Why we need to invest in biodiversity

Above: A rice field during the dry season in Tanzania

A subsistence rice farmer is clearing a small patch of mangroves along the Rufiji River in Tanzania. The farmer then plants low-quality seeds from the previous harvest into the brackish waters of the land that forms part of the river delta. She knows the location is inadequate and the yield will be low, but she still plants the seeds and grows the rice. She does this because her livelihood is highly unstable due to a confluence of economic, social, and environmental barriers and this may be her only option. She knows biodiversity loss and climate change are important, but it is far from what worries her the most.

The farmer is not responsible for the rapid decline in global biodiversity, or for climate change, nor can she stop the sea level rise caused by a warming planet. Yet, one thing the farmer can do is adapt by changing how and where she farms. What if there was a way to link her to a network of farmers just like her? What if she could access high yielding seeds that require less land and connect with a processor that could support them with technical assistance? What if there was a way to finance this change?

This December, the 15th Conference of Parties (COP) to the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) meets in Montreal to create solutions that enables people, like this rice farmer, to make decisions that do not result in biodiversity loss but rather protect and restore it. The main objective is to adopt a 10-year biodiversity framework that will advance, protect, and sustainably use the biodiversity of our planet. COP15 underscores an urgent message: action is needed to transform our economic, social, and financial models to halt the biodiversity loss and to recover natural ecosystems by 2050.

COP15 demonstrates the political will to act; however, financing investments in biodiversity is a significant challenge for achieving this monumental goal. International development groups globally welcomed Prime Minister of Canada Justin Trudeau’s December 6th announcement that Canada would commit CAD $350 million in new international finance for biodiversity. This is new and additional funding to Canada’s previous efforts to its 2021 climate finance commitment of $5.3 billion over five years, which is a promising sign.

But what is biodiversity, ecosystems, and ecosystem services, and why do they matter?

Biodiversity is the diversity of species and genetic makeup of every living on our planet (think of all the different species of birds, fish, trees, insects, plants, and microorganisms, or the genetic diversity within those groups). Biodiversity is essential for life on earth – it is responsible for the health and well-being of our planet, the food we eat, and our medicines; it filters our water, provides wood to cook our food and build shelter, and stabilizes our climate so that we can grow crops and plan our futures. Biodiversity and our climate system make our existence possible.

An ecosystem is a biodiversity that works in a delicate, self-sustaining balance. More specifically, Canada’s boreal forest, the Sahara Desert, the Amazon, and the Congo Basin are examples of ecosystems.

Ecosystem services are the benefits people obtain from ecosystems that are essential to our well-being. The mangrove forest in Tanzania provides an ecosystem service offering protection from floods and storm surges, a habitat for fish, firewood for fuel, and a natural filter for pollution. The bald eagle provides an ecosystem cultural service to Indigenous people in North America as a sacred spirit animal that flies closest to the creator. Americans also regard the eagle as a national symbol. Virtually all cultures embrace flora and fauna as part of their cultural identity.

In short, supporting biodiversity and working to care for our ecosystems around the world is key to ensuring that our planet can continue feeding and providing for us. Our global food systems are depended on only a few plant and animal species, which increases our vulnerabilities. Biodiversity reduces these vulnerabilities by increasing the resiliency of food systems.

What we can do

MEDA supports farmers like the one mentioned above by using a market systems lens to understand the root causes preventing farmers and small businesses from escaping poverty, then seeks to change that system to break the cycle of poverty and create a space where positive environmental outcomes can be pursued. Market systems change is achieved through a triple-impact approach that examines the system in the context of our clients’ economic, social, and environmental realities.

Understanding and addressing the investment needs of the farmers we work with is essential to our work. When looking through a finance lens, we ask, what are the capital needs to transition to more sustainable agricultural approaches and technology? Once those capital needs have been identified, we work with our partners and financial institutions to find ways to create access to that capital. Getting financing right translates into giving farmers the agency and financial resources to pursue environmental sustainability.

In addition, understanding and addressing the nexus between gender equality and the protection of biodiversity will ensure that we can stop the destruction of biodiversity. We know from about three decades of research on gender and the environment that women and girls tend to be affected differently and more harshly by environmental destruction because of existing gender inequalities. Women and girls suffer a higher loss of income and assets and are at greater risk of harm. Continued biodiversity loss, combined with a changing climate, often worsens existing inequalities, decreasing women’s and girls’ abilities to cope with and recover from the damage and perpetuating a vicious cycle of poverty and inequality. Taking a systems approach through economic, social, and environmental lenses is key to breaking this vicious cycle to bring about sustainable change. While women and girls living in poverty are not significant contributors to biodiversity loss, they can be a driving force behind its protection and restoration.

In short, investing in biodiversity protection and restoration needs to be timely, appropriate, and effective if it will lead to concrete results. For the above-mentioned rice farmer in Tanzania, this means adapting how and where she farms to protect the biodiversity around her, including the mangrove forests. Canada’s pledges for new and additional funding, while insufficient to meet the 10-year framework, send the right signal for more comprehensive cooperation around financing biodiversity. Financing can be a powerful tool, but it needs to reach organizations in and working with the Global South if we genuinely want to protect our biodiversity, which supports life on this planet.

Interested in reading more? Check out MEDA’s Storehouse for more great content. Learn how entrepreneurs and farmers use their skills and talents to build prosperous businesses and livelihoods.

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  • Dennis Tessier

    Dennis Tessier is the Technical Director, Environment and Climate Change (ECC) at MEDA. In this role Dennis has organization-wide responsibility to build capacity, develop strategic approaches, document best practices, mentor staff and oversee the provision of technical support to all of MEDA’s programming to ensure ECC is championed broadly.

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