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Convention on Biological
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Summary text of the CBD
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Ireland's contribution at recent CBD meetings - COP8

vert bar Why preserving biological diversity is important

The Earth has always supplied the human race with food, water, shelter, energy and natural resources. However, all of us are now aware that this once seemingly endless supply is on the point of collapse. Natural gas and oil are in short supply, forests have been felled, rivers dammed and polluted, soils exhausted, and marine fish stocks wiped out.

Even the air that we breathe needs replenishment by nature - all the oxygen in the Earth's atmosphere is consumed and regenerated over a period of 2,000 years. It is replaced by the process of photosynthesis, in which water molecules are literally pulled apart, using the energy of sunlight, releasing oxygen and fixing hydrogen into chemical processes. Every day, global photosynthesis converts 2 cubic kilometres of water into oxygen, thus replenishing this vital gas.

On average each of us in Ireland consume 54,000 litres of water per year. Much of the purification of this water, both before and after we use it, is achieved by the natural filtering process of the biological systems around us, from soils, bogland, rivers and lakes. Pollutants and other wastes are again mitigated by the biological health of our surroundings. The rising costs in water and waste collection is a reflection of the extent to which these natural systems are no longer able to cope.

Agricultural crops in this country are protected by a huge army of ladybirds, insect-eating birds and other friendly wildlife that provides a vital, and overlooked role in the economy. Many fruit and vegetable crops also rely upon pollination supplied by insects. Domestic bees undertake some of the work in this country, but in other parts of the world pollination is entirely dependent upon wild pollinators.

These natural cycles of water and air, as well as pest and pollution control are referred to as ecosystem services. In essence they are 'free' services provided by the environment, but if used unsustainably there will be a major cost implication - It is estimated that globally these services provide a net worth in excess of $33 trillion per year.

Biologically speaking there are also a number of reasons why it is important to preserve as many species as possible. For example some might argue that the majority of 'weeds' and wildlife in Ireland serve no useful purpose and 'we wouldn't miss them if they went'. In fact even the most minor species plays a role in an ecosystem, and the stability, adapatability, integrity and structure of the whole ecosystem is often dependent upon the presence of the full set of species.

STABILITY - A high species diversity leads to greater stability, loss of species leads to instability.

It is a fact that the more species present in an ecosystem the more stable it is from year to year. Arctic ecosystems have relatively few species, as a consequence their populations are often extremely erratic in terms of numbers. Adverse weather can remove predators or food sources at a stroke. Thus Lemming populations can periodically explode in numbers, and mass migrations occur. Predation, disease and food supply exert a natural balance that prevents any one species dominating. Without this stability species populations can see-saw in numbers from year to year.

Islands off Ireland's shore often experience similar changes, for example the presence of rabbits without their natural enemies causes unnaturally high population levels to develop, destroying vegetation, nesting sites for birds etc. followed by a catastrophic decline and lack of grazing which can be equally harmful to other wildlife.

ADAPTABILITY - An ability to cope with change depends upon a large, healthy population.

Global Warming and Climate Change are the big buzzwords of our time - what will it bring and what will happen? Not knowing the answer means we cannot prepare and nor can the rest of biological life. However one of the most important factors will be how nature around us adapts - climate change is not new, the last ice age ended just 10,000 years ago.

This ability to adapt will depend upon natural selection - some individuals, better able to cope with cooler, hotter, wetter or drier conditions will survive - thus the species will evolve to adjust to these changes. However, a species can only achieve this if it has the necessary genetic diversity available to survive the changing climate and habitats. If the genetic pool is already narrowed, and a species is confined to small or isolated populations, then the building blocks for that change will not be there.

INTEGRITY - Without a full compliment of its components, an ecosystem looses integrity.

The loss of even one or two species can make an ecosystem more prone to invasion by introduced, alien animals and plants. Healthy, undamaged habitats are often robust and can cope with a degree of change. However, as more and more species are lost a domino effect sets in. Without a top predator, populations of birds or small mammals may grow too numerous, overgrazing, defoliating and destroying insect populations. Once pollinators or dispersers are destroyed, the plant populations at the bottom of the ecological pyramid are impacted.

The giant rhubarb-like plant Gunnera from South America escaped into the wild in Ireland nearly a century ago. In Achill Island it now dominates many of the blanket bogs following reductions in the amount of grazing by sheep. Until the 1990s, Lough Derg's waters were murky from the presence of too many nutrients and the growth of planktonic algae. The accidental introduction of the Zebra mussel into the Shannon river system, from Russia has brought about many changes, amongst them the filtering out, and cleaning of the once polluted waters. A consequence has been the sudden appearance of large populations of the aquatic weed Water Violet, now able to grow on the lake bed that was previously shaded by the polluted waters.

