Staying Alive Niles Eldredge's Life in the Balance NS 20 Jun 98 46
BIODIVERSITY may be merely a word, but it sums up late 20th-century ideas. With "heritage" and "millennium", it is one of a trinity of words that celebrate the past and question the future. We owe its common usage to the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992. And it's the theme of Niles Eldredge's Life in the Balance. It may have all been said before, but not in quite this way. Like the Bible, Koran and Talmud, this book praises the act of creative evolution and sets out a code of be haviour for humanity. It is a natural history of the world seen through the eves of a latter-day prophet. And one who has had the good fortune to serve in one of Earth's great treasure houses of knowledge, the American Museum of Natural History in New York. There he has teamed from the insects, the most biodiverse-and most successful-group of all living things. Here, he writes to warn of the profligacy and arrogance of another social organism, humankind. Eldredge takes us on a journey across the world, exploring the evolution of its' inhabitants. He begins in Botswana's Okavango Swamp, the last place left in the areat continent of Africa that still bears some semblance to its original pristine state. it is the birthplace of the ancestral Eve, whose mitochondria we all bear. From Okavango, the excitement of the living world is ours to explore, though not at leisure. Our mentor races us back across 3.6 bil lion vears of creative evolution then fast-forwards us towards an uncertain future. The text is a delight, written as if the story in ill its intricate detail has been bottled up and is bursting to get out. This is slich a strono, impres sion that I had the feeling that -once the author had his fingers on the keyboard, the book just had to happen. It is from that enviable standpoint that Eldredge tells the tale of evolution: how life began, how sponges got their holes, elephants their trunks, spotted owls their spots and people their insatiable arrogance. He floats you across complex gene pools, makes vou worship at the temple of biologist Lynn Margulis, known for her spirited advocacy of new ways of looking at early life that helped to reveal the riches of cladistics. Then he takes you on safari through a vibrant living world replete with solar-powered ecosystems. The most biodi verse of these such as rainforests and coral reefs are found in tropical regions that are short on nutrients. To visitors, living may seem easy in the tropics, but native organisms have to perform a difficult balancing act, recycling non-renewable resources, the lack of any of which can tip the balance against survival. So why are the tropics so rich in species? Selection acts on species struggling, to survive in harsh environments. Natural selection is the capacity to adjust to any changes bv seizing each and every new advantage on offer. Biodiversity is the product of species repeatedly chiselling out niches in complex systems. Ecosystems thrive by always making ends meet: many different organisms are doing, a variety of jobs, each one of which depends upon a job well done by all the others. It is biodiversity that has kept evolution firmly on the road of sustainable development for 3.6 million millennia. Sustainability is manifest in Africa, the birthplace of humanity and the last continent to support a full portfolio of megafauna. Or to put it in the author's words: "Why are all the big hairies extinct except in Africa, the continent that has supported hunting people longer than any other? The answer is that we humans evolved in concert with, and literally as part of the African ecosystems. The big hairies know us well. They and we grew up together, so to speak in a dynamic equilibrium, an equilibrium (of interdependence) still palpable today" This was the way of the living world until the invention of agriculture: the most dangerous thing to come out of Africa, a mere 10,000 years ago. From then on, biodiverse self-balancing ecosystems have been replaced with monocultures and overgrazing. Soil erosion became rife, stripping the world of its true assets and ;ending ever more species to the wall. A key part of this sad and catastrophic process has been the loss of indigenous cultures, the knowledge that allowed our ancestors to live at least in quasi-harmony with the local living systems-if not with their human neighbours.Life in the Balance lists the species we know we have already lost and bemoans the fact that we may be losing 27,000 species each year, out of a possible total of 10 million. Equally shocking is the fact that the world has already lost more than half of its human languages and the customs and ways of life that went with them. So awesome a story does he relate that the illustrations might seem out of keeping with a -book about biodiversity and humanity. Where's the colour, the vibrancy of life? Enough adulation. It is a little strange that eutrophication, the enrichment of both fresh and inshore waters with phosphate and nitrate, hardly gets a mention. Eutrophication is one of the most widespread and worrying of factors causing loss of species and imbalance in ecosystems. Perhaps my greatest worry is that Life in the Balance is so short, so telegraphic. It is what I suppose would be called in streetwise jargon a "fast book". But that, of course, is actually just what we need: an easy-to-read bestseller that speaks with an authority that should make even the most sceptical members of our throwaway society sit up and pay attention.
