Knowledge for Development

Biodiversity, Science and Governance

Author: Zacharia Magombo

Date: 01/02/2006


Biodiversity is the natural biological capital of the earth and is the basis for survival for mankind as it provides essential goods and services including food, fuel, medicine, shelter and fodder. Biodiversity maintains ecosystems that support biological productivity, regulate climate, maintain soil fertility and cleanse water and air. It is important for recreation, tourism, science and education and provides opportunities for human societies to adapt to changing needs and circumstances, and to discover new products and technologies. Socio-economic development and poverty reduction strategies are dependent on biodiversity. Achievement of development initiatives such as the Millennium Development Goals is also related to sustainable management and use of biodiversity.


Biodiversity refers to the variability among living organisms from all sources, including, terrestrial, marine and other aquatic ecosystems and the ecological complexes of which they are part. This includes diversity within species, between species and of ecosystems. Biodiversity is found everywhere including terrestrial and aquatic habitats.

Biodiversity is declining rapidly with species being lost at a rate that is about 100 times faster than the average natural rate, and rampant ecosystem degradation and this trend cannot be allowed to continue. Biological diversity is being lost due to land use change, climate change, invasive species, overexploitation, and pollution. It is being irreversibly destroyed by human activities who continue to alter the environment at an unprecedented rate, affecting sustainable development and the quality of life.

Underlying causes of Biodiversity loss are demographic, economic and institutional in nature and conservation and sustainable use of biological resources are dependent on, among other things: science, political will and governance. Science generates new knowledge and novelties that enable mankind to produce more with less effort and harness biodiversity efficiently and effectively. It is imperative that ACP countries invest more in science and technology. For example, biodiversity in ACP countries has potential as source of medicinal, food and chemical products. It holds great potential for poverty reduction and economic development. However, this potential is not being adequately tapped and used in the ACP region.

The biodiversity as well as the rich indigenous knowledge held by the ACP countries are to a large extent still outside the formal economic production structures. Their contributions to economic recovery and sustainable development are not well known. Biodiversity prospecting, the search for wild species, genes and their products, if done in a sustainable manner, offers new opportunities for the ACP region to look beyond the traditional sources of income and as such can contribute to poverty reduction and sustainable development and should be promoted once the legal systems are in place to support the process.

Issues relating to harnessing biodiversity are linked to other aspects such as water, fisheries and forest resource management. It is important, therefore, that ACP science be advanced to help identify and increase understanding of the many complex inter-linkages between environmental issues such as agriculture, climate change, biodiversity loss, and desertification. For example, recent scientific outputs suggest that climate change is likely to cause shifts in the global pattern and intensity of flood events, in some regions increasing the exposure of populations to severe flooding. Potential future risks underline the importance of research and intervention work aimed at strengthening local capacity to cope with flooding, especially for the poor in developing countries.

In harnessing biodiversity and the sectors linked to biodiversity, there is need for greater investment in policy-relevant science and in strengthening the ability of institutions to act coherently and in partnership. Experience has shown that science that isolates problems and ignores contexts of scale issues does not necessarily produce sustainable solutions. Good science takes a holistic approach including paying serious attention to socio-economic aspects. It is necessary to promote interdisciplinary science to strengthen government policies and support bilateral, regional and international negotiations and cooperation and the development of market instruments and indicators.

Of the estimated 13 to 100 million species only about two million have been described. Conservation and sustainable utilization of biological resources cannot be achieved when there is such a gap in knowledge of existing biodiversity and its related potential. As global trends of biodiversity continue to show a decline, scientists in the ACP countries including taxonomists, chemists, biochemists, pharmacologists, and biologists in various disciplines such as evolution and ecology, have the responsibility of increasing collaboration not only among the scientists themselves but with local communities to explore, collect, characterize and preserve biodiversity.

Presently, urgently needed exploration, characterization and documentation of biodiversity are constrained by inadequate resources. Adequate human capacity and infrastructure are critical especially in the ACP region where most of the biodiversity hotspots are found. Therefore, there is need for the international community, national governments and regional bodies to come up with comprehensive scientific expertise capacity building initiatives to support and sustain research programmes. Capacity building to address the weak science base should be given priority especially in building human resource capacity and infrastructure including research facilities and legislative framework.

One of the major challenges relating to governance is that there are some 54 international agreements relating to conservation and sustainable utilization of biodiversity. The Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) is the most important and covers all biodiversity. In addition to the CBD, four other major global biodiversity-related conventions include: the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), the Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals (CMS), the Convention on Wetlands (Ramsar), and the World Heritage Convention (WHC). With some notable exceptions such as the Montreal Protocol, these international instruments share the same problem of weak implementation. National governments must understand that signing and ratification of these instruments alone is not adequate if not accompanied by implementation. Governments, therefore, have the responsibility and obligations to put in place mechanisms that will ensure implementation of the signed and ratified agreements.

The work to be undertaken as a result of these conventions should be complementary and mutually reinforcing. The nature and complexity of these international instruments require that there should be a harmonized approach to legislation governing biodiversity conservation and utilization. It is crucial, therefore, that attention be given to coordinating action, creating synergies and avoiding duplication among the respective treaty bodies and other concerned partners within the non-governmental community.

While there seems to be a multiplicity of international instruments relating to biodiversity, it is evident that implementation of certain issues as provided for in the instruments may be difficult. For example, the CBD provides for fair and equitable sharing of benefits arising from utilization of genetic resources. However, recent analyses have shown that fair and equitable sharing of benefits may be constrained by absence of independent authority in the CBD to impose sanctions in the case of failure to comply with the CBD requirements; weak negotiating positions of local communities; lack of integration of indigenous knowledge in intellectual property rights; and technical and financial costs associated with bio-prospecting. National governments have the responsibility of addressing these issues but their scientists must become more involved in providing technical advice. Biodiversity conservation and sustainable use for social and economic development should be based on local biodiversity management systems of rural communities and indigenous peoples buttressed by sound technical advice from their scientific and legal experts.

Dr. Zacharia Magombo, Acting Deputy General Manager, National Herbarium & Botanic Gardens, Malawi

February 2006


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