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Biodiversity & Human Well-being

2. Why is biodiversity loss a concern?

  • 2.1 What are the main links between biodiversity and human well-being?
    • 2.1.1 Food security
    • 2.1.2 Vulnerability
    • 2.1.3 Health
    • 2.1.4 Energy security
    • 2.1.5 Provision of clean water
    • 2.1.6 Social relations
    • 2.1.7 Freedom of choice and action
    • 2.1.8 Basic materials for a good life and sustainable livelihoods
  • 2.2 What competing goals can affect biodiversity?
  • 2.3 What is the value of biodiversity for human well-being?
  • 2.4 How are the impacts of biodiversity loss distributed geographically?

The source document for this Digest states:

Biodiversity is essential for ecosystem services and hence for human well-being. Biodiversity goes beyond the provisioning for material welfare and livelihoods to include security, resiliency, social relations, health, and freedoms and choices. Some people have benefited over the last century from the conversion of natural ecosystems to human-dominated ecosystems and from the exploitation of biodiversity. At the same time, however, these losses in biodiversity and associated changes in ecosystem services have caused other people to experience declining well-being, with some social groups being pushed into poverty.

2.1 What are the main links between biodiversity and human well-being?

    • 2.1.1 Food security
    • 2.1.2 Vulnerability
    • 2.1.3 Health
    • 2.1.4 Energy security
    • 2.1.5 Provision of clean water
    • 2.1.6 Social relations
    • 2.1.7 Freedom of choice and action
    • 2.1.8 Basic materials for a good life and sustainable livelihoods

The source document for this Digest states:

The MA identifies biodiversity and the many ecosystem services that it provides as a key instrumental and constitutive factor determining human well-being. The MA findings support, with high certainty, that biodiversity loss and deteriorating ecosystem services contribute—directly or indirectly—to worsening health, higher food insecurity, increasing vulnerability, lower material wealth, worsening social relations, and less freedom for choice and action.

Source & ©: Millennium Ecosystem Assessment
 Ecosystems and Human Well-being: Biodiversity Synthesis (2005),
Chapter 2, p.30

2.1.1 Food security

The source document for this Digest states:

Biological diversity is used by many rural communities directly as an insurance and coping mechanism to increase flexibility and spread or reduce risk in the face of increasing uncertainty, shocks, and surprises. The availability of this biological “safety net” has increased the security and resilience of some local communities to external economic and ecological perturbations, shocks, or surprises (C6.2.2, C8.2). In a world where fluctuating commodity prices are more the norm than the exception, economic entitlements of the poor are increasingly becoming precarious. The availability of an ecosystem-based food security net during times when economic entitlements are insufficient to purchase adequate nourishment in the market provides an important insurance program (C8.1, C6.7).

Coping mechanisms based on indigenous plants are particularly important for the most vulnerable people, who have little access to formal employment, land, or market opportunities (C6). For example, investigations of two dryland sites in Kenya and Tanzania report local communities using wild indigenous plants to provide alternative sources of food when harvests failed or when sudden expenses had to be met (such as a hospital bill). (See Table 2.1)

Table 2.1. Percentage of Households Dependent on Indigenous Plant–based Coping Mechanisms at Kenyan and Tanzanian Site (C6 Table 6.4)

Another pathway through which biodiversity can improve food security is the adoption of farming practices that maintain and make use of agricultural biodiversity. Biodiversity is important to maintaining agricultural production. Wild relatives of domestic crops provide genetic variability that can be crucial for overcoming outbreaks of pests and pathogens and new environ­mental stresses. Many agricultural communities consider increased local diversity a critical factor for the long-term productivity and viability of their agricultural systems. For example, interweaving multiple varieties of rice in the same paddy has been shown to increase productivity by lowering the loss from pests and pathogens

Source & ©: Millennium Ecosystem Assessment
 Ecosystems and Human Well-being: Biodiversity Synthesis (2005),
Chapter 2, p.30

2.1.2 Vulnerability

The source document for this Digest states:

The world is experiencing an increase in human suffering and economic losses from natural disasters over the past several decades. Mangrove forests and coral reefs—a rich source of biodiversity—are excellent natural buffers against floods and storms. Their loss or reduction in coverage has increased the severity of flooding on coastal communities. Floods affect more people (140 million per year on average) than all other natural or technological disasters put together. Over the past four decades, the number of “great” disasters has increased by a factor of four, while economic losses have increased by a factor of ten. During the 1990s, countries low on the Human Development Index experienced about 20% of the hazard events and reported over 50% of the deaths and just 5% of economic losses. Those with high rankings on the index accounted for over 50% of the total economic losses and less than 2% of the deaths (C6, R11, C16).

A common finding from the various sub-global assessments was that many people living in rural areas cherish and promote ecosystem variability and diversity as a risk management strategy against shocks and surprises (SG11). They maintain a diversity of ecosystem services and are skeptical about solutions that reduce their options. The sub-global assessments found that diversity of species, food, and landscapes serve as “savings banks” that rural communities use to cope with change and ensure sustainable livelihoods (see Peruvian, Portuguese, Costa Rican, and India sub-global assessments).

Source & ©: Millennium Ecosystem Assessment
 Ecosystems and Human Well-being: Biodiversity Synthesis (2005),
Chapter 2, p.30

2.1.3 Health

The source document for this Digest states:

An important component of health is a balanced diet. About 7,000 species of plants and several hundred species of animals have been used for human food consumption at one time or another. Some indigenous and traditional communities currently consume 200 or more species. Wild sources of food remain particularly important for the poor and landless to provide a somewhat balanced diet (C6, C8.2.2). Overexploitation of marine fisheries worldwide, and of bushmeat in many areas of the tropics, has lead to a reduction in the availability of wild-caught animal protein, with serious consequences in many countries for human health (C4.3.4).

Human health, particularly risk of exposure to many infectious diseases, may depend on the maintenance of biodiversity in natural ecosystems. On the one hand, a greater diversity of wildlife species might be expected to sustain a greater diversity of pathogens that can infect humans. However, evidence is accumulating that greater wildlife diversity may decrease the spread of many wildlife pathogens to humans. The spread of Lyme disease, the best-studied case, seems to be decreased by the maintenance of the biotic integrity of natural ecosystems (C11, C14).

Source & ©: Millennium Ecosystem Assessment
 Ecosystems and Human Well-being: Biodiversity Synthesis (2005),
Chapter 2, p.31

2.1.4 Energy security

The source document for this Digest states:

Wood fuel provides more than half the energy used in developing countries. Even in industrial countries such as Sweden and the United States, wood supplies 17% and 3% of total energy consumption respectively. In some African countries, such as Tanzania, Uganda, and Rwanda, wood fuel accounts for 80% of total energy consumption (SG-SAfMA). In rural areas, 95% is consumed in the form of firewood, while in urban areas 85% is in the form of charcoal. Shortage of wood fuel occurs in areas with high population density without access to alternative and affordable energy sources. In some provinces of Zambia where population densities exceed the national average of 13.7 persons per square kilometer, the demand for wood has already surpassed local supply. In such areas, people are vulnerable to illness and malnutrition because of the lack of resources to heat homes, cook food, and boil water. Women and children in rural poor communities are the ones most affected by wood fuel scarcity. They must walk long distances searching for firewood and therefore have less time for tending crops and school (C9.4).

Source & ©: Millennium Ecosystem Assessment
 Ecosystems and Human Well-being: Biodiversity Synthesis (2005),
Chapter 2, p.31

2.1.5 Provision of clean water

The source document for this Digest states:

The continued loss of cloud forests and the destruction of watersheds reduce the quality and availability of water supplied to household use and agriculture. The availability of clean drinking water is a concern in dozens of the world’s largest cities (C27). In one of the best documented cases, New York City took steps to protect the integrity of watersheds in the Catskills to ensure continued provision of clean drinking water to 9 million people. Protecting the ecosystem was shown to be far more cost-effective than building and operating a water filtration plant. New York City avoided $6–8 billion in expenses by protecting its watersheds (C7, R17).

