The United Nations urged leaders around the world to take action and protect the world’s plants and animals. Otherwise, we’ll all suffer.

Honey bee (Apis mellifera) pollinating Avocado. Image credits: Andrew Mandemaker.

Speaking just before today’s World Wildlife Day on the 3rd of March., the UN Special Rapporteur on human rights and the environment, John H. Knox, made an appeal to protect the planet’s irreplaceable biodiversity. Losing it, he argues, will not only be a catastrophe for the environment but will also cause great human suffering as well.

“We are well on our way to the sixth global extinction of species in the history of the planet, and States are still failing to halt the main drivers of biodiversity loss, including habitat destruction, poaching and climate change,” Mr. Knox stressed. “What is less well understood,” he added, “is that the loss of biodiversity undermines the enjoyment of a wide range of human rights, including rights to life, health, food and water.”

The remarks from Knox come right after the bleak announcements from a conference on biodiversity held at the Vatican. According to several researchers present there, half of the world’s species (plants and animals) might go extinct by 2100 unless serious action is taken — fast.

“Rich western countries are now siphoning up the planet’s resources and destroying its ecosystems at an unprecedented rate,” said biologist Paul Ehrlich, of Stanford University in California. “We want to build highways across the Serengeti to get more rare earth minerals for our cellphones. We grab all the fish from the sea, wreck the coral reefs and put carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. We have triggered a major extinction event. The question is: how do we stop it?”

This is first-ever UN report focusing on the relationship between humans and biodiversity. Knox’s work underlines how much we depend on these species, and how much we have to lose if we don’t properly care for them. Humankind benefits in many ways from ecosystems; these so-called environmental services are involved in our day to day lives, even though we don’t realize it. The help with our provision of clean drinking water, pollinating our food, and with the decomposition of waste. Healthy ecosystems provide better services, but many ecosystems are suffering due to human activities.

Earth’s biodiversity si simply stunning. This is a sample of fungi collected in summer 2008 in Northern Saskatchewan mixed woods, near LaRonge. It is an example of the species diversity of fungi. In this photo, there are also leaf lichens and mosses. Image credits: Sasata.

“People cannot fully enjoy their human rights without the services that healthy ecosystems provide.” Mr. Knox emphasized. “And protecting biodiversity is necessary to ensure that ecosystems remain healthy and resilient.”

Basically, agriculture and fisheries will be among the first to suffer. The loss of species will lead to unpredictable domino effects in ecosystems, seriously threatening food security. Water security is next on the list — we don’t give much thought to it, but natural filters are extremely important for our water security. Next, the right to health will be threatened. Who knows how many potential medicines will forever be gone with the extinction of plants and animals?

“While the loss of biodiversity affects everyone, the worst-off are those who depend most closely on nature for their material and cultural life,” Mr. Knox stated. “Even when cutting down forests or building dams have economic benefits, those benefits are usually experienced disproportionately by those who did not depend directly on the resource and the costs are imposed disproportionately on those who did.

Basically, as the UN has repeatedly explained (backed by a number of studies and reviews), we depend on plants and animals just as much as they depend on us. “The risks posed by forest destruction throughout the world are highly significant for all. Not only are forests a critical source of timber and non-timber forest products, but they provide environmental services that are the basis of life on Earth,” a 2012 review read.

More worryingly, a 2016 study highlights how we ignore the benefits from environmental services: “Despite their value, environmental services are often lost as land users typically receive no compensation for the services their land generates for others and therefore have no economic reason to take these services into account in making decisions about land use.”

The same philosophy seems to be applied globally. Whether it’s humans or animals, environmental services often fly under the radar. We don’t realize how much we need them, and we don’t appreciate them — we don’t appreciate the world’s biodiversity, not as we should. Yet as mister Knox concludes, defending biodiversity is not just about plants and animals. It’s also about human rights.

“Biological diversity and human rights are interlinked and interdependent. The two must go hand-in-hand,” Mr. Knox added. “States’ obligations to fulfil their human rights obligations include a duty to protect the biodiversity on which those rights depend. In addition to that general duty, States have specific duties, which include public information about measures that adversely affect biodiversity, providing for the participation of citizens in biodiversity-related decisions and providing access to effective remedies in cases of biodiversity loss and degradation.”

 

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