Life in the Balance could be that book. Take a look at the executive summary between pages 177 and 182. Eldredge focuses on the Panama Canal, a vital link in the world's $1-trillion-a-day economic exchange. The canal only continues to work thanks to conservation of the rainforests in its catchment area. They are the source of the water, which raises and lowers each ship through the five-lock system on their short cut to serve the global economy. Without the forests, rain carries away the topsoil, which silts up the canal. I beg every board member of every company in the world to read this section at least. Follow that up with the sixth chapter "Striking a balance". But, if you don't intend to follow the new code of biodiversity practice, don't leave the book around for your kids to read. If you do, you are in for a hard time, but not as hard as theirs will become. For without immediate action to protect the biodiversity of the world, the future of our children is indeed bleak.
David Beliamy is an itinerant botanist
LESSONS FROM PARADISE Review by Peter H. Raven Sci Am 70 Aug 98
Life in the Balance: Humanity and the Biodiversity Crisis BY NILES ELDREDGE ILLUSTRATIONS BY PATRICIA WYNNE A Peter N. Nevraumont Book/Princeton University Press, Princeton, N.J., 1998 ($24.95)
No institution in the U.S. has been more influential in inspiring people of all ages with the wonders of life on Earth, past and present, than the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) in New York City. Most appropriately, the museum has now turned its attention to biodiversity and opened a splendid new exhibit on biodiversity and the ways in which we are affecting it. Simultaneously, noted AMNH scientist Niles Eldredge has presented a book to enhance the experience and to make more information available. This is a book for the general reader who wants to understand what the mysterious notion of "biodiversity " comprises and to appreciate the damage we are doing to our life-support systems on a daily basis.
Eldredge is at his best in telling his readers about the rich web of life that exists in the Okavango Delta in Botswana (a landlocked country just north of South Africa). This remarkable area is one that he knows well and loves deeply. It shows us, he points olit, "precisely what... the environment in which we evolved ... was like." Furthermore, Egypt was like this at the time of the pharaohs, and our civilization grew and became more complex and varied under such conditions. Mummified remains of sacred ibises and inscriptions on the walls of the pyramids attest to the accuracy of this view. Several thousand years ago droves of wildlife and all the interwoven ecological systems of which they were part existed throughout the East African Rift Valley and, though sometimes in ditniiiished expression, far beyond. Now they exist only in the Okavango. There our ancestors lived in balance with and exploited the productivity of the ecosystenis that still occupy this huge depression. Eldredge describes it as a fan-shaped system of waterways, grasslands and riverine forest, some 170 kilometers (106 miles) wide and 140 kilometers (87 miles) long-a gigantic oasis where the water remains fresh and life plentiful. The diversity of the vertebrates that coexist here is very great and that of invertebrates even more so. Dominant in the region's productivity are mound-building termites, Macroterines micbaelseni. A mature mound is often three meters high-a dominant feature of the landscape. it contains some five million individual termites, which grow and harvest specialized fungi that occur nowhere elsel nourish plants that are abundant only in the vicinity of the mound (some of which form the principal food of the termites) and feed dozens of species of predators large aild small. In various stages of maturation and abandonment, the mounds provide homes for inany of these animals. In the mounds, an elaborate system of vents maintains the temperature at 25 to 30 degrees Celsius (77 to 86 degrees Fahrenheit) atid the liuiiiidity between 88 and 96 percent: neither the termites nor the fungi can survive outside these ranges. Building on this vision of an early and relatively unspoiled paradise, Eldredge shows liow hunians, with their cattle and fences, are encroaching on the Okavango Delta today. The cattle are barred from the tsetse fly-infested swamps, but the fences halt the native antelopes and other grazing mammals in their normal migratory tracks, and they die in droves along the extensive fence lines. The development of a more comprehensive system, involving both humans and na ture, has been undertaken by the Camp fire Movement in East Africa and prac ticed well and beneficially by the Kenya Wildlife Service under the direction of jonah Western. These approaches point the way to greater success In preserving what Eldredge calls "a fantastic remnant of our own ancestral climes."
Beyond the delta, similar ecosystems have not fared well at the hands of our forebears and are not faring well now. With the cooling of the waters off Africa for the past several million years, the continent itself began to coot and dry out. Savanna vegetation became widespread and largely replaced the rain forests and other dense forests that formerly occupied vast areas. Our own ancestors adopted their distinctive ways of life in these newly formed climes and, Eldredge argues, ultimately came to live in a degree of harmony with the "big harries" (the large African mammals) that formed such an important feature of their lives. As people spread throughout the world, however, they came into contact with many other big hairies and quickly decimated the populations of these creatures, a ready source of food and sometimes a danger as well.
"As I tvrite these words, we are selling ourselves gasoline at lowest prices since 1920.
At the time Homo sapiens developed agriculture in a number of widely scattered centers, some 10,000 years ago, there were very probably fewer than five million of us throughout the world. Now we number nearly six billion. We consume, waste or divert about half the total primary net photosynthetic productivity on land; we use about half the total supplies of freshwater and affect directly some two thirds of the planet's surface. Over the past 50 years, while our total population has grown by 3.5 billion people, we have lost a quarter of our topsoil and a fifth of our agricultural lands, changed the characteristics of the atmosphere in important ways and cut down a major part of the forests. It is no wonder that we are driving, and will drive, such a high proportion of the other organisms that live here with us to extinction over the course of the next century, thus limiting our own material and spiritual prospects substantially. In his concluding chapter, Eldredge, having shown the ways in which humans are destroying the very fabric of life on Earth, offers a number of practical suggestions about how we can help ensure its survival in as rich and diverse a form as possible. The first step, he ar gues persuasively, is to acknowledge the problem. Once we have done so, the attainment of a stable human population at whatever level we choose-thus setting the standard of living that we collectively find acceptable-is one key elemeilt in making the transition to a sustainable world. This transition const'ltutes the most critical task we face in the years to come. We must reformulate our economic principles, employ our existitig expertise in conservation and strike a balance between what we perceive as human needs and the continued existence of healthy ecosystems. Perhaps most difficult of all, it means we must organize the political will to confront this problem for the sake of our children and grandchildren-and for the harmonious and productive continuation of life on Earth. The U.S., wealthiest country the world has ever known, is home to some 4.5 percent of the human population, yet we control about a quarter of the world's economy and cause some 25 to 30 percent of its pollution and ecological damage. This simple relation ought to make us aware that we depend on global stability and on the peace and prosperity of nations everywhere-but we are not. As I write these words, we are selling ourselves gasoline at the lowest prices since 1920. We are deeply in arrears to the United Nations, demanding that weaker and poorer nations take the lead in controlling global climate change. And we have joined a liandful of small and politically impotent states in refusing to ratify the Convention on Biological Diversity, already signed by nearly 175 nations and the principal legal instrument for protecting the biodiversity on which we depend on a global basis. These alarming facts point clearly to the unreality of our worldview and the dangers it poses for us and all other inhabitants of this planet. One can only fervently hope that both this book and the magnificent AMNH exhibit will inspire us, as so many have been inspired in that 'institution before, to take action on an individual and collective basis to deal with the world as it is rather than to follow blindly the imperfect model that now so dangerously guides our actions.
PETER H. RAVEN is director of the Missouri Botanical Garden
in St. Louis.