Source & ©: Millennium Ecosystem Assessment
 Ecosystems and Human Well-being: Biodiversity Synthesis (2005),
Chapter 2, p.31

2.1.6 Social relations

The source document for this Digest states:

Many cultures attach spiritual and religious values to ecosystems or their components such as a tree, hill, river, or grove (C17). Thus loss or damage to these components can harm social relations—for example, by impeding religious and social ceremonies that normally bind people. (See Box 2.1) Damage to ecosystems, highly valued for their aesthetic, recreational, or spiritual values can damage social relations, both by reducing the bonding value of shared experience as well as by causing resentment toward groups that profit from their damage (S11, SG10).

Box 2.1. Social Consequences of Biodiversity Degradation (SG-SAfMA)

Source & ©: Millennium Ecosystem Assessment
 Ecosystems and Human Well-being: Biodiversity Synthesis (2005),
Chapter 2, p.31

2.1.7 Freedom of choice and action

The source document for this Digest states:

Freedom of choice and action within the MA context refers to individuals having control over what happens and being able to achieve what they value (CF3). Loss of biodiversity often means a loss of choices. Local fishers depend on man­groves as breeding grounds for local fish populations. Loss of mangroves translates to a loss in control over the local fish stock and a livelihood they have been pursuing for many generations and that they value. Another example is high-diversity agricultural systems. These systems normally produce less cash than monoculture cash crops, but farmers have some control over their entitlements because of spreading risk through diversity. High diversity of genotypes, populations, species, functional types, and spatial patches decreases the negative effects of pests and pathogens on crops and keeps open possibilities for agrarian communities to develop crops suited to future environmental challenges and to increase their resilience to climate variability and market fluctuations (C11).

Another dimension of choices relates to the future. The loss of biodiversity in some instances is irreversible, and the value individuals place on keeping biodiversity for future generations—the option value—can be significant (CF6, C2). The notion of having choices available irrespective of whether any of them will be actually picked is an essential constituent of the freedom aspect of well-being. However, putting a monetary figure on option values is notoriously difficult. We can only postulate on the needs and desires of future generations, some of which can be very different from today’s aspirations.

Source & ©: Millennium Ecosystem Assessment
 Ecosystems and Human Well-being: Biodiversity Synthesis (2005),
Chapter 2, p.32

2.1.8 Basic materials for a good life and sustainable livelihoods

The source document for this Digest states:

Biodiversity offers directly the various goods—often plants, animals, and fungi—that individuals need in order to earn an income and secure sustainable livelihoods. In addition, it also contributes to livelihoods through the support it provides for ecosystem services: the agricultural labor force currently contains approximately 22% of the world’s population and accounts for 46% of its total labor force (C26.5.1). For example, apples are a major cash crop in the Himalayan region in India, accounting for 60–80% of total household income (SG3). The region is also rich in honeybee diversity, which played a significant role in pollinating field crops and wild plants, thereby increasing productivity and sustaining ecosystem functions. In the early 1980s, market demand for particular types of apples led farmers to uproot pollinated varieties and plant new, sterile cultivars. The pollinator populations were also negatively affected by excessive use of pesticides. The result was a reduction in overall apple productivity and the extinction of many natural pollinator species (SG3).

Nature-based tourism (“ecotourism”)—one of the fastest-growing segments of tourism worldwide—is a particularly important economic sector in a number of countries and a potential income source for many rural communities (C17.2.6). The aggregate revenue generated by nature-based tourism in Southern Africa was estimated to be $3.6 billion in 2000, roughly 50% of total tourism revenue (SG-SAfMA). Botswana, Kenya, Namibia, South Africa, Tanzania, Uganda, and Zimba­bwe each generated over $100 million in revenue annually from nature-based tourism in 2000. In Tanzania, tourism contributed 30% of the total GDP of the country.

