- Sustainable use is when biodiversity and ecosystem functioning are maintained while contributing to human wellbeing.
- The assessment showed that billions of people in both developing and developed regions of the world, benefited from the use of wild species, while being particularly crucial as a natural safety net, providing both subsistence and cash income, for people in vulnerable situations. The report also found that wild species play essential roles in the wellbeing of many indigenous people and local communities.
- In a dynamic fast changing economic, social, and environmental scenario, new adaptive mechanisms have to evolve to continue to live, use responsibly and let live, writes the author of this commentary.
- The views in this commentary are that of the author.
Scottish economist Adam Smith’s “invisible hand” has been the dominant paradigm in development and policy circles, especially in neoliberal economics, for over 250 years. In 1776, in his seminal An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, he argued that free markets, made up of self-interested actors, deliver the best possible social and economic outcomes. The context then was a population of about a billion people, with seemingly infinite natural resources. Even if markets are truly free (in practice, rarely) and there is perfect information, the demands placed on ecosystems by over eight billion people today would be overwhelming. The world is not the same, after the industrial and digital revolutions. Furthermore, the ecological dimension is not factored into the single bottom line measurement of Gross National Product. Hundreds of millions of people have climbed out of poverty no doubt, but the changes have thrown up huge externalities, polluting the air we breathe and the water we drink. Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring is a poignant testament to the public paying for private profit. Except for a vocal minority of naysayers, climate change and global warming are also acknowledged as outcomes of the outsized human footprint on the earth’s ecosystem products and services.
Species extinction, loss of biodiversity in many of the global biomes and millions of plant and animal species being put at risk have led many scientists to refer to the present geological time period as the Anthropocene epoch. The Club of Rome in its Limits to Growth in 1972 modelled the Earth’s inter-connected systems and warned that it’s carrying capacity would be exceeded if the trends in population growth and patterns of industrialisation continued unabated. The global community was finally prodded into recognising the seriousness of the matter by organising the UN Conference on Sustainable Development in 1972 and then in 1992 the Convention on Biological Diversity adopted sustainable use as “the use of components of biological diversity in a way and at a rate that does not lead to the long term decline of biological diversity, thereby maintaining its potential to meet the needs and aspirations of present and future generations”. From the lens of a private enterprise with economics as the sole indicator of business viability, the shift to managing the global commons, so that the ecosystem health is not impaired, requires drastically different set of principles. If Garret Hardin’s Tragedy of the Commons is to be averted, public policy must use a new lens, of which Elinor Ostrom’s eight principles for the commons (which include defined boundaries for users and resources; rules for management that fit local needs and ecological context; participatory decision making; and monitoring for adaptive management) is an example.
Even in the face of the accelerating global biodiversity crisis, with a million species of plants and animals facing extinction, it is a fact that nearly half of humanity depends on the use of wild species, for food, medicine, energy, materials recreation and spiritual wellbeing. The Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) issued a global assessment in 2019 which found that direct exploitation of species is one of the major drivers of biodiversity loss, while noting that sustainable use does occur.
IPBES then commissioned a global assessment on the sustainable use of wild species, focusing less on species and more on the use of wild species, integrating the social and ecological dimensions. Sustainable use is when biodiversity and ecosystem functioning are maintained while contributing to human wellbeing. The Assessment Report involved 85 natural and social science experts representing many countries, and also holders of indigenous and local knowledge, along with another 200 contributing authors. They drew on over 6,200 peer reviewed articles, grey literature and project reports and that took four years to complete.
The IPBES Assessment Report on sustainable use of wild species identified five broad categories of ‘practices’ in the use of wild species – fishing (marine as well as fresh water), gathering, logging, terrestrial animal harvesting (lethal as well as non-lethal, such as shearing wool from vicuna) and non-extractive practices such as observing.
The assessment showed that billions of people in both developing and developed regions of the world, benefited from the use of wild species, while being particularly crucial as a natural safety net, providing both subsistence and cash income, for people in vulnerable situations. The report also found that wild species play essential roles in the wellbeing of many indigenous people and local communities. Loss of even one species can lead to the existential threat to the dependent community. Furthermore, indigenous knowledge honed over centuries guide sustainable uses of wild species and such knowledge is critical to reversing the global trend in biodiversity decline.