Dust to Dust
Things go wrong at the Global Environment Facility NS 6 Jun 98 18
CAMEROON is like many countries in west Africa: ecologically rich, economically poor and at war with itself. Its tropical forests and savannas, home to rare black rhinos, elephants, gorillas and a wealth of plant life, are being destroyed as people try to scratch a living from the land. As such, Cameroon is an ideal candidate for envirorunental aid from the West. In 1995, developed nations agreed to invest $17 mfllion over four years in a project to manage and improve its biodiversity. The scheme is run by the Global Environment Facility (GEF), a fund set up in 1991 by the United Nations and the World Bank to channel money from the West to help solve environmental problems in the developing world. But three years on, according to a damning internal assessment, the Cameroon project has comprehensively failed. An unpublished review carried out last year by the GEF concludes that it is poorly conceived, badly managed and plagued by "incessant bickering and resentment over administrative failures". The project is also a victim of poor science. It is supposed to protect six different ecological areas in Cameroon, but there is no consistency in the conservation methods used in the different areas, the review says. Worse, because few data on species and their distribution were collected at the start, there is no way to judge its progress. What information there is on the status of wildlife is "often inaccurate and/or out of date".
As an example of how environmental aid has failed, the Cameroon project is far from unique. Two major evaluations of the GEF published earlier this year, one by insiders and one by outside consultants, conclude that its biodiversity projects have fundamental flaws. Even the agencies that run them-the World Bank, the UN Environment Programme and the UN Development Programme-rate 12 per cent of them as "unsatisfactory'.
Out of focus
At the Earth Sununit in Rio six years ago, the GEF was welcomed by developing countries and nongovernmental organisations (NGOS) as an innovative means of redistributing wealth to preserve ecological health. It was adopted as the main source of funding for the UN conventions on biological diversity and climate change. Since then, with $1.6 billion donated by 34 countries, it has approved 230 projects throughout Asia, the Pacific, sub-Saharan Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean. Conserving biodiversity is only one of its aims. It is also charged with combating climate change, protecting intemational waters and phasing out ozone-depleting chemicals. Many of the complaints about the GEF come from those it is designed to help. Developing countries say that it mainly addresses envirorunental problems of concem to the West while ignoring the most crucial issues affecting the Third World.
Anil Agarwal, director of the Centre of Science and Environment in New Delhi, says the fund could do better if it listened to the right people. "The GEF is focusing mainly on government institutions and underemphasising the role of small NGOs and community groups. Desertification, for example, affects nearly 30 per cent of the world's land1 million hectares in Africa and 1.4 million hectares in Asia-and costs countries $42 billion every year. Yet this problem receives only marginal support. It is only eligible for GEF funding if it affects one of the four agreed areas. "It is time the GEF seriously considered the issue of land degradation," says Mostafa Tolba, the former head of the UN Environment Programme. Of the projects the GEF does fund, those conceming biodiversity have drawn the most criticism.
A review compiled by the GEF secretariat in Washington DC says this is because they are overambitious, exclude local communities and operate in a scientific vacuum. The underlying reasons for the loss of biodiversity are "often poorly understood", the review says. A second report, written by 25 independent environmental consultants, is equally critical. It concludes that the fund "had not been able to focus on ecosystems of greatest global importance to the extent that would be desirable". Gareth Porter, an American consultant from Washington DC and the report's lead author, points out that there has been no scienfific attempt to priority which ecosystems and species should be targeted. Some scientists argue that priority should be given to ecosystems with the greatest diversity of species, such as rainforests and coral reefs.
Others think species confined to particular regions, such as rhinos, or especially vulnerable ecosystems such as mountains and coastlines, ought to top the list. In the absence of any agreed scientific criteria, the GEF secretariat has decided that any site that has been designated by an intemational organisation as a nature conservation area is of potential "global importance". But as Porter points out, this is not a very discriminating technique. just three of the designations used to detemdne grant eligibility-World Heritage Sites, Ramsar wetlands and Biosphere reservescover more than 1000 sites.