Biodiversity also contributes to a range of other industries, including pharmaceuticals, cosmetics, and horticulture. Market trends vary widely according to the industry and country involved but many bioprospecting activities and revenues are expected to increase over the next decades (C10). The current economic climate suggests that pharmaceutical bioprospecting will increase, especially as new methods use evolutionary andecological knowledge.

Losses of biodiversity can impose substantial costs at local and national scales. For example, the collapse of the Newfoundland cod fishery in the early 1990s cost tens of thousands of jobs, as well as at least $2 billion in income support and retraining. Recent evidence suggests that the preservation of the integrity of local biological communities, both in terms of the identity and the number of species, is important for the maintenance of plant and animal productivity, soil fertility, and their stability in the face of a changing environment (C11). Recent estimates from the MA Portugal sub-global assessment indicate that environmental expenses in that country are increasing at a rate of 3% a year and are presently 0.7% of GDP (SG-Portugal).

Source & ©: Millennium Ecosystem Assessment
 Ecosystems and Human Well-being: Biodiversity Synthesis (2005),
Chapter 2, p.32

2.2 What competing goals can affect biodiversity?

The source document for this Digest states:

When society has multiple goals, many of which depend on biodiversity, ecosystem services, and the many constituents of well-being, difficult decisions involving trade-offs among competing goals have to be made. The value of ecosystem services lost to human society, in the long term, may greatly exceed the short-term economic benefits that are gained from transformative activities. In Sri Lanka, for example, the clearing of tropical forest for agriculture initially reduced the habitat for forest-adapted anopheline mosquito vectors of malaria. But in due course, other vector species occupied the changed habitat, contributing to the resurgence of malaria (SG3).

Many of the changes in biodiversity and ecosystems have been made to enhance the production of specific ecosystem services such as food production. But only 4 of the 24 ecosystem services examined in this assessment have been enhanced: crops, livestock, aquaculture, and (in recent decades) carbon sequestration, while 15 services have been degraded. (See Table 2.2.) The degraded services include cap­ture fisheries, timber production, water supply, waste treatment and detoxification, water purification, natural hazard protection, regulation of air quality, regulation of regional and local climate, regulation of erosion, and many cultural services (the spiritual, aesthetic, recreational, and other benefits of ecosystems). Modifications of ecosystems to enhance one service generally have come at a cost to other services that the ecosystem provided. For example, while the expansion of agriculture and its increased productivity are a success story of enhanced production of one key ecosystem service, this success has come at high and growing costs in terms of trade-offs with other ecosystem services, both through the direct impact of land cover change and as a result of water withdrawals for irrigation and release of nutrients into rivers. Globally, roughly 15–35% of irrigation withdrawals are estimated to be unsustainable (low to medium uncertainty).The impacts of these trade-offs among ecosystem services affect people in different ways. An aquaculture farmer, for instance, may gain material welfare from management practices that increase soil salinization and thereby reduce rice yields and threaten food security for nearby subsistence farmers.

Table 2.2. Trends in the Human Use of Ecosystem Services and Enhancement or Degradation of the Service around the Year 2000

Trade-off analysis aided by qualitative and quantitative values for biodiversity and ecosystem services can help decision-makers make intelligent decisions among competing goals (R17). (See Figure 2.1.) Such analysis can identify management strategies that generate efficient outcomes in which it is not possible to increase one objective without decreasing another. Second, it can show the extent to which current decisions are inefficient and help identify opportunities for improving the status quo. Third, it illustrates the nature of the trade-offs between goals once the efficiency frontier has been reached.

Source & ©: Millennium Ecosystem Assessment
 Ecosystems and Human Well-being: Biodiversity Synthesis (2005),
Chapter 2, p.32

2.3 What is the value of biodiversity for human well-being?

The source document for this Digest states:

The importance of biodiversity and natural processes in producing ecosystem services that people depend on is not captured in financial markets. Unlike goods bought and sold in markets, many ecosystem services do not have markets or readily observable prices. However, lack of a price does not mean lack of value. A substantial body of research on nonmarket valuation is now available for some ecosystem services, including clean drinking water, recreation, or commercially harvested species. Existence value of species and other “non-use” values pose a greater challenge to those who would try to measure the complete value of conserving biodiversity and natural processes. The fact that ecosystems are dynamic and complex, as well as the fact that human preferences change through time, also present difficulties for attempts to value natural systems. Combinations of irreversible actions, such as species extinction, and uncertainty give rise to option value (such as the value of maintaining flexibility, keeping options open, until uncertainty is resolved). Though clear in theory, getting reasonable estimates of option value is difficult in practice (C2.3). Better quantification of the benefits derived from ecosystems would provide greater impetus for biodiversity protection and create a more transparent picture of the equitability of the distribution of benefits.

