Biodiversity is a made-up word which strictly speaking means the variety of life. Perhaps more relevant to our everyday lives, biodiversity describes the different plants, fungi, bacteria, bugs and beasts that we see around us.
In 1992 governments from around the world gathered in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil to officially sign a commitment for the first time to conserve the world’s biodiversity, to take steps to identify the species and habitats that were important and to protect and sustain natural populations. Perhaps the most important commitment in this was to halt the loss of biodiversity by 2010; an ambitious target but one which to many did not seem that difficult to meet. It meant that each government that signed had pledged to conserve, protect and restore the ecosystems that they were responsible for. But over the years since these pledges were so enthusiastically given, around the world results have proved that even with commitments at a global level, actions on the ground can fall dangerously short.
Almost 20 years later, those nation states gathered again – this time in Nagoya, Japan – to formally accept that attempts to meet the 2010 target have clearly failed. The meeting in Nagoya was a chance to assess what had been achieved but also a critical assessment of where we have been going wrong, and what we can do differently or better in the future.
Perhaps the ‘biodiversity bank balance’ is not actually worse than it was, just very different? There have been some significant biodiversity gains – although mainly these are in terms of ‘unwanted’ alien, invasive and generalist species, like Rhododendron (Rhododendron ponticum) and Japanese knotweed (Fallopia japonica) in woods. Removing invasive species helps our native species flourish, and such work should not be dismissed. Nonetheless, we should remain concerned for the future of the specialist species which cannot cope with rapid change and the unique habitats which cannot be recreated and which are losing out – and as a result we should be concerned for the future of the ecosystems they form part of. The plight of planted ancient woodland sites which await restoration across the UK gives this a very real face. We continue to lose significantly large proportions of the populations of many varied species (and arguably have therefore lost an immeasurable amount of genetic diversity) and activities like replacing tropical rainforest with palm oil plantations, continue to threaten the future of many habitats.
So, in response to the UK’s signature given in Nagoya, what can be done this time to achieve a sustainable future for biodiversity here, and for the rest of the planet where we have an impact? Currently Defra is in the process of writing a new England Biodiversity Strategy which will bring England into line with our commitments at Nagoya but will also seek to address the fact that we did not meet our Rio targets. There is an additional need to deal with some of our legislation – for example, the Trust is calling for new protection for ancient woodland (only 15% is covered by designations and there is no absolute legal protection for this uniquely precious habitat). But even this will not solve the problem. We need to fundamentally re-assess how we ‘do’ biodiversity conservation.
There are still many thoughts to be had on the delivery mechanisms to use in the future. If improving and enhancing biodiversity continues to be seen as something that government departments and charities deal with then we are never going to win this battle. The Woodland Trust has a strong history of working with local communities and would like the opportunity to explore the potential for more community-led biodiversity conservation.
But if ‘localism’ determines what is done, will communities end up with loads of robins, for example, while the violet click beetle and its ilk pass from our natural environment and into the pages of our history books? Could yet more species be lost? Or will we see more success stories featuring community-led conservation like those in the Community Woodland Network?
Which brings me back to the original question; what does biodiversity mean to you? Because it is the lack of understanding – at all levels – of what biodiversity means that is proving to be a real barrier in getting this right.
Frances Winder, Conservation Adviser