Money for nothing
In practice, 60 per cent of the funds have been directed towards the 25 countries with the greatest biodiversity in Africa, Asia and Latin America. Porter, however, says that national goven-tments have sometimes directed money to areas of less than global importance within those countries. Grants have also been given to countries with no globally important sites at an, he claims, like the $2.5 million awarded to Lebanon in 1996. As in most UN agencies, decisions about the allocation of GEF funds are complicated by national rivalries. Porter points out that many of the 32 countries on the GEF's ruling council resist any scientific attempt to rank different ecosystems because they fear it will limit their choices. This is unlikely to change, he says. "They don't want scientists telling them what is globally important." Pier Vellinga, a Dutch envirorunental scientist who chairs GEF's Scientffic and Technical Advisory Panel, agrees that a more systematic analysis of biodiversity priorities is required. But he urges sympathy for GEF's plight. "CEF is a unique experimental organisation that brings difficult issues to the table," he says. One of the most vexed issues is funding. At the first GEF assembly in New Delhi in April, governments pledged $2.75 billion over the next four years. Although this is nearly twice that spent over the past six years, it is dismissed by developing countries and NGOs as 'chewing gum". They argue that $125 billion is really needed. But one GEF failure disappoints environinental groups more than all others. An explicit aim of establishing the fund was to force the organisations involved to take environmental sustainability to heart. In particular, it was hoped that the World Bank would think twice before investing in development projects that damage environments the GEF is supposed to protect. This has not happened. Between 1993 and 1997, the bank invested $9.4 billion in fossil fuel projects that will accelerate climate change, and less than $300 million on schemes to prevent it. Across the globe, say envirorunentalists, the World Bank has backed dams, roads and chemicalintensive agricultural projects that threaten to wreck protected ecosystems. In Cameroon it is proposing to fund a 1000-kilometre oil pipeline across the country to Chad. Korinna Horta of the Environmental Defense Fund, an American pressure group, says this will damage the very rainforests the GEF-sponsored project is trying to save. The GEF, she concludes, is no more than "Band-Aid for a battered planet". Rob Edwards and Sanjay Kumar N*
Encephalartos woodii is classed as extinct
Red Alert NS 11 Apr 98 12
MORE than a tenth of the world's plant species are heading towards extinction, according to the first fully comprehensive study on the crisis. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Plants, published by the World Conservation Union this week, includes 33,798 species, of which 380 are extinct in the wild, 371 may be extinct, 6522 are endangered and the remainder are vulnerable or rare. "This is a huge number of species," says Mark Collins, chief executive of the World Conservation Monitoring Centre (WCMC), which compiled the study. "It's not just an aesthetic effect. This is an assault on the resources that people depend on." The Red List is the culmination of 20 years' work bv scores of institutions, led by the WCMeand the Royal Botanic Gardens (RBG) in Edinburgh and Kew. The researchers analysed over 18 ,000 separate sources of data. Even so, the editors, Harriet Gillett of the WCMC and Kerry Walter of RBG Edinburgh, believe there are many threatened species that do not appear in the list: certain parts of the world such as Brazil and central Africa are little known to botanists and are under-represented. Ninety-one per cent of the species listed are endemic to just one country. Those growing on isolated islands are especially vulnerable, and are often pushed out by plants and animals introduced by humans. Many threatened species are economically significant. For example, a rare Chilean vine, Berberidopsis coralline, is the basis of a basket-weaving industry, and a species of Madagascan palm, Ravenea dransfieldii, is used for food. "In any future conservation strategy, species that are economically important will be clear candidates for priority treatment," says Gillett. The Red List makes no attempt to analyse why species are threatened, and Gillett sees this as the next task. "It's now crucial to know what the threats are if we are to work out what action needs to be taken," she says. Walter hopes that the Red List "will wake people up to the fact that we spend very little on conserving plants, yet there are many more threatened plants than threatened animals". He estimates that for every dollar spent on animal conservation, a mere 10 cents goes towards plants. Charlie Pye-Smith