Private and social values of conserving biodiversity and natural systems often differ widely. The private use value of biodiversity and ecosystem services by individuals will typically ignore the “external” benefits of conservation that accrue to society in general. For example, a farmer may benefit from intensive use of the land but generally does not bear all the consequences caused by leaching of excess nutrients and pesticides into ground or surface water, or the consequences of loss of habitat for native species. If private decision-makers are not given the incentives to value the larger social benefits of conservation, their decisions will often result in inadequate conservation (C5.4).

The indirect values of biodiversity conservation can be highly significant in comparison with the direct economic values derived from a particular area. (See Box 2.2.) In existing economic studies of changes to biodiversity in specific locations (such as the conversion of mangrove forests, degradation of coral reefs, and clear-felling of forests), the costs of ecosystem conversion are often found to be significant and sometimes exceed the benefits of the habitat conversion. Despite this, in a number of these cases conversion was promoted because the value of the lost ecosystem services—the indirect value of biodiversity conservation—was not internalized. In other instances, subsidies distorted the relative costs and benefits and provided the incentives to destroy biodiversity (C5).

Box 2.2. Economic Costs and Benefits of Ecosystem Conversion

The depletion and degradation of many ecosystem services represents the loss of a capital asset that is poorly reflected in conventional indicators of economic growth or growth in human well-being (C2.3.5). A country could cut its forests and deplete its fisheries, and this would show only as a positive gain to GDP, despite the loss of the capital asset. (GDP measures the flow of economic benefits from the use of these resources, but the depletion of the capital asset is not reflected.) Moreover, many ecosystem services are available freely to those who use them (fresh water in aquifers, for instance, and the use of the atmo­sphere as a sink for pollutants) and so again their degradation is not reflected in standard economic measures. When changes to these natural capital assets are factored into measures of the inclusive wealth of nations, they significantly change the balance sheet for countries with economies largely dependent on natural resources. Some countries that appeared to have positive growth in the 1970s and 1980s, for example, actually experienced a net loss of capital assets, effectively undermining the sustainability of any gains they may have achieved.

Source & ©: Millennium Ecosystem Assessment
 Ecosystems and Human Well-being: Biodiversity Synthesis (2005),
Chapter 2, p.38

2.4 How are the impacts of biodiversity loss distributed geographically?

The source document for this Digest states:

Biodiversity use, change, and loss have improved well-being for many social groups and individuals. But people with low resilience to ecosystem changes—mainly the disadvantaged—have been the biggest losers and witnessed the biggest increase in not only monetary poverty but also relative, temporary poverty and the depth of poverty (C5, C6, R17). See Box 2.3 for a description of various types of poverty.

Box 2.3. Concepts and Measures of Poverty

Many communities depend on a range of biological products for their material welfare. In addition, the transfer of ownership or use rights to ecosystem services like timber, fishing, and mining to privileged groups by governments have also excluded local communities from the use of these ecosystem services (R8). Provisions for ensuring the equitable distribution of monetary benefits from the use of biological products are an issue of major concern. Even in cases where equitable provisioning has been made, implementation is being impaired by weak and ineffective institutions (C10).