The status and trends in the uses of wild species show strong disparities, based on the social and ecological contexts in which they occur and, on the types, and scales of use.
The Report identified drivers of wild species use, including direct drivers, e.g. environmental drivers, including land-and seascape changes, climate change, pollution, and invasive alien species and indirect drivers, e.g. political, social, economic, cultural values and religious beliefs, science, technology and education. In most instances of wild species use, there is interaction amongst drivers leading to either synergistic or antagonistic impacts. For example, trade in wild species (illegal trade alone is worth as much as $199 billion per annum) is an economic driver as it provides earnings to exporting countries and higher income for harvesters. However, cultural driver can help mitigate severe impacts on the population of species harvested, but by decoupling the consumption of wild species from their places of origin and without effective regulation across supply chains, collapse of the wild species populations can occur.
Transformative changes are needed
Scenarios projecting the future use of wild species are few in number but they indicate that transformative changes will be needed to enhance the sustainability of the use of wild species. The IPBES Assessment Report on sustainable use of wild species explored policies and tools that have been deployed in a variety of contexts and seven key elements have been teased out that could be used as levers of change: integration of plural value systems; equitable distribution of costs and benefits; context specific policies; recognition of multiple forms of knowledge; secure tenure rights; equitable access to land, fisheries and forests; and effective institutions and governance systems.
India and Nepal have some successful examples that incorporate some of these tools and that can, with judicious policy support, act as beacons of sustainable use to catalyse transformation elsewhere.
The Apatanis of Arunachal Pradesh inhabit Ziro valley, a compact area with well defined natural boundaries in Arunachal Pradesh, inscribed in UNESCO’s tentative list of World Heritage sites for its cultural landscape. The Apatanis are well known for their systematic land use practices, rich traditional ecological knowledge of natural resource management and conservation, and co-existence nurtured by traditional customs and spiritual belief systems. They are also known for their effective traditional village council called bulyañ, which supervises, guides and has legal oversight over the activities of individuals that affect the community as a whole.
Joint Forest Management experience in the 1970s and 80s, which later evolved into legal recognition of the role of communities in arresting forest degradation via the Community Forest Rights Act in India and the even more advanced Community Forest User Groups (CFUGs) in Nepal, both show promise of being successful models for protecting biodiversity and also for generating sustainable livelihoods, promoting women’s empowerment and poverty reduction. Globally, forests managed by indigenous communities, such as those in the Amazon show lower rates of deforestation and likewise van panchayats (forest councils) in Uttaranchal have been managing local wild resources effectively.
Community Protection of locally valuable wild species such as the historical Khejarli (khejri) protest movement against felling of khejri trees which resulted in the loss of several lives before the trees were spared, and which later inspired the now famous Chipko movement are shining examples of local people-led movements for conservation of wild resources.
Cultural connections of humans with wild species such as in Kokkare Bellur (symbiotic relationship between a village community in Karnataka and painted storks, pelicans and other birds), the conservation of wildlife as a religion by Bishnois, a Hindu religious sect in Rajasthan, and sacred forest groves, large and small scattered in the Indian landscape amidst a sea of humanity have all ingrained cultural taboos against harvest, and consumption, playing significant roles in the conservation of key species. Building on this connection, we have examples of dramatic reversals in the large scale slaughter of whale sharks off the Saurashtra coast near Veraval and Amur falcons, a migratory bird, stopping en route to refuel near Pangti in Nagaland. These are heart-warming stories of effective collaboration amongst community groups, forest department, and civil society organisations, inspired by a charismatic religious leader in one case and harking back to cultural pride in another.
In a dynamic fast changing economic, social, and environmental scenario, new adaptive mechanisms have to evolve to continue to live, use responsibly and let live.
The author is one of the Coordinating Lead Authors of the IPBES Sustainable Use Assessment. He is also Former Regional Director, Ford Foundation, New Delhi; Founding Consortium Board member of the CGIAR and former Executive Director of ATREE.
Banner image: Butter fish catch in Andhra Pradesh. Wellbeing of many indigenous people and local communities is dependent on the sustainable use of wild species. Photo by Ravi Yedavalli/Wikimedia Commons.