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Monoculture and Biodiversity

By Scaria Meledam

The so-called 'Rubber Belt' in Kerala is supposed to be the rich part of the State. This impression is created by the periodical surge in the price of natural rubber, which is never sustained, dependent mostly on the price of petroleum.

Is the area really rich? Is rubber cultivation is a boon?

No, if one is to go by the study by the pinion paper prepared by the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED), an independent, nonprofit research institute working in the field of sustainable development.

According to the paper produced with the help of experts from reputed organisations - Danida (Denmark), DFID (UK), DGIS (the Netherlands), Irish Aid, Norad (Norway), SDC (Switzerland) and Sida (Sweden) - the fault lies in the fact that rubber is monoculture, that too of an alien species, that damaged rich biodiversity of the area.

Biodiversity - the variety of all life from genes and species to ecosystems – and poverty are inextricably connected. It is also intimately linked to earth's climate and, inevitably, to climate change.

This connection is such that the UN-led efforts to address the triple maladies - climate change, conservation of biodiversity and fight against poverty - can cancel each other out, unless the close links between these global challenges are given more attention to, warns IIED.

Monoculture affects ecosystems. This is already visible in the State's rubber belt in the form of shortage of ground water and climate change, advent of mosquito population, which was never seen in the pre-rubber era, and other pests.

Monoculture cancels other life forms. This effect is already seen in the rubber belt. All other cash crops like coconut and food crops including paddy, tapioca and variety vegetables, with which the area was rich once upon a time, has disappeared. This has also affected the animal life that depends on crop pattern. Even cattle population has come down to such a level that it affected land's fertility.

Sole dependency on monoculture affects economy of the region. This is also evident in Kerala's rubber belt. When rubber price is high, farmers are happy. But, erratic price affects their lives as they have no other cash crops or food crops to depend on.

Changes to natural ecosystems influence both climate change and people's ability to cope with some of its damaging impacts. And in their turn climate change, and people's responses to it, affect biodiversity.

Conserving and managing biodiversity can help natural systems and vulnerable people cope with a shifting global climate. Yet biodiversity conservation is a neglected area. That must change: urgent support is needed for local solutions to biodiversity loss that provide benefits on all counts, says the paper.

Many efforts to mitigate climate change have paid scant attention to biodiversity conservation and the world's poor.

The paper shows that biodiversity has a key role to play in both adapting to the impacts ahead and cutting the concentration of greenhouse gases. But, to be effective, policies must have greater input from local communities who are particularly vulnerable to climate change and have valuable local knowledge.

Local knowledge, practices and innovations are crucial to adaptation, biodiversity conservation and poverty alleviation. Many communities are already using agricultural -biodiversity and traditional practices, such as seed exchange and field experimentation, to adapt to climate change. Farmer-researcher collaboration can bring added value that each alone could never realize.

There are tight links between biodiversity, climate and people's resilience to environmental change. But bad policies can promote biodiversity loss and even greater impacts on the people most vulnerable to climate change.

Poor people depend heavily on biodiversity for food, medicine, and livelihoods, and the greater the variety of natural resources, the more options they have.

Yet climate change threatens many species with extinction and policies aimed at addressing the threat could also reduce biodiversity and people's livelihood options.

The paper points out that the efforts to reduce greenhouse gas concentrations by preserving substantial areas of forest risk excluding local communities from the natural resources they depend on for their livelihoods.

Meanwhile, production of biofuels as an alternative to fossil fuels has led to widespread conversion of biodiverse forests, savannas and peatlands, causing the release of large quantities of greenhouse gases.

The report points out that traditional farming also brings mitigation benefits as it produces far fewer greenhouse gas emissions than modern intensive approaches that rely on mechanisation, and inputs such as fertilisers and pesticides derived from fossil fuels.

Similarly, protecting biodiverse habitats such as forests and mangroves can provide multiple benefits for adaptation, mitigation, poverty reduction and biodiversity — by storing carbon, protecting coastlines, limiting erosion and regulating water flow, which reduce the risks of flooding.

Biodiversity and Climate Change.

Climate change affects biodiversity; loss of biodiversity augments climate change.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in its Fourth Assessment Report warns that 20 to 30 percent of plant and animal species will be at greater risk of extinction if the rise in global average temperatures exceeds 2-3 Degree C.

