It’s more than about rice and cooking oil
During the environmental expo in Jakarta early this June, Vice President Boediono asked whether “biodiversity loss could affect rice or cooking oil production” (The Jakarta Post, June 5). This is probably a question for many. In the middle of a huge wave of campaigns on biodiversity, a very basic question like this could become a significant obstacle in raising people’s awareness on the importance of species diversity.
We just observed World Environmental Day on June 5, which highlighted the diversity of species on Earth that play crucial roles in the future of this planet. Last month, on May 22, an International Day for Biological Diversity was also celebrated. The UN declared this year as the International Year of Biodiversity, and the conference of parties on the Convention of Biological Diversity will be conducted in October in Nagoya, Japan.
But again, what does biodiversity mean for ordinary people? People’s understanding and awareness are very important aspects in conserving biodiversity. As the Vice President said, in order to encourage public participation, the government is forced to use simple and clear language that can be understood by the people. Practical benefits of preserving biodiversity are then chosen as a way to communicate the idea to the community. However, should only practical reasons, such as the relationship between biodiversity and what we eat, be used to convince people?
It is true that practical benefits are a strong reason as to why we must conserve diverse species on earth. Biodiversity provides a range of dietary and medicinal needs for humans. Most parts of our clothes, houses and many others are derived from biodiversity components. We need to conserve native plants, for example, in case those plants can provide superior genetic traits that can be isolated for diseases or drought resistance in domesticated plants. Native plants or animals might also contain substances that can be used as medicine sources.
However, only emphasizing on practical benefits could be tricky. There should be many biodiversity components that have a lack of or unknown direct benefits. People may ask why it is needed to conserve tigers in their habitat when many wild tigers attacked villagers. There are so far no practical outcomes of conserving tigers. Putting conservation reasons only based on pragmatic point of view in fact has put conservation in danger. People are becoming lack of appreciation to the intrinsic values of biodiversity.
This is actually what is happening in this country. If a certain species does not have direct practical advantage, people are thinking about another direct outcome, i.e. how those diverse species could earn money. Consequently, illegal hunting and trading of biodiversity become commonplace. Raising people’s understanding and awareness about natural diversity by explaining its practical aspects is absolutely not wrong. However, it is not right if only based on that perspective.
Actually, as a nation we have been trying to explain every aspects of our life with a pragmatic paradigm. In education, for example, we implant in our children’s minds that schools are mainly for practical purposes, to get a job. It is absolutely right, however, that this interpretation could downgrade the essence of education itself, which is self-development. As a result, we become narrow minded. What happens then when they get nothing with an educational degree, they would do anything, even resort to bribery, in order to get a job. The same thing occurs in many other aspects of our life in this country.
There is an integrated living system on earth where every component interconnects each other. The change of behavior of an ecosystem component could signify the change of the ecosystem. Then, people may understand why it is important, for example, to conserve tigers. As tigers are part of the ecosystem, their attacks on a village may mean changes in the ecosystem landscape. The habitat alteration has created problems for those tigers to survive in their ecosystems. It could also be important for us since that is probably a sign of environmental destruction, which could end up with ecological disasters.
The loss of a certain species may mean a lot for the ecosystem and its components, including humans. Many tropical species, such as lichens and epiphytic plants, are very sensitive to moisture changes. A decreasing number of these species is again a great symptom of landscape changes. The loss of biodiversity in urban areas, such as some insect species, may indicate temperature alteration. It may relate to devastation of green areas in the city. Higher temperature could also be influenced by air pollution levels. This may be a sign that the environmental condition is also unhealthy for humans; thus, we need to create more green areas and decrease pollution levels.
Protecting biodiversity needs a long term perspective. It is not only significant for us, but also important for the future of the next generations. We of course need practical reasons to raise people’s awareness on the importance of biodiversity; but, it is not enough. It must also be highlighted that conserving biodiversity is morally imperative, since other creatures also have the right to occupy earth. Protecting biodiversity also means sustainability and avoiding over exploitation of natural resources. Protected diverse species also gives way for knowledge to develop.
Humans do not only need a physical development, but also a psychological growth. Nature could partly provide this psychological need. Educating people about biodiversity is about appreciating the nature around us, which either directly or indirectly affects us. Yes it is correct that conserving biological diversity is related to our food, but that is not all of it. Protecting biodiversity is more than about rice and cooking oil.
The writer is an ecologist at the University of Bengkulu and an Australian Leadership Awards fellow.