Millennium Goals  |  Bridging the Gaps  |  Conceptual Framework


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Iceberg floating in sea off coast of Otago,
New Zealand 2006

Biodiversity, through the provision of ecosystem goods and services, provides the basis for all life on earth. This includes the support base for all of our economic and social development, our security and our health. Human health is one of the most important indicators of sustainable development – a healthy human population is dependent upon a healthy natural environment. The ecosystem approach to health recognises the intimate links between ecosystem services, human and animal health, biological diversity, and social and economic development, and recognises the need for integrated public health policies and development programmes that view the protection of ecosystems as an important part of achieving their objectives.

Species of animals and plants have always been important as sources of food, fuels, medicines, clothing and building materials, while ecosystems provide and maintain supplies of clean water, healthy soil and clean air. However, this is frequently taken for granted in an increasingly developed and globalised world. Truly sustainable development must incorporate all areas of human activity and our interactions with the environment, and therefore requires that social, economic, public health and environmental needs be resolved holistically. In order to fully achieve sustainable progress - whether at local, national, regional or international levels - policy makers, scientists, stakeholders and the wider public must work to integrate a multitude of otherwise distinct disciplines.

The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, a global project commissioned by the United Nations in 2000, has assessed the consequences of ecosystem change for human well-being, and identified the scientific basis for action needed to enhance the conservation and sustainable use of those ecosystems. The reports of the MA (published in 2005) have highlighted some of the growing evidence that the expanding human population and its economic, social and political activities have increased the rate of biodiversity loss above what may be considered the natural background rate, and beyond the capacity of the Earth to renew these resources. As a result, the health and welfare of people throughout the world is under increasing threat from new and unexpected hazards related to the loss of animal and plant species and the disruption of ecosystems. The ability of the planet’s ecosystems to sustain future generations can no longer be taken for granted. In as much as the loss of biodiversity puts the well being of many human populations at risk, its conservation and sustainable use can help to combat poverty and hunger, prevent disease outbreaks, and promote stability and security for millions of people worldwide.

While many benefits of biodiversity can be assigned a specific worth or economic value, for many sectors of society the value of biodiversity and ecosystems exists not so much in a monetary value gained, but on losses prevented or moderated by the existence of a healthy natural environment. While it is possible to directly quantify the economic worth of some ecosystem services such as food and timber production, the value in terms of life-supporting services which protect individual or population health and well-being is difficult to define in strict social or monetary terms.

Although the importance of biodiversity to human health and welfare may be widely recognised within the environment sector, there is still a significant gap in understanding and collaboration between environment on the one hand, and development, health and economic sectors on the other. For example, although the World Health Organisation has been associated with numerous high-level projects on biodiversity loss and its relevance to health, and has been closely involved with the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, this has not translated widely to the practices of health departments at local and national government level around the world. In many countries, there is still a lack of knowledge and understanding within the health sector of the importance of biodiversity conservation to healthy human populations, and a lack of awareness of impacts which biodiversity loss can have on human health.

Biodiversity conservation is also a key development issue, though it is often not recognised as such by organisations involved in development aid or emergency relief. Many organisations at the forefront of development issues do not understand the meaning of biodiversity, or do not see the direct relevance of biodiversity to their fields of work. Even where the relevance and connections are understood, there is difficulty in translating this knowledge into action.  In the context of emergency aid, disaster relief and rebuilding programmes, there is risk that problems which have been created or exacerbated by habitat disturbance may persist or recur if those programmes fail to recognise the importance of biodiversity to health and livelihood security. What is clearly needed is a means of connecting biodiversity issues with the activities of aid organisations at the grass-roots level, tying in directly with their existing areas of activity.

Furthermore, while there is a need for greater understanding of biodiversity within non-environment sectors, those involved in biodiversity conservation must also know how to integrate health and development considerations into their respective programmes and activities. Humans, our cultures and our communities are part of global biodiversity; we are connected to and depend upon the ecosystems with which we interact and of which we are a part. The biodiversity community must develop an understanding of how their plans can have the potential to affect human well-being and adopt holistic approaches to ensure the long term success of conservation strategies, for the benefit of future generations as well as for wildlife and ecosystems.

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Biodiversity and the Millennium Development Goals

The delegates at the First International Conference on Health and Biodiversity established that international commitments towards the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) would be severely hampered unless a concerted and effective effort is made towards reaching the strategic goal of the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) to achieve, by the year 2010, a significant reduction in the rate of biodiversity loss worldwide. Conversely, a failure to address the MDGs, or to put appropriate measures in place towards their implementation, will seriously affect the ability of nations to address the CBD 2010 target. Beyond 2010, a failure to adequately address issues of global health, poverty, debt relief, trade and security will continue to create conflicts between people and the natural environment. Such conflicts will likely result in further impacts on biodiversity that may, ultimately, create further challenges for human health and welfare, and livelihood sustainability. There is a need to ensure that national programmes for the implementation of the MDGs recognise that the conservation of biodiversity must play a central role in national action plans towards the MDGs - tackling issues of poverty, disease, education, sustainability, equality and international co-operation.