Human activities since 1750 have been causing global warming. About 0.2 °C of warming per decade is projected. Sea level rise, one of the disastrous effects climate change, will reach 50 centimetres by 2100.

While climate change affects biodiversity, loss of biodiversity will augment climate change, warns expects in the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED), an independent, nonprofit research institute working in the field of sustainable development.

It is now established that changes to biodiversity and natural systems influence global climate. Land use changes, particularly deforestation in tropical regions, where forests are very rich in biodiversity, leads to habitat changes and to biodiversity losses, which in turn boost greenhouse gas emissions.

Land use changes are responsible for roughly 18 per cent of human-driven carbon dioxide emissions.

Similarly, peatlands, which are important biodiversity reservoirs or stopover points for migratory species, hold about a third of the carbon contained in soil worldwide. Greenhouse gases are released every time they are burnt, drained or converted to cropland.

It is therefore certain that conservation of biodiversity will mitigate climate change.

Scientists agree that even if greenhouse gas emissions were to stabilize, which is unlikely given inertia on the part of governments and the public, global warming and sea level rise will persist for centuries. So, adaptation to climate change impacts is inevitable.

Use of natural resources and biodiversity, including genetic diversity, is part of such adaptation process. For instance, wild relatives of food crops are used to breed new varieties that can cope with changing conditions.

Experience in India, is highlighted an instance farmers accessing to different crop varieties through traditional exchange systems, developing new varieties, and adapting farming practices to cope with hotter temperatures, pest infestations and disease. In times of need some farmers may plant crop varieties resistant to floods, drought or saline conditions.

A diverse genetic base is key to the development of such characteristics.

Traditional farming systems actively sustain rich genetic diversity - a role more important than ever - points out IIED.

Modern farming practices, particularly monocultures, have significantly reduced diversity within species.

Coconut plantation in contradistinction with rubber plantation is a typical example. While coconut cultivation took in diverse inter se crops, rubber cultivation permits no other plant or tree growth, leading to monoculture and adding to disastrous climate change.

Today, the farmers in Kerala's rubber belt are forced to buy not only rice and wheat but also vegetables and even coconuts from the market which depend on other states.

Rubber cultivation has also led to the depletion of wetlands, including paddy fields. Wetlands are important reservoirs for floodwater.

Watersheds with intact plant cover slow the movement of rainfall to rivers and so reduce flood risks downstream.

Mangroves are well-known coastal buffers, reducing the strength of waves and protecting against cyclone damage to coasts and seaside communities.

Climate change will have a number of impacts on biodiversity, from ecosystem to species level. The most obvious are flooding, sea level rise and temperature changes have on ecosystem boundaries.

As a result of shifts in ecosystem boundaries, some ecosystems will expand into new areas, while others become smaller. Habitats will change as rainfall and temperatures change, and some species will not be able to adapt, leading to extinction.

By the end of this century, climate change will be the main driver of biodiversity loss, estimates the 2005-Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (MEA).

The impacts of climate change on biodiversity will vary from region to region. The most rapid changes in climate are expected in the far north and south, and in mountainous regions.

These are the regions where species are left with no alternative habitat to which they can migrate. Species with small populations, or populations restricted to small areas, are especially vulnerable to any climatic shifts.

Global warming is also causing shifts in the reproductive cycles and growing seasons of certain species, which can in turn affect the equilibrium of ecosystems. For example, insect pests previously unknown in the UK survive the warmer winters. In Kerala we have seen the correlation between depletion of frog population of mosquito menace.

Migrating species may be the most affected by any changes to stopover sites. Their survival is threatened when seasonal availability of food sources is not synchronized with migration times.

The strategies used to counter climate change can also affect biodiversity diversely, warns IIED.

For example, some forms of renewable energy technology can lead to poor outcomes for biodiversity. Bio-fuel plantations may involve clearing of areas of high biodiversity and introduction of monocultures of alien species, damaging agrochemicals.

Large hydropower schemes can lead to loss of terrestrial and aquatic biodiversity and inhibit fish migration by 'drowning' land and disrupting river flows.

Wind farms located on bird migration routes can kill significant numbers of birds.

By contrast, some renewable energy measures such as efficient stoves and use of biogas can conserve carbon reservoirs and reduce pressure on forests.

An increase in demand for freshwater can degrade wetlands, rivers and streams and thus damage key ecosystem services.

