A United Nations survey co-led by an Indiana University researcher found that human activity is threatening nearly 1 million animal and plant species with extinction, putting the ecosystems upon which the world’s population depends at “grave risk.”
The Global Assessment Report on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services was compiled by 145 experts from 50 countries and includes data gathered from 15,000 scientific and government sources over the past three years.
A summary of the report’s findings was released May 6 at a meeting of the Intergovernmental Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services in Paris. The full report will be released later this year.
IU distinguished professor Eduardo Brondízio was one of three experts selected to lead research on the report. Brondízio, a native of Brazil who studies environmental anthropology in the Amazon, says the report is the first to include data from indigenous people and local communities, leading to a greater understanding than ever before of biodiversity and its effect on humanity.
“At least a quarter of the global land is unmanaged, traditionally occupied by indigenous people, Brondízio said during a press conference. “And 35% of the global protected areas overlap with areas of indigenous people. That shows their importance in guarding a lot of the biodiversity that we all benefit from, including a significant share of the global agro-bio diversity of plants and animals.”
Researchers found that about 75% of land-based environment and about 66% of the marine environment have been altered by human actions.
The number of native species in most land-based habitats has fallen by at least 20% since 1900. Also, more than a third of all marine mammals, more than 40% of amphibian species and almost 33% of reef-forming coral are threatened with extinction.
The study found that more than a third of the world’s land surface and nearly 75% of freshwater resources are devoted to livestock production. Even so, at least 1,000 breeds of mammals used for food and agriculture are also threatened.
“What my colleagues have shown is that we have reconfigured dramatically the fabric of life on the planet,” Brondízio said.
Human-caused land degradation has reduced the productivity of 23% of the global land surface, putting at least 100 million people at increased risk of floods and hurricanes due to loss of coastal habitats.
The comprehensive review of data allowed the researchers to determine that five factors are responsible for having the largest global impact on biodiversity in the earth’s ecosystems: changes in land and sea use; direct exploitation of organisms; climate change; pollution and invasive alien species.
Researchers found that agricultural expansion into intact ecosystems has greatly affected the loss of those ecosystems. In Latin America and southeast Asia, more than 247 million acres of tropical forests were lost in a 20-year span.
Farmers used the former tropical forest for cattle ranching and palm oil plantations. Cattle ranching feeds the demand for beef, and palm oil is used in food products, cosmetics, cleaning products and as fuel.
“Globally, since the ’70s, more food, energy and raw materials have been produced than ever before, but this has come at a price,” said Sandra Díaz, assessment co-chair. “The increases in production and the associated waste is undermining nature’s capacity to regulate processes and regenerate itself.”
Since 1970, the world’s human population has doubled to nearly 7.6 billion. That growth has led to unsustainable trends in agricultural production, fish harvesting, bioenergy production and a harvesting of materials to keep up with the pace of a growing population.
Brondízio and his colleagues say there is still time for the world to stop the unsustainable practices that are putting the world’s crucial ecosystems at risk.
“The knowledge is there. We need to move to more bold implementation,” Brondízio said. “That means addressing not only the direct causes of change, which we can address with policies applied at the local, national and regional level, but, most importantly, confront the root causes of change.”
The report summary says the full report will present a wide range of actions leaders can take in sectors like agriculture, energy, and finance to build a global sustainable economy. Some changes may require people to adopt new outlooks on production and consumption.
“The battle is not lost yet,” said Díaz.