The road to recovery

03 April 2009 | News story

Jeffrey A. McNeely and Sue Mainka outline some of the measures that are needed to secure a future for medicinal biodiversity.

The actions that we take today will affect our health tomorrow and in the future. Environmental degradation from habitat loss, over-exploitation and climate change all have implications for human health, particularly through the loss of medicinal biodiversity- the subset of biodiversity that supports human health and well-being. This loss will affect us all-rich and poor, young and old and everyone in between.

Looking at biodiversity through a human health lens can provide new perspectives on conservation. It can take biodiversity out of the unique realm of ministries of environment and put its conservation at the heart of efforts to tackle poverty, food security, climate change and many other global challenges.

A broad suite of measures are needed to safeguard medicinal biodiversity at all levels (local to global) and by all stakeholders. Support is needed for the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) provisions on sustainable use of medicinal biodiversity and for the other international conventions that deal with biodiversity conservation, notably the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) which addresses medicinal species of animals (such as rhinos and tigers) and plants (such as Hoodia or devil's claw). Climate change has far-reaching implications for both human health and biodiversity and these must be addressed together under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. To date, health issues have received inadequate attention by the Parties to the climate convention. And actions taken in one Convention should complement and build on those taken in others.

But beyond the domain of environmental governance, health and biodiversity need to be mainstreamed into development cooperation at both the international and national level. All development actions should understand and support the role of ecosystem services in delivering successful sustainable development.

Ecosystems must be protected from human activity such as infrastructure development until the potential impacts are fully understood. At the ground level, habitat destruction and fragmentation can increase the spread of disease and must be avoided. Proposed resource extraction projects such as forestry and mining and the development of human settlements in previously undisturbed habitats should also consider the increased risk of disease.

Experience has shown that preventing invasions of potentially harmful species is more cost-effective than trying to tackle them once they have become established and threaten biodiversity and human health.
Human, animal and plant health controls have been established but need to be implemented more effectively. The World Trade Organization should be working with the CBD and the World Health Organization to address issues of invasive alien species that may be harmful to human health and biodiversity. At the national level, governments need to coordinate the activities of their agencies responsible for human health, animal health, plant health, transport, tourism, trade, protected areas, wildlife management, water supply and other relevant fields.

We already have several tools available to use in our campaign to conserve medicinal biodiversity.
Protected areas are important for conserving medicinal species and should explicitly recognise those species found within them, identify their range and populations, and educate the public about their importance. A national system of protected areas can serve as an antidote to habitat destruction and a means of adapting to climate change as well as maintain ecosystem functions. Nearly all countries have protected area systems but these need to be expanded and managed more effectively if they are to make the maximum contribution to biodiversity conservation and human health.

Indigenous peoples have identified almost all of the medicinal species that exist within their territories and many still depend on them for their healthcare, yet the traditional knowledge which is passed on from generation to generation may be even more seriously threatened than biodiversity. We therefore need stronger efforts to conserve the entire package of both medicinal biodiversity and cultural knowledge. Central to this is implementation of CBD provisions on access to genetic resources and benefit sharing.

Different stakeholder groups naturally have different interests in medicinal species. Those concerned with nature conservation focus on habitat protection, sustainable collection from the wild, appropriate controls on trade and so forth. Those with social interests seek acknowledgement of traditional knowledge and a secure income for harvesters and farmers. Those with economic interests are concerned with quality standards and a profitable trade. Managing these sometimes competing interests is a significant challenge for the future but it is in everyone's interests to conserve medicinal biodiversity. We are seeing the emergence of increasing numbers of new infectious diseases. Potential treatments to these diseases are likely to come from nature, if only we have the wisdom to conserve the full diversity of genetic resources so that these treatments are available when we need them.
 

Jeffrey A. McNeely is IUCN's Chief Scientist and Dr Sue Mainka is Senior Coordinator of IUCN'sGlobal Programme.