Climate change-Biodiversity-Poverty

Poor people are disproportionately vulnerable to the loss of biodiversity and ecosystems. Therefore, conservation of biodiversity and the maintenance of the integrity of the ecosystem are central to improving the ability of the poor to cope with climate change, says the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED).

The poor emit the least amount of greenhouse gases; but they suffer the most from the impacts of climate change.

The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) recognizes this fact; neither the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) nor the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) specify the strategies to meet this. And in some cases, activities intended to achieve the goals of one even negatively affects the goals of the other.

Geographic location is a key factor in the vulnerability of poor people and poor nations. Many of these countries lie in the regions most at risk from climate change (the drought-prone sub-Saharan Africa, for instance). Many of the poor live in marginal areas like floodplains or foot of unstable hills.

Poor people have the fewest choices, and the lowest capacity to cope with climate change-related shocks such as cyclones because of lack of resources, mobility etc. They also depend heavily on climate-sensitive sectors and natural resources - agriculture, fishing, water provision, grazing, timber and non-timber forest products for food, medicine, tools, fuel, fodder and construction materials.

This over-dependence means real threat to their livelihoods, food security and health due to the impact of climate and other environmental changes on biodiversity and ecosystem.

Women in the developing world are especially vulnerable, as they tend to rely more on natural resources than men.

Biodiversity conservation and the maintenance of ecosystem integrity are central to improving the ability of the poor to cope with climate change. Ecosystems with rich 'functional diversity (with species that fill a variety of unique ecological roles) are more stable and may be better able to adapt to climate change, says IIED.

The larger the gene pool the more will be the emergence of genotypes that are better adapted to shifts in climatic conditions.
However, the responses to the threats have never been pro-poor or biodiversity- friendly.

For instance, a common approach to coastal protection is construction of sea walls. But use large amounts of energy and concrete in the construction of these walls process, thereby increasing greenhouse gas emissions.

On the other hand, the rehabilitation of coastal mangroves in Vietnam proved to offer protection against storms as effectively as concrete structures, while also acting as carbon sinks and enhancing local livelihoods.

Similarly, a common approach to cope with droughts or floods resulting from climate change is to provide aid and increase agricultural production by using more intensive farming methods. But these moves favour neither biodiversity nor the functional health of ecosystems.

When hurricane struck Honduras in 1998 farms using agro-ecological practices were found to be more resilient than farms using conventional methods to the erosion and runoff resulting from the heavy rainfall.

Agro-ecological methods, which include soil and water conservation, cover cropping to ensure land was never bare, integrated pest management, and reduced or zero grazing are not accessible to the poor because they have little access to credit, land titles and technical assistance. Poor farmers have little incentives to invest in sustainable farming practices.

Conserving watershed vegetation increases water retention and availability in times of drought, decreases the risk of flash floods and landslides, and maintains plant cover which also acts as a carbon sink.
In drought-prone areas, improved irrigation systems are often promoted as the best way to cope with reduced water availability.

The expansion of plantations, especially the monoculture rubber plantations, is no substitute for forest cover as it is the very antithesis of biodiversity which also adversely affect food security.

With biodiversity under threat from climate change, some are calling for the establishment of protected areas, as havens for species at risk. But the size of the protected area is important: larger the area the more resilient it be in the face of climate change, as they provide a greater variety of conditions for a wider range of species.

However, most protected areas struggle to be self-financing. So they need substantial public funding.

It is also important to avoid the preservationist practices and social injustices associated with the establishment of protected areas on account of the restrictions imposed on communities living in and around them from accessing the natural resources they depend on for livelihoods.

One of the goals of the Convention on Biological Diversity work programme on protected areas is to 'enhance and secure involvement of indigenous and local communities and relevant stakeholders'.

'Green corridors' between protected areas and buffer zones around them is important, along with good management of areas between core protected areas. This is the thinking behind Natura 2000, a network of protected areas in Europe.

This kind of broad 'mosaic landscape' based approach requires a bold partnership between government, businesses (including farm and forestry businesses), landowners and non-governmental organisations to deliver the best social, economic and environmental benefits possible.

The Way Forward

Use of renewable energy sources is supposed to reduce emissions from burning fossil fuels. But this is not often true, points out the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED).

Indonesian biofuel project, for instance, has already put 6 million hectares of land under oil palm cultivation, and the government is supporting further expansion.

Land clearance for oil palm plantations results in the destruction of peatlands, which are important carbon stores. Due to this, every tonne of palm oil produced results in 33 tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions — 10 times that produced by burning an equivalent volume of petroleum.

