognized worldwide by its panda logo, WWF leads international efforts to protect endangered species and their habitats and to conserve the diversity of life on Earth. Now in its fifth decade, WWF, the global conservation organization, works in more than 100 countries around the globe.

Kerry Zobor

Tom Cohen | EurekAlert!
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