Homo sapiens may not have been responsible for the five distinct spasms of extinctions in geological time that began an estimated 440 million years ago, but humans are centrally implicated in the ongoing sixth wave of severe biodiversity loss. The Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) was drafted in 1992 to stem the decline. It entered into force a year later with the avowed aim of significantly reducing loss of species and even using them where compatible to alleviate poverty. But nearly two decades later, the treaty has largely failed to meet its targets. There is now another opportunity available to make it work. The parties to the CBD are holding their 10th conference in the Japanese city of Nagoya and with sufficient political will they can reverse the tide of species losses. The member-countries have done well to acknowledge the all-round disappointment that their renewed commitment made in 2002 to reduce biodiversity loss remains a dead letter. They are now challenged to deliver on their assurances and act more intelligently on climate change, habitat loss and degradation, excessive exploitation, spread of invasive alien species, and pollution, all of which affect plant and animal survival. What provides some hope is the persistence of a large amount of biological diversity.

The key to conservation is to recognise the role of nature in providing ecosystem goods such as fodder, fibre, genetic resources, fresh water, and services such as cleansing of air, nutrient flow, erosion prevention, flood control, pollination, and disease regulation. That this economic dimension of nature is being increasingly accepted the world over is heartening. At the Nagoya conference, the Group of 77 and China have made the forward-looking suggestion that countries of the South should forge closer cooperation to protect biodiversity, and use financial resources available from developed-country partners. In particular, fast-developing China’s focus on protecting 35 priority conservation areas making up 23 per cent of the country is extremely promising. India is also focussed on growth, but it needs to do more for ecosystems facing the onslaught of poorly planned development. It must begin by showing genuine recognition of nature’s value. National development policy cannot afford to ignore the central role played by biodiversity. At the global level, the CBD has the opportunity once again to arrive at a consensus on sustainable use of plant diversity. Such an agreement will help local communities access and benefit from use of invaluable genetic resources. The ethical imperative to save the world’s species is to restrict consumption of all natural resources to a sustainable level and allow for natural renewal.

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