If this goes forward, up to 50 billion tonnes of carbon is likely to be released into the atmosphere — the equivalent of over six years of global fossil fuel burning, warns the international body.

The expansion of plantations also reduces food security because it means less land is available for food crops. Kerala's rubber plantations are a typical example. The area under rubber cultivation has ceased to produce any food materials with which it was abundant and self sufficient prior to the plantation culture.

Plantations, be it for biofuel or for commercial products such as rubber, threatens biodiversity and local livelihood.

The area most suitable for oil palm planting, for instance, in most areas of the world is lowland evergreen tropical rainforest, which supports the highest biodiversity of any terrestrial ecosystem.

Hydropower is hither to considered as the cleanest source of power. However large hydropower dams can negatively affect biodiversity and local livelihoods.

The proposed construction of a large number of dams with massive electricity generating potential on Mekong River, which runs through China's Yunnan province, Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam, is expected to affect the livelihoods of the 52 million people dependent on river resources, many of whom live below the poverty line. The nine largest dam projects alone would displace 60,000 rural people.

Dam construction dries up the river basins and prevents fish migration.
Growing concerns about climate change and a growing 'carbon credit market' (the international scheme under which companies polluting more that the limit set for them, are forced to buy credits from those who pollute less) provide opportunities to enhance the ability of the poor to withstand consequences of climate change by conserving biodiversity. But international bodies and governments have never thought of in these lines, says IIED.

For instance, the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM), established under the Kyoto Protocol of the UNFCCC, is supposed to provide global benefits from carbon sequestration and sustainable development benefits to developing countries. However, most projects under CDM are designed without these development benefits in mind.

Proposals to carbon-finance the conservation of large areas of forested land so as to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from deforestation, rarely provide forest-dependent communities with access to either carbon finance or forest resources.

While large-scale monoculture plantations can be effective carbon sinks, their biodiversity benefits are nil.

Similarly, if the reforestation projects results in depletion of native grasslands, wetlands, shrub or heathlands, dramatic biodiversity losses will be the result imperiling carbon sequestration.

On the other hand, forest conservation, reforestation, afforestation and agroforestry projects, can be done in such a way as to help mitigate climate change, support local livelihoods, provide biodiversity benefits and restore watershed functions.

A typical example is the N'hambita Community Carbon Project in Mozambique. It involves a 1469-hectare site in the buffer zone of Gorongoso National Park. It aims to restore degraded areas and promote sustainable land use by a number of methods, which include good forest management, reforestation, promoting nitrogen-fixing trees, and the production of non-timber forest products such as traditional medicine, fruits and fungi.

Under the project, 230,000 trees and 120 kilometres of firebreaks have been planted. Nearly 70 per cent of the N'hambita community is involved, each farmer owning 0.7 to 1.8 hectares of land. The project promotes sound governance and community participation in decision-making through representation in the project management team.

Funding comes from the sale of carbon credits in the voluntary carbon market. The funds are shared among participating individuals. A portion of the funds is put in a community trust fund for projects such as school construction.

Other benefits include sustainable generation of timber and fuel wood, good watershed management, soil conservation and enhancement of other ecosystem services. Yields of traditional maize and sorghum crops have increased by the use of nitrogen-fixing food crops such as pigeon pea.

Local people have also diversified their livelihoods, taking on enterprises ranging from beekeeping and micro-irrigation for cultivating vegetables to carpentry and bioenergy production for schools and the community.

Farmers have been trained in tree planting and protection, micro-enterprise and fire management.

Land use rights are being clarified and better defined. At the same time, regional organisations are also being trained to verify carbon offsets, administer trust funds and provide land management support.

This shows that forest management activities can simultaneously provide biodiversity and climate change mitigation benefits. Afforestation or reforestation can establish 'green corridors' and significantly boost biodiversity if a variety of native tree species of different ages are planted.

Small is Beautiful and Sustainable

Working with nature is better than engineered solutions

Biodiversity and ecosystem maintenance are the keys to successful pro-poor adaptation strategies to climate change, says the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED).

International Small Group and Tree Planting Program (TIST) is the best example. Initiated in a small way by the Anglican Church in 1999 in Mpwapwa, Tanzania, TIST now supports 2800 small groups of subsistence farmers in Kenya, Uganda and India in tackling deforestation and climate change-related drought and famine.

