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Landfall-Learning > Environment


The definition of environment that we will explore here is "the complex of physical, chemical, and biotic factors (climate, soil, water and living things) that act upon an organism or an ecological community and ultimately determine its form and survival". Of most concern to us, because when we are sailing, we encounter them so often, are:


What is Biodiversity?
Biodiversity is the word we use to describe the astonishing variety of life on earth. It includes:

  • Genetic diversity
  • Species diversity
  • Habitat diversity

Scientists think that there are about 15 million species of plant and animal on earth. Of course we can't know exactly how many there are, because we haven't found them all yet. In fact, we've only discovered about 1.8 million so far. They live anywhere from the icy poles to the tropics, and from the tops of mountains to the ocean depths. Many animal and plants show fascinating adaptations which allow them to succeed in very odd places, like around hot thermal vents thousands of feet deep in the ocean, in cold small pools in eternally dark caves, and even inside of desert cactuses!

Biological diversity is currently classified into five kingdoms.

  • Bacteria: 4,000 known species
  • Fungi: 72,000 known species
  • Protists: 80,000 known species
  • Plants: 270,000 known species
  • Animals: 1.4 million known species

One of the scariest events happening on our planet today is the loss of species of all kinds: plants and animals, fish and insects, all over the globe. Many factors contribute to this loss, but the overwhelming consequence is the loss of biological diversity. Since the year 1600, we know that at least 484 species of animal and 654 plant species have become extinct, but since we have yet to discover most of the world's species, we don't know how many thousands have become extinct before we even knew they existed.

Today, we are losing animal species at more than one per year. This rate is 10,000 times the natural rate of extinction for a species. In the last few hundred years, the human population has increased dramatically and our impact upon the environment and the earth's resources has been devastating. Humans affect biodiversity through:

  • Clearing forests, draining wetlands, turning prairies into farmland and housing subdivisions
  • Fragmenting habitats with roads, farmland and urban development
  • Polluting habitats with pesticides, oil, acid rain and sewage
  • Silting rivers from clear-cutting and deforestation
  • Damming rivers for hydroelectricity, flood control and transportation
  • Mining for coal, oil, phosphorus and precious metals
  • Unregulated hunting for food, sport and souvenirs, and using animal parts for traditional medicines
  • Collecting live animals such as parrots, tortoises, frogs and spiders for the pet trade
  • Non-sustainable fishing and whaling
  • Introducing non-native animals such as rats, rabbits, snakes and snails, which can wipe out native animals
  • Introducing non-native plants, which can overwhelm native plants and the food sources of native animals
  • Introducing non-native fish and shellfish, which can wipe out whole ecosystems in lakes and rivers
  • Spreading disease by moving species around

What can we do? To conserve biodiversity, we need to do the following:

  • Protect and manage habitats
  • Maintain native species gene pools
  • Use animals, plants, land and water sustainably
  • Educate and involve people
  • Protect threatened species

The Biodiversity Initiative: A Global Challenge
The United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) is looking for ways to conserve biodiversity in a world with an ever-growing human population. As they note:

In general, population growth, poverty and the search for short-term economic gains among local populations are at the root of the threat to biological diversity, or biodiversity. Yet, if harnessed properly, the use of natural resources can generate economic benefits for people whose livelihoods depend on the wealth of their environment.

One way is to take advantage of the marked shift in both developed and developing countries towards natural and recyclable products and the resource needs of the emerging biotechnology industry. If developing countries seized these opportunities, biodiversity could be turned into a reliable means of income generation and sustainable development. Yet so far no concrete initiative has been taken to promote the sustainable use of biological diversity at the global level.

--United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) Harnessing Biodiversity for Development.

The Biotrade Initiative
Many developing countries are endowed with rich and diverse forest and marine biodiversity resources. These resources provide the basis for a wide range of products and services, such as nuts, fruits, perfumes, natural dyes, oils, medicinal plants, biochemical compounds, ecotourism, watershed protection and carbon sequestration. Most of these products are used by local populations to make a living, while others have served as an important source of innovation for the pharmaceutical, biotechnology or cosmetic industries.

Countries rich in natural resources are losing their biodiversity at alarming rates. The search for short-term economic gains, unsustainable practices, population growth, and poverty among local populations are at the root of this environmental loss. To give an idea, approximately 24% of the world's mammals and 12% of the world's bird species are globally threatened. Forests have almost disappeared in 25 countries, and during the last two decades of the 20th century, deforestation was estimated at 15 million hectares yearly - mainly in the tropics. In El Salvador the forest cover, which was originally 90 to 95%, has been reduced to less than 7%, half of which is degraded mangroves and pines. In Ecuador, for instance, 68% of the original coastal coverage, and 50% of the original Amazonian forest coverage have likewise disappeared. The figures in other regions are not too encouraging either. In Philippines, for example, forest cover has decreased from more than 50% to less than 24% over a period of 40 years.

In this context, the challenge is to find ways and means to use biodiversity as a basis for sustainable development. For example, the sustainable use of biodiversity could support both development and nature conservation, as it would generate tangible economic benefits for populations whose livelihood depends on biodiversity. Moreover, users and owners of these resources will have an incentive to protect these assets and use them sustainably.
--From United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD)