From: James P. Leape, WWF International
Published March 23, 2006 12:00 AM

Are We Winning the Race to Stop Biodiversity Loss? -- A Guest Commentary

With the natural forest loss rate at 13 million hectares a year — about 25 hectares a minute — the race is on to protect what’s left of the world’s forests.


If the world’s governments want to significantly reduce the current rate of biodiversity loss by 2010, as they have signed up to do under the United Nation’s Convention on Biological Diversity, they are going to have to stem the tide of deforestation, and increase protection efforts and sustainable uses, such as certified forest management.


Forests are the lungs of the earth, regulating the earth’s climate, and are our storehouses of biological diversity, hosting over two-thirds of known terrestrial species and numerous plants and herbs, some of which may hold the secrets to curing cancer and other diseases. It is estimated that some 1.6 billion people worldwide depend on forests, including 60 million indigenous people who call them home.


But, only about 12%, or 480 million hectares, of the planet’s forests have been formally protected. WWF, the global conservation organization, has been part of the drive to increase protection, helping to safeguard large tracts of forests and pristine landscapes in the Amazon, Borneo, the Congo Basin, Russia, Canada, China and beyond. WWF aims to see another 75 million hectares of the world’s most outstanding forests brought under protection by 2010.


With such a timeline just several years away, the only way to accomplish these ambitious — but achievable — goals is through creative partnerships.


The single most ambitious partnership to date is the Amazon Region Protected Areas initiative, led by the Brazilian government in collaboration with the World Bank, Global Environment Facility, the German Development Bank (KfW), WWF and together with local communities. Through this initiative, some 50 million hectares of the Amazon’s diverse habitats and species will be protected in a system of well-manage and well-financed parks and reserves — surpassing the size of the entire US National Park system.


Protecting the Amazon from high rates of deforestation and land clearing is no easy task, but the multi-stakeholder initiative has been living up to expectations and delivering extraordinary conservation results. Nearly 16 million hectares of protected areas have already been created. And, just last month Brazilian President Luiz InĂ¡cio Lula Da Silva signed a decree creating new protected areas in the Amazonian State of Para. Comprising an area of 6.4 million hectares — twice the size of Belgium — the designation includes two new national parks and the major expansion of a third, four national forests, and an environmental protection zone where development is strictly regulated. This mosaic of new protected areas opens genuine prospects for halting deforestation, conserving biodiversity, and promoting sustainable local and regional development.


Hundreds of indigenous communities living in the Amazon account for the region’s rich, cultural diversity. Protecting forest areas helps these communities protect their land and culture from external threats and development, and in some areas, allows them access to the forests to sustainably harvest such important commodities as Brazilian nuts. It is critical for local and indigenous groups to be part of the conservation process. Without them, biodiversity would surely be lost.


This large-scale conservation vision in Brazil, based on good science, strong public and private partnerships, and community involvement is a recipe for success and must be replicated elsewhere.


In fact, half way across the world, WWF is working with the governments of Brunei, Indonesia and Malaysia to conserve 22 million hectares of inter-connected equatorial rainforest in Borneo — the world’s third largest island — through a network of protected areas and sustainably-managed forests.


And in Africa, WWF helped bring together African heads of states to sign an agreement to protect and sustainably manage over seven per cent of the Congo Basin, the second largest area of tropical forest in the world after the Amazon. These forests are home to more than half of the continent’s animal species, including most of the forest elephants left in Africa and the entire world’s population of lowland gorillas. They also provide food, materials, and shelter to some 20 million people.


The conservation and sustainable management of forests and the species that live in them are critical for the survival of local, rural and indigenous communities in the developing world, many of whom are poor and have been marginalized by poorly designed development strategies of the past. Bold commitments and ambitious partnerships are the secret to achieving successful conservation.


As diplomats and environmentalists gather in Brazil this week at a meeting of the UN Convention on Biological Diversity to address the rate at which the world’s natural resources are being degraded and destroyed, they should look to large-scale, multi-partner conservation initiatives as a way to make it to that 2010-targeted finish line.


James P. Leape is Director General of WWF, the global conservation organization, based in Switzerland.


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