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Priceless value

by Peter Hauff

In brief

A great diversity of maize varieties ensures food supply in Central America

A great diversity of maize varieties ensures food supply in Central America

Although the number of nature conservation parks has been growing for years, the loss of species continues unabated. Researchers and activists agree that humankind needs a “different economy”. That is easier said than done.

Biodiversity means there is a wide range of animals and plants, which in turn depends on a wide range of genes and sufficient habitats. There is still no precise economic price behind the term. It is obvious, however, that humanity must manage environmental matters prudently. Moreover, it is generally understood that developing countries with great biodiversity should receive some kind of fair compensation from rich countries that exploit that biodiversity.

What do environmental protectionists and researchers propose? "Biodiversity benefits when you put fences up around a conservation park," says zoologist Manfred Niekisch. But the 57-year-old director of the Frankfurt Zoo adds that such areas are not enough if climate change is to be prevented from wiping out even more species. Niekisch stresses that he is not in favour of the romantic idea of protecting nature from any kind of human interference, since most biotopes are shared and shaped by people. That is true of the Bolivian cloud forest as well as of mixed German orchards, the conversation expert points out.

Niekisch puts people in the spotlight. "We have to realise that our pillars of sustainability – socially, culturally, and economically – will sink into a bog unless the global climate and biodiversity are protected." Biodiversity is valuable in economic terms, he says, as is evident, for example, in the more than 56 varieties of manioc that grow on poor soil in the Manú National Park in Peru. This wide variety allows indigenous people to adapt cultivation to a wide range of saltwater and freshwater conditions. In such fragile environments, neither European plows nor Brazil’s slash-and-burn agriculture would make sense, Niekisch warrants, and mass production of soybeans would be “ecological madness”.

According to Niekisch, humankind’s food chain will be lost without biodiversity, so "diversity is a human right”. He is adamant that governments leave more responsibility to indigenous peoples and argues that there is no other way to prevent a global "monotony in food production".

At the same time, the Amazonian people of Peru are demanding better education. "We have to understand how climate change works," says Evaristo Nugknag Ikanan, an Aguaruna Indian who won the Right Livelihood Award 24 years ago. Back then, he warned people not to misuse the Earth as a mere production factor. "Since then, the world market is unfortunately going in the opposite direction – we are facing a crisis of civilisation, the consequences of which will be worse than the climate crisis itself," Nugknag stated in September in Bonn during a conference held by the Right Livelihood Foundation and GTZ.

Nugknag rejects the very idea of emission rights: "Instead of negotiating carbon emissions, we need to change our system to a polluter-pays basis. So far, certificates have basically served the interests of large corporations, with the people most affected by climate change hardly benefiting at all." Nugknag is critical of multinationals’ activities in Peru: "They use our forest and local resources with the permission of the government without even consulting the native people." He argues that their must be no more land-use or mining without prior consultation with the indigenous peoples, whose ways of life are threatened when landscapes are destroyed.

Nugknag is aware of biofuels becoming increasingly more affordable, but he considers them a mere distraction. "We have to start focusing on life as a whole," the 60-year-old holder of the Alternative Nobel Prize says. "That includes clean water, clean air, rest, happiness and intact landscapes. We have to place greater store on our independence than on a kind of consumerism that constantly piles up new things and products."

(Peter Hauff)