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Valuing natural ecosystems for sustainable economy

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Shishir Reza :
Ecosystems of Bangladesh harbor 133 species of mammal, 711 species of bird, 174 species of reptile, 64 species of amphibian, 270 species of freshwater fish, and 4,500 species of invertebrate, including 185 crustacean and 305 butterfly species. These numbers are just amazing since we are talking about a country where on average 1,100 people live in every square kilometer.
Since the early 1960s, International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) has been estimating the status of global biodiversity by calculating the extinction risk of thousands of species. IUCN regularly produces the Red List of threatened species of the world, of regions, and of selected countries. The latest animal Red List of Bangladesh has listed 390 species as threatened in Bangladesh - almost 25 percent of 1,619 species assessed. From the earlier IUCN Red List of 2000, we knew that we had lost 13 wildlife species from Bangladesh in the last 100 years. Fifteen years on, the latest Red List of Bangladesh alarms us that another 18 species have joined the Regionally Extinct list. This