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Bridging the Gaps

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Indigenous People, Raub, Pahang, Malaysia
The Partners to the COHAB Initiative have identified a need for an international collaborative programme to facilitate partnership across disciplines and to address the conceptual barriers that inhibit cross-sectoral partnerships on biodiversity, health and development issues at government level. There is also a continuing need to promote these connections to a wider group of individuals and organisations, including those in the private sector. Engaging with the general public on biodiversity issues represents another major challenge. This is perhaps particularly true in developed countries where many people (e.g. in urban areas) do not recognise or appreciate any tangible connection with, or direct dependence upon ecosystem services. In general, arguments for the cultural, religious, aesthetic, ethical and economic values of biodiversity have not convinced the wider public of the importance of nature conservation.

The COHAB Initiative Partners have called for a common platform open to all stakeholders to debate and examine the importance of the natural world to human life:

  • Highlighting the importance of biodiversity and ecosystems services to human health and international development;
  • Illustrating how biodiversity is an essential component in achieving each of the eight United Nations Millennium Development Goals;
  • Highlighting the risks that human impacts on ecosystems present to human health and welfare worldwide;
  • Promoting collaborative approaches to conservation for sustainable human development;
  • Generating interdisciplinary and international communication;
  • Creating greater awareness among policy makers, scientists, health professionals, natural resource managers, local authorities and the general public.

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Conceptual Framework

There are four major challenges that must be dealt with in order to address and resolve the issues linking biodiversity with health, well-being and livelihood security:

  • Mainstreaming biodiversity and ecosystem services into health and development policies worldwide.

  • Local, national and international programmes and policies on health and development must recognise the fundamental importance of biodiversity and ecosystem services to the well-being and security of all people. Impacts on ecosystems and the loss of biological diversity can have direct and multiple impacts on health and livelihoods - the conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity must be recognised as a prerequisite for the success of the United Nations Millennium Development Goals, and appropriate steps for safeguarding ecosystem services must be incorporated into national action plans for the MDGs and for sustaining human well-being into the future. It is also important to ensure that the potential impacts of current health and development programmes on biodiversity are understood and addressed, so that the natural capital which supports our well-being is appropriately protected.
  • Integrating health and development considerations into plans and programmes on biodiversity conservation.

  • The biodiversity and environment communities must also recognise that sustainable development requires a holistic approach that acknowledges the links between biodiversity and human well-being, and that, in some circumstances, development controls which prioritise biodiversity conservation without incorporating human considerations can in themselves be unsustainable and counter-productive. Conservation planning must recognise the nature of ecosystem goods and services and the many benefits and resources which biodiversity represents to human societies. It may be true that for some ecosystems and wilderness areas, the pressures that human activities have exerted have been so great as to warrant absolute protection of certain designated sites, in order to ensure that biodiversity in those areas can be maintained for the benefit of future generations. However, the potential conflicts with other human needs, and the potential impacts of these strategies on human well-being and livelihoods, must not be ignored. Certain issues must be resolved through cross-sectoral dialogue and partnerships, in order to ensure that nature conservation succeeds in the long-term, for the benefit of all life.
  • Strengthening international, inter-governmental and interdisciplinary cooperation on biodiversity conservation for human health and well-being.

  • It is essential that the importance of biodiversity is understood outside of the environmental sciences, and that the impacts of biodiversity loss on population health, international development and livelihood security is addressed in a collaborative, holistic manner. Similarly, there is an urgent need to develop greater understanding and capacity within the environment sector of the relationships between ecosystem services and human well-being. Conceptual barriers that currently exist between the health, development and biodiversity sectors, particularly within local and national governments, must be identified and overcome. There is a need to develop further capacity for cross-sectoral cooperation and harmonization within and between countries in developed and developing regions.
  • Raising public and corporate awareness of biodiversity and ecosystem services, and increasing public involvement in biodiversity conservation.

  • The private sector and general public must have an understanding of the importance of biodiversity and ecosystem services to their health and well-being. It is important that the public at large, local communities, and corporate interests, have a sense of stewardship for the natural environment, and recognise the human benefits associated with conservation, and the risks associated with biodiversity loss and ecosystem disturbance.
The COHAB Initiative aims to assist in addressing these challenges within the context of wider international partnerships and collaborative programmes by:
  • Providing independent, evidence-based guidance and support for existing programmes of work within the various sectors
  • Building strong partnerships with policy makers and stakeholders across key sectors
  • Empowering organisations, communities and individuals to address the linkages between biodiversity and health within their own areas of activity

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