Singapore: Indonesia, one of the world’s richest countries in terms of species, is losing hugely valuable resources and services through the destruction of forests, coral reefs, and watersheds, scientists said on Tuesday.
The natural environment provides services critical to economies, from clean water, rich fishing grounds and coral reefs to clean air filtered by forests, services that are not fully taken into account in modern economics.
But scientists say the deterioration of these services through loss of species robs the planet of rich resources that can help mankind to grow sufficient food as well as exploit a vast gene pool to make new drugs and even beauty treatments.
In Indonesia, the loss of biodiversity has reached crisis levels, scientists at a major tropical biodiversity meeting in Bali this week said.
“The reason Indonesia is going through such a major crisis is because the biodiversity of Indonesia is extremely rich,” said senior scientist Terry Sunderland of the Centre for International Forestry Research based in Bogor, Indonesia.
“It is probably the second most important country after Brazil in terms of biodiversity,” Sunderland said. “The other great value of Indonesia’s biodiversity is that many of the species that are found here are endemic.
“Because there are 17,000 islands, you have these unique ecosystems throughout the archipelago which combined have a huge number of species, so the biodiversity value of the country as a whole is enormous.”
But logging of forests and rapid expansion of pulp and paper and oil palm plantations has created vast monocultures with little resilience to disease or climate change.
Bronwen Powell, a PhD candidate and specialist on forests and nutrition who presented a paper at the Bali conference, said deforestation could increase human exposure to diseases carried by primates and drive important medicinal plants to the point of extinction.
“A huge number of the world’s pharmaceuticals were discovered as compounds in plants,” she said. “As forests are lost, the knowledge that goes with those plants is lost as well. We are potentially losing the cure for cancer.”
About half the country of 240 million people remains forested and the government has ramped up efforts to save it, including an agreement on a two-year moratorium from next January on the clearing of natural forests.
The United Nations says annual losses from deforestation and damage to forests alone is estimated at between $2 trillion and $4.5 trillion globally.
Sunderland said the basic equivalent of the market value of biodiversity, if you include pharmaceuticals, agriculture and food, health and beauty products, was about $500 billion, roughly the equivalent of the petrochemicals industry.
Slowing the loss of the planet’s plant and animal species and putting a value to them has risen up the global political agenda, with 2010 being the International Year of Biodiversity.
A major meeting in Japan in October is expected to agree on new targets, including a 2050 vision.
World leaders agreed in 2002 to achieve a significant reduction in biodiversity loss by 2010. But the United Nations has said the target has not been met and that current trends are placing the planet on a path to possible cataclysm.