STRUCTURE - The presence of one or two species can profoundly effect the structure of an ecosystem.

In Yellowstone National Park (USA) wolves were reintroduced a few years ago. The deer population has now altered its behaviour, feeding at dawn and dusk only, and hiding during the day. This has changed the vegetation structure completely, since the deer no longer graze continuously without fear of predation. Riverine forests have re-established themselves along all the small creeks in the region, where once closely-clipped lawns grew. Meanwhile the number of deer has stayed more or less the same. The presence of this top predator has had a profound, and totally unexpected, effect in restoring the Park's vegetation.

The recent reduction in the numbers of farm animals has had profound effects on the vegetation of parts of Ireland. One of Ireland's botanical gems - the Burren in county Clare - is dependent upon a certain level of grazing. Reduction in farm animals has resulted in encroachment by hazel scrub, and the loss of many plant species in some areas.


The Potato looms large in our history. Both staple food and unwitting cause of the great calamity it provides many vital lessons in Biodiversity. The blight that took hold in the 1850's swept through the fields of Ireland because almost the entire crop was a single variety (The Lumper), all plants were therefore equally susceptible, and the entire national crop was destroyed in a matter of days. Potato breeding is vital to keep ahead of the constantly evolving potato blight. This in turn is dependent upon using wild forms of potatoes from the Andes of South America - Genetic Engineering can never replace the search for original genes, this technology simply allows us to transfer genes at a stroke rather than laboriously breeding them into crops.

But the habitats in which the wild potatoes grow are themselves severely threatened by land clearance, growing populations, and the cultivation of cash crops. Thus conservation of the flora of other countries is equally important if we are to conserve the genetic richness of wheat, rice, peas, beans and the many other plants we depend upon. Preserving the health of our food supply depends upon a global effort to preserve biological diversity everywhere. Because many of these wild crop relatives often grow in economically poor, developing countries, it is vital that we share the value of that diversity with them, in order to provide both the incentive and the ability to stem the loss.

How Healthy are the World's Ecosystems ?

The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (MEA) has recently completed a global survey of the status of the World's Ecological Health. The findings are grim: 60 per cent of the planet's ecosystem services are currently being degraded by human activity. However, the authors of this report remain optimistic that if remedial action is taken quickly and these resources are managed wisely, much could still be recovered and restored.

There are five global Conventions which relate to Biological diversity: the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), 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).

Each of these conventions provides a focus to tackle specific international programmes of work to tackle the continuing loss of biological diversity. The programmes are pragmatic, and largely consensus driven, so as to achieve conservation as well as allowing for continued development. At the UN Conference on Environment and Development (the Earth Summit) held in Rio de Janeiro in 1992, Ireland was one of over 150 nations that endorsed Agenda 21, a major blueprint for how the world’s nations can work individually and collectively towards sustainable development for the 21st century. Sustainable development is development which meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. It is not just about environmental protection, but also concerns the quality of life, the range and distribution of resources and benefits, the interactions between environment and development, and provision for the future. In effect, it seeks to reconcile the socio-economic aspirations of society with the ability of the natural environment and its resources to accommodate those aspirations; to ensure that development is within the carrying capacity of the environment. This need to strike an appropriate balance between development and conservation is at the heart of sustainable development.

As long ago as 1995, the Irish Government has committed itself to National Sustainable development. An important document was the publication of Guidelines for Local Authorities to develop Local Agenda 21 programmes to enhance Sustainable Development.

You can download the Local Agenda 21 guidelines here

Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD)

The CBD, negotiated under the auspices of the United Nations Environment Programme, at the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro was opened for signature on 5 June 1992, and entered into force on 29 December 1993. It is now one of the most widely adopted international conventions, helping to harmonise and prioritise worldwide actions and initiatives to conserve biodiversity. To date, there are 188 Parties to the Convention, including Ireland, out of the 191 countries in the world - no other international instrument has such a level of international acceptance. The CBD aims to promote

a) the conservation of biodiversity,
b) the sustainable use of its components, and
c) the fair and equitable sharing of benefits arising from the use of genetic resources.

In essence the Convention aims to try to manage biodiversity sustainably. Recognising that some of the poorest countries on earth are also holders of some of the richest biological wealth provides a driving force for international action. Summary text of the CBD as a pdf document is available here . . .