Over 2.3 million trees have been planted under the scheme.
From where do they get funds? From the sale of carbon offset credits (the international scheme under which firms polluting more that the limit fixed for them, are forced to buy credits from those who pollute less) and farm products.

Carbon offsets from tree planting are sold through eBay. Income from carbon offsets allows farmers to buy seeds, care for trees and buy necessities such as medication and pay school fees.

For every living tree a small cash stipend is deposited regularly in bank accounts opened by small community groups designated for this purpose.

TIST strategies include small group development, conservation farming and sustainable agriculture, reforestation, agro-forestry and entrepreneurship involving the sale of carbon offsets and farm products. Activities also address health, education and nutrition.

Local subsistence farmers are involved in planning, implementation and information sharing. The aim is to empower and equip them to restore their natural environment, increase soil fertility, create jobs, strengthen local economic development in the local community, and move from famine to surplus.

Additional benefits include erosion prevention, soil improvement, and the provision of windbreaks, timber, medicine, bee habitats, natural insecticides and fencing material. Local biodiversity is also conserved.

Many of the best solutions to climate change, like TIST provide multiple benefits for biodiversity, poverty alleviation, and adaptation and mitigation. But achieving all these objectives is often difficult because adaptation activities in one sector can compromise those in another.

Decisions should, therefore, be based on good science and an understanding of these trade-offs.

At the very least, climate change solutions should aim at avoiding the damaging biodiversity and ecosystem services, and increasing inequity and poverty.

In southwestern China, a participatory plant breeding project has provided multiple benefits by supporting farmers' innovation and adaptation processes, biodiversity and livelihoods.

Similarly, an agreement between the International Potato Centre in Peru and Andean farmers is delivering a range of benefits. Hundreds of lost potato varieties are being returned to the Potato Park, an area that protects rich potato diversity along with the rights of farmers to access and use them.

By supporting traditional farming systems with lower greenhouse gas emissions, these initiatives are also providing mitigation benefits.
Governments, individuals, bilateral organisations and the private sector need to do more joined-up thinking to ensure that initiatives that meet the objectives of the United national Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), the UNFCCC and the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) are supported, IIED advocates.

Currently, however, the bodies responsible for each of these international conventions, and the governments and ministers in charge of implementing them, tend to have a sectoral approach, focusing on their own objectives.

An instance in point is the recently announced £50 million assistance to the Government of Congo for avoided deforestation activities by the UK Department for International Development. How much of this fund will percolate to the communities that live in and rely on the forest lands, remains to be seen.

Little attention has been paid to non-structural alternatives and community-based strategies for managing resources and reducing vulnerability to climatic shocks, laments IIED.

Working with nature is often cheaper than engineered solutions. A typical example is the mangrove rehabilitation programme implemented in Vietnam where tropical cyclones have been disrupting livelihoods of coastal people for decades. The rehabilitation of one type of coastal ecosystem — mangroves — made communities near them less vulnerable to storms.

Since 1994, the Vietnam Red Cross has been working with local communities in northern Vietnam to plant and protect mangrove forests. Nearly 12,000 hectares of mangroves have been planted.

Mangrove wetlands provide physical protection from storms and sequester carbon. During the devastating Typhoon Wukong in 2000, the project areas remained unharmed while neighbouring provinces suffered huge losses in lives, property and livelihoods. As per Red Cross estimates, 7750 families benefited from mangrove rehabilitation.

Mangrove wetlands also provide resource base for local livelihoods and income generation. Families now earn additional income from selling crabs, shrimp, molluscs and seaweed that thrive in mangroves and increase protein in diets.

Although planting and protecting the mangroves cost USD 1.1 million, the project ultimately saves USD 7.3 million a year in dyke maintenance.
Adaptation activities should utilise local knowledge as poor people have to cope with climate variability for many years, says IIED.

While large projects have political appeal, the biodiversity, climate change and poverty benefits of small-scale activities are many times greater.

Climate change in a sense provides an opportunity to make a shift towards more resilient ways of using land, benefiting poor people, if small-scale projects are scaled up and multiplied to encourage the direction of large-scale funding towards local solutions.

Such funding must come from carbon trading, which is increasingly available, but also from public coffers in recognition of the global and multiple benefits that conservation can yield.

This, in turn, requires good governance at local, national and international levels to ensure that the projected benefits percolate to the local communities.

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