Poor people have historically disproportionately lost access to biological products and ecosystem services as demand for those services has grown. Coastal habitats are often converted to other uses, frequently for aquaculture ponds or cage culturing of highly valued species such as shrimp and salmon. Despite the fact that the area is still used for food production, local residents are often displaced from their fishing grounds, and the fish produced are usually not for local consumption but for export. Coastal residents often no longer have access to cheap protein or sources of income (C18). The development of shrimp aquaculture has displaced local fishers who are not able to enter the capital- and technology-intensive shrimp fisheries (SG3). Food security and overall well-being is much better in situations where local communities—with particular focus on the poor and the disadvantaged—were involved and made partners in the access, use, and management of biodiversity.

Changes in the equity structure of societies can have impacts on ecosystem services. Differential access to resources may also help to explain why some people living in environmental resource-rich areas nevertheless rank low in measures of human well-being. For example, economic liberalization in Viet Nam resulted in the development of a class of entrepreneurs with markedly greater access to capital. The poorer fishers were unable to enter the capital and technology-intensive shrimp fishery that developed. Furthermore, the ecological changes precipitated by the expansion of shrimp aquaculture reduced the capacity of the ecosystem to support the traditional fish stocks, further exacerbating the inequity (SG3.7).

The increase in international trade of biological products has improved the well-being for many social groups and individuals, especially in countries with well-developed markets and trade rules and among people in developing countries who have access to the biological products. However, many groups have not benefited from such trade. Some people who live near and are dependent on biodiversity-rich areas have experienced a drop in their well-being rather than an increase. Examples include the many indigenous groups and local communities who have relied on these products and the ecosystem services they support for many of the constituents of well-being. Weak and inefficient institutional structures that oversee the equitable distribution of benefits are key reasons for the inequitable distribution of benefits at the national and local levels. In addition, structural adjustment programs played a key role in pushing the poor further into destitution and forcing many to have no choice but to further stress ecosystem services (R17).

Conflicts between competing social groups or individuals over access to and use of biological products and ecosystem services have contributed to declines in well-being for some groups and improvements for others. Sometimes different social groups have a conflict over how a given bundle of ecosystem services or biological products ought to be used and shared. Although many such conflicts have been managed cooperatively, it is also common for one group to impose its preferred outcome on the others, leading to an improvement in well-being for one group at the expense of others. For example, if mountain communities convert forests into agricultural lands, they may reduce downstream water quality. When ecosystem change is linked to well-being change through this highly complex structure of interdependencies, there are both winners and losers. Some groups improve and other groups decline (C6). Box 2.4 describes some conflicts that emerged in Chile over the mining industry and local communities.

Box 2.4. Conflicts Between the Mining Sector and Local Communities in Chile

One of the main reasons some countries, social groups, or individuals—especially the disadvantaged—are more severely affected by biodiversity and ecosystem changes is limited access to substitutes or alternatives. When the quality of water deteriorates, the rich have the resources to buy personal water filters or imported bottled water that the poor can ill afford. Similarly, urban populations in developing countries have easier access to clean energy sources because of easy access to the electrical grid, while rural communities have fewer choices. Poor farmers often do not have the option of substituting modern methods for services provided by biodiversity because they cannot afford the alternatives. And, substitution of some services may not be sustainable, and may have negative environmental and human health effects. For example, the reliance on toxic and persistent pesticides to control certain pests can have negative effects on the provision of services by the cultivated system and other ecosystems connected to the cultivated system (C26.2). Many industrial countries maintain seed banks in response to the rapid rate of loss of crop genetic diversity and to make existing genetic diversity more readily available to plant breeders. Apart from the network of seed banks maintained in developing countries by the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research, for many developing countries creating such banks could pose a problem when electricity supplies are unreliable, fuel is costly, and there is a lack of human capacity (R17).

Place-based or micro-level data and not macro-level or aggregated data provide more useful information to identify disadvantaged communities being affected by biodiversity and ecosystem changes. Most poverty statistics are only available at an aggregate level. These tend to hide pockets of poverty existing sometimes within traditionally defined “wealthy” regions or provinces. Therefore, using aggregate data to understand and establish links between biodiversity loss, ecosystem changes, and well-being can be quite misleading (C5).

Source & ©: Millennium Ecosystem Assessment
 Ecosystems and Human Well-being: Biodiversity Synthesis (2005),
Chapter 2, p.40


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