Conference focuses on the human side of biodiversity
2redarrow.gif - 0.1 K By JACK FREEMAN
© Earth Times News Service

t.gifhe three-day International Conference on Biodiversity and Society, opening today (Tuesday) at Columbia University, co sponsored by the university and Unesco, is aimed at broadening the meaning of “ecology” to make room for people.

“We have a strong bias toward the welfare of people,“ Christine Alfsen-Norodom, Coordinator of the conference, told The Earth Times. She added that the site-specific nature of the studies done in conjunction with the conference underscored that “we are dealing with real people in real places.”

Those studies, whose findings are to be presented at the conference, deal with nine “biodiversity reserves” all over the world. They are located in Australia, Brazil, Cambodia, China, Mexico, Peru, the United States -- including the New York metropolitan area -- and several countries in Africa. In each study, the focus is on the interaction between the land’s natural resources and its people.

But that does not mean, Alfsen-Norodom said, that there is -- or ought to be -- a “balance” between resources and people. “The idea that there may be such a balance is a myth,” she said.

The draft of the conference’s outcome document, the “Declaration on Biodiversity and Society,” notes that there are differing “measures of environmental value and conservation, including approaches that value historically important and culturally meaningful transformations of environments.” The draft also says that solutions to environmental problems must focus on “tradeoffs, incentives for change and conflict resolution.”

“The relationship between human beings and ecosystems is a dynamic one, always changing,” Alfsen-Norodom said. She added that the conference is interested in the nature of that change process and “how communities adapt to change without destroying the natural resources they depend on for survival.”

One lesson that has been learned from the case studies, she said, is that private owners of land can do a better job of adapting to change than governments do. And yet, she added, “All solutions are political” -- that is, they involve government action -- and “decisions are usually taken on the basis of ideology, not scientific data.” Therefore, she said, “No matter how good the science is, the pressure should be in the political area.”

Conference officials say they expect some 200 people to attend, representing organizations in 20 different countries. Each day of the conference is to be devoted to a different theme. Tuesday’s theme is “Traditions and Changes in Biodiversity Conservation and Uses.” The keynote address is to be given by Dr. Jose Sarukhan Kermez, Commissioner for Social and Human Development of Mexico.

On Wednesday the theme is “Population Pressures and Conflicts, Urban/Rural Impacts on Biodiversity.” The keynote address is to be given by Dr. Anna Tibaijuka, Executive Director of the United Nations Centre for Human Settlements (Habitat). Thursday’s theme is “Environmental Governance and Environmental Security. The keynote address is to be given by Mohammed Valli Moosa, Minister for Environment and Tourism of South Africa.

Asked what she hoped to see the conference accomplish, Alfsen Norodom answered without hesitation: “Matchmaking.” She explained that she hoped the number of sites being studied as “biosphere reserves” would grow threefold. She added that several people attending the conference had expressed interest in setting up “sister” or “twin” studies in areas similar to those currently being studied, while others say they are interested in setting up regional networks.

Alfsen-Norodom said she is interested in strengthening the global network whose “secretariat” is the collaboration between Columbia University and Unesco. The network already includes the New York Botanical Garden, the Wildlife Conservation Society (the Bronx Zoo) and Habitat, among other institutions.

Useful links:
Biodiversity and Society Conference
Columbia Earth Institute

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