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Ecosystem Services - Biodiversity and Protected Areas

October 13 2015 - by Dr. David Lee, CLP's Environment Specialist

Today we continue our blog series on ecosystem services that we derive from nature.  Biodiversity or biological diversity are the words we use to describe the array of plant and animal life found on our planet.  The biologically and culturally diverse Caribbean Islands are a global biodiversity hotspot.  As a result of its geography and climate, the Caribbean is one of the world's greatest centres of unique biodiversity.  The region sustains an exceptional array of ecosystems ranging from montane cloud forests to cactus scrublands, and hosts dozens of highly rare and threatened species, including species found nowhere else on the planet.  If the species which contribute to the biodiversity in a specific country are found only in that country, they are known as endemic species.

So, what good are all these plants and animals?  Certainly, one realises that they provide us with food for our sustenance, nourishment and growth, and materials to make clothes to keep us warm and provide protection.  Some of you might even be aware that they can lift the human spirit, e.g. flowers and plants around our homes, spectacular vistas (both marine and terrestrial), and provide company (birds, cats and dogs), etc.  However, I am asked continuously what good are those pesky mosquitoes, slinky lizards and snakes or cockroaches, not to mention “macca bush”, cow itch or poison ivy.  The fact is that all play a part in the web of life.  A healthy ecosystem is in balance and each of these “less-than-desirable” plants or animals supports other life forms (including us) in our existence.

Whenever we lose species, in particular endemic species, their genes are lost forever.  Biodiversity has throughout human history provided treatment for human ailments, e.g. the willow tree gave us aspirin, mould on bread (the humble “junjo”) gave us penicillin, venom from a Brazilian snake gave us ace inhibitors for controlling hypertension.  Our own Caribbean folklore is replete with “bush medicine” which the pharmaceutical industry is increasingly interested in researching.  Researchers are bio-prospecting fungi contained in leaf litter in our forests and marine algae for bioactive compounds hoping to find cures for cancer, Alzheimer’s and other diseases that afflict us humans.  However, this biodiversity is under real threat of being lost.

The combination of a high population growth rate and high population densities, massive seasonal influxes, increasing urbanization of the population, monetary inequity and poverty, and the increasing cost of major import goods has led to unsustainable demand for land and natural resources to the detriment of the Caribbean’s biodiversity and ecosystems.   The development of marine and terrestrial protected areas is, therefore, critical to preserve biodiversity, preserve ecosystem integrity, battle the proliferation of greenhouse gases, and preserve cultural integrity. This is an approach that is being used by Caribbean governments.  Although we have been good at declaring protected areas our record is not so good in creating well-managed protected areas.

The majority of Caribbean people live close to the shoreline and coastal ecosystems, including mangroves, beaches, lagoons and cays. These are essential not only for biodiversity, but for buffering coastal communities from the effects of storms, providing a basis for recreational and tourism industries, as well as providing nursery habitats for commercial species.  Well-managed Protected Areas can play a role in delivering these services to us.  In the Caribbean, with our limited land space, it is essential that these protected areas are zoned for multi-use as we cannot afford to lock away vast areas of land or sea for protection purposes alone.  This makes it more critical that protected areas be managed well, with clearly demarcated zonation plans and strategies for the users of the protected areas to appreciate the intrinsic resources and to play their part in its sustainable management.  If not, then history has shown that these areas do not meet their objectives and too often, are nothing more than “paper parks” not meeting the needs of nature or humans.

Nature doesn’t send a bill but we are charged with the responsibility of managing these resources – if we want to keep them. 

Do we value our biodiversity?

Do we value our protected areas?

Do we value them enough to understand that they are critical for our own lives and livelihoods?

Do we understand that our economic development is tied to the health of our environmental assets and the ecosystem services they provide?

What are YOU doing to not take our environment for granted and to manage our resources?