Biodiversity and the blind spot of nature conservation policy

By Esther Turnhout, Wageningen University

The IPBES Global Assessment has made clear that the causes of biodiversity loss are located outside of protected areas, yet this remains the focus of much of conservation policy. Addressing this blind spot is challenging, but necessary for effective and just biodiversity governance and nature conservation.

IPBES, biodiversity, and the emergence of biodiversity denialism

Last May 2019, the IPBES (Intergovernmental Platform for Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services) published its Global Assessment report, to which I contributed as one of approximately 150 experts. IPBES is an intergovernmental panel whose task – comparable to what the IPCC does for climate – is to summarize state of the art knowledge about the status of biodiversity, the causes and consequences of loss of biodiversity, and potential solutions.

In the most common usage of the term, biodiversity refers to the number of species of plants and animals in a particular area. In policy, it is a measure of the quality of ecosystems. Areas with many different species, with rare species, or with a unique species composition are considered valuable and are eligible for protection. In the Netherlands and worldwide, this has led to a strategy in nature conservation policy that focuses on establishing protected nature reserves. Although this strategy is often seen as successful, it also has a blind spot which the IPBES report explicitly emphasizes.

This was not the emphasis that was put in the media after the publication of the report; this mainly focused on the one million species that are threatened with extinction. This message subsequently provoked reactions about where this number came from – how can we sure about how many species are extinct if so many species have not even been described – and about how we know that biodiversity loss is actually a problem for humans and well-being. After ‘climate denialism’, we saw the emergence of ‘biodiversity denialism’, a somewhat cynical sign that the knowledge presented was apparently considered important enough to be refuted.

Picture from the Global Assessment press materials (photo credit Shutterstock) with the key messages from the press release by IPBES

Root causes of biodiversity loss and the limits of the protected areas strategy

Regardless of the amount of species out there that are under pressure, a much more important conclusion of the report is that the causes of biodiversity loss are mainly outside protected areas and increasing in size: habitat loss and deforestation for agriculture is one of the most important of these drivers, but large-scale fishing, pollution and climate change are also important causes. This may not be surprising or new, but it is a blind spot. After all, the protected areas strategy has a spatial and local focus, aimed at regulating what is allowed and what is not allowed in those areas. What happens outside those areas will then remain out of sight. There agriculture can intensify and cities and industrial sites can expand, with negative consequences for biodiversity, environment, and landscape quality, among other things. And, ironically, the money earned through the destruction of biodiversity outside protected areas also generates private funding and sponsorship of nature conservation from large companies (also known as green capitalism), leading to complex interdependencies and mutually reinforcing dynamics which are ultimately at the expense of biodiversity.

The protected areas strategy has caused much injustice worldwide. In many cases, local communities have been evicted from the areas, which has left them unable to access important resources such as food, fuel and building materials. These communities thus bear the costs of nature conservation, while they are not the main cause of biodiversity loss, they are the most dependent on those areas for their livelihoods, and they are the most vulnerable to the harmful effects of increasing biodiversity loss. This strategy is also ineffective if nothing is done about these causes outside protected areas, because then biodiversity will inevitably also deteriorate within protected areas. We see this clearly in the Netherlands, where the quality of nature within protected areas is under pressure due to nitrogen deposition from agriculture and to a lesser extent industry and traffic.

Dutch nature reserve ‘De Veluwe’: nitrogen deposition has reduced biodiversity and led to near monocultures of Molinia carulea (photo credit Jerry van Dijk

Transformative change: reforming institutions, incentives and paradigms

So, it is crucial to ensure that biodiversity governance and nature conservation become more effective, just and fair. This requires tackling this blind spot and ensuring that nature conservation policy goes beyond protected areas. The IPBES report speaks of the need for transformative change in society, economy and politics. This requires two things. First of all, we must address the economic interests that benefit from loss of biodiversity. This does not always have to very complex. For example, we can reform harmful subsidies for agriculture, fisheries and oil and gas, so that government stops funding biodiversity loss. Second, by means of laws, regulations, and taxes, government can also ensure a level playing field in which sustainable production is promoted instead of the other way around, as is often the case now. Internationally, we can work on stricter standards and better trade agreements, so that the Netherlands reduces its footprint abroad. And the financial sector is a very important player, which can and should take biodiversity loss much more seriously as an investment risk. The second task is more conceptual. We must move towards a new paradigm for nature policy and protection, based on the mutual coexistence of human and non-human life instead of a strict separation between people and nature. In other words, we need to start recognizing nature as social, and cultural, and people as part of nature.

These proposals will certainly have economic and political consequences, and major interests are at stake. However, in view of the current political and economic situation, the state of nature, but also of other public values such as education and science, and the great inequality worldwide, this may not be bad news at all.

This text is an English translation of an article by Esther Turnhout with the title ‘Biodiversiteit en de blinde vlek van natuurbeleid’ that was published in the journal ‘Beleid en Maatschappij’, 2020, volume 47, nr 1, pages 97-98.

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