Let's Bank on Nature, Not Bankrupt it

4/19/2011

Adapted from his foreword to the new book, "Still Counting... Biodiversity Exploration for Conservation: The First 20 Years of the Rapid Assessment Program", (University of Chicago Press) the following opinion piece was written by Conservation International CEO, Chairman and co-founder Peter Seligmann for The Huffington Post

Arlington, VA —  In 1987, we launched Conservation International with the express purpose of protecting the most important places on Earth. As we began to initiate programs in tropical South America, we realized that we faced the challenge of identifying precisely where our ecosystem conservation programs should focus. The information for us to say one place was more important than another did not exist. We just did not know which specific locations had escaped the pressures of modern society and remained the best benchmarks of undisturbed natural systems.

During a late night conversation in my kitchen in Washington DC, Dr. Murray Gellman, the Nobel Prize winning physicist and chair of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation's Resources Committee, suggested to me that we hire a few extraordinary field biologists to find these ecological jewels. He had Louisiana State ornithologist Ted Parker and Missouri Botanical Garden's botanist Al Gentry in mind. These two men were not mere mortals in the world of field biologists. They were legends for their knowledge and their ability to disappear into the wild, only to emerge months later with extraordinary tales of adventure and discovery.

Murray's idea was for us to start with Ted and Al and build a team of the best field biologists from different disciplines. We could send them to places that we suspected were ecological paradises and then define with precision the highest biodiversity priorities — akin to an ecological SWAT team that could accurately assess the health of an ecosystem in a fraction of the time it would take the normal team of university scientists.

Out of this came our Rapid Assessment Program, or "RAP" for short — a high-tech, hands-on, teaching-by-experience tool for identifying and then protecting the most important ecosystems on land, in the oceans and in fresh water. It was our signature program, and it revolutionized the history of biological field study with its nimble and condensed, but scientifically rigorous, surveys. But it wasn't without cost. Ted and Al tragically lost their lives during a field accident in 1993, a terrible sacrifice for science.

Two decades later, their legacy lives on. We have completed 80 RAP surveys in 27 countries, and discovered more than 1,300 never-before-seen species with popular nicknames like "dinospider", "walking shark", and "Pinocchio frog", and we are still counting. We have designed scientific methodology to inform businesses on where to develop their extractive industries. We have invested more than $5 million directly into local communities through funding that is primarily spent in-country, while also teaching more than 400 local students and scientists new techniques to carry the mantel of conservation forward. And we have provided baseline scientific data to support the creation, expansion, or improved management of more than 81,000 square miles of protected areas. These are achievements to be proud of for sure, but they are not nearly enough.

We have learned that we need to do more than mobilize a few hundred ecological warriors to identify and protect species and their habitats. While we have some information about close to two million species of animals, we know next to nothing about the estimated 10-30 million more that are yet to be discovered and properly described. Many of these disappear before scientists ever have the chance to find or study them, and with each loss, we may be forever squandering precious opportunities to develop cures, invent new techniques, and solve the complex resource challenges confronting us.

Species are wondrous, productive, critical links in the complex web of life. There's no question that they are the building blocks which underpin healthy ecosystems that provide us clean water, clean air, medicines, food, and livelihoods, and they continue to teach us fantastic secrets that inspire science, engineering and culture. At the same time, there's also no question that species are facing tremendous pressures from habitat loss, climate change, and human activities which, in concert, are driving extinction rates to an estimated one-thousand times what is considered natural. We must do more now, than study and protect them.

Our global community is growing, and putting more pressure on the planet than ever before. In just forty years, it is estimated that our population will increase from 6.9 billion to more than 9 billion people — with two million more people entering the middle class. This will create overwhelming demand for food, fresh water, and safe, reliable sources of energy on our planet's diminishing natural capacity.

With these realities on the immediate horizon, we must recognize that everything that sustains us is a gift from nature, an irreplaceable wealth of ecosystem services that we cannot manufacture or produce on our own: our water from aquifers, rivers and glaciers; our grains and food crops from pollinators and organisms in productive soil; our fisheries from healthy coral reefs, and clean oceans; our stable climate from the carbon storages of trees, mangroves and seagrasses. These are not gifts outright and these are not gifts guaranteed.

The only way forward is for us to put nature into the economic and social equation — to start valuing the undervalued. So let us now leverage the power of development, the greatest force of our time, to responsibly manage and conserve nature's gifts for future generations. It is no longer viable to pursue development and conservation along parallel but separate tracks — these must work as one force, in tandem. Nature's well-being is inextricably linked to our own.

So while we practice fiscal responsibility, let's also do a better job of saving our natural capital — a veritable wealth of biodiversity that benefits humanity. Without a fundamental paradigm shift in how we value it, we are over-mortgaging our future. Time and perspective have taught us the value of these lessons, in many cases the hard way. It is my greatest hope that we learn from recent experience, and make it a global goal to bank on nature for the long term, not bankrupt it.

Peter Seligmann is Chairman, Chief Executive Officer, and co-founder of Conservation International

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