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Global Ideas

Biodiversity hotspots 'too big to fail,' expert says

Günter Mitlacher from the German branch of the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) talks about the challenges of saving the world’s ecosystems and why protecting biodiversity is just as important as bailing out big banks.

There are a group of regions across the globe that are home to exceptional biodiversity, areas that environmental organizations fight especially hard to preserve. The World Wildlife Fund or WWF has created an initiative around those regions called “Global 200”. It’s a list of the world’s 200 most vital ecosystems that boast rare habitats, rich endemic species and unusual ecological phenomena, among other things. Global 200 covers more ground than a similar project at Conservation International, called Biodiversity Hotspots.

Global Ideas: Mr. Mitlacher, what is a Global 200 region?

Günter Mitlacher:The Global 200 project deals with entire ecosystems. That includes forest areas, like the Amazon and Borneo, or coral reefs in the Pacific, or even the entire country of Madagascar. We examine whether certain landscapes contribute towards preserving global biodiversity. There are of course regions that don’t fall within the list of 200. But that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t protect those areas too.

Take tropical rainforests, for example. They are home to 50 percent of the world’s species. That makes it incredibly important to preserve them. As opposed to that, Germany has endemic species - in other words, species that only exist here. It’s important to protect them, but they don’t have global priority.

How do you protect the Global 200?

Portrait of Günter Mitlacher (Foto: Mitlacher/WWF)

Günter Mitlacher is director of biodiversity at WWF Germany

We have the same approach in all our regions: we try to create large conservation areas, or national parks, and working with local communities plays an important role in that. Take the Pygmy people in the Republic of Congo, who live in protected forest areas that have to be preserved. We would defend that land from deforestation or from mining and oil drilling. In other cases, where a forest region is not under acute threat and can still be cultivated, we try to introduce sustainable forestry methods. If officials grant licenses to deforest an area, we buy up those permits or we try to convince companies not to completely exploit and raze the forests.

All of this takes place in areas where people actually live, where the land is used. People want to improve their quality of life or maintain the status quo, and all too often, that happens at the expense of the natural resources around them - and that is something we have to stop.

How do you get various governments to go along with your projects?

It can’t happen without the help of the governments. We’re not cowboys that ride in and take over. There are always agreements in place. But how long it takes to implement them or take action varies from country to country. The Brazilian government, for instance, is very open to us because the country is interested in preserving its forest areas. In Africa, on the other hand, you’re often dealing with unstable governments and you don’t know exactly how long they will even stay in power. That’s when Germany’s foreign ministry comes into play - they can tell us if German involvement is even worth it in those cases.

How do you monitor development in the 200 regions?

A herd of wildebeest in the fog (Foto: Axel Warnstedt/DW)

Organizations have achieved short-term successes with preserving animal populations

The Global 200 regions are partly in danger, but we’re seeing results. Whether that will be enough - whether we’ll meet our goals - we’ll have to see in 10 years time. The problem is, there’s a tendency to think in the short-term, but ecological processes play out over entirely different time spans. We still don’t know how to reconcile that problem. There are all sorts of projects, three or five years long, but nobody cares about what comes after that. The project is finished and so is the mission.

When you look at animal populations, conservation measures can indeed produce short-term successes - like with the elephants in Africa. We worked very hard here and ivory trade was banned. There was a ban on shooting elephants and the populations there are on the rise. But at the moment, there’s a renewed problem of marauding rebel groups shooting elephants and exporting ivory to China.

How do you keep going in those situations?

We’re tilting at windmills here. When it comes to ecosystems, the most important thing is to win time. We’re not buying successes really, we’re buying time. We can use that time to continue to address the problem. And it’s not just a luxury problem we’re taking about - we have seen that climate change and diminishing ecosystems have affected the very foundation of our economic activity. It’s struck at the heart of our economic and food systems. More and more people are seeing their living space shrink. So, through our work, we’re winning time to develop and adjust strategies against climate change and biodiversity loss.

Are there certain parts of the world where people are more aware of their responsibility to the climate?

European countries have developed a greater awareness, as have Brazil and India. They’ve started to feel the effects and realized they have to take action. Generally, the priority is to make sure your economy is doing well, and everything else is secondary. But we have to learn how to live with less. Right now, we are living at the cost of our planet - globally, we are consuming one and a half times more than what the earth has to offer us. It’s like during the banking crisis – there were banks that were deemed too important to fail. So those banks that were too big to fail were bailed out. I would say that our Global 200 regions are too big to fail - we need them to survive.

Where do you think we’ll be in the year 2050?

A closeup shot of a tiger (Foto: dpa)

Will the tiger still exist in 50 years?

In Europe, we will have reduced our carbon footprint by 50 percent by 2050. If we’re good, we’ll have preserved our most important ecoregions, and there will still be huge regions that grow and develop naturally - even while people live within them. Now, whether we will still have managed to preserve the tiger, that I can’t say. We will continue to see species die off.

It would be depressing if we keep on going as we are now. But I think there’ll be a tipping point where everyone will have to become aware and take action to preserve our ecosystems and fight against climate change. We’re working on that tipping point right now. It could possibly be the companies that first realize that they don’t have enough resources to work with anymore, and that their business model is obsolete. They are more likely to realize that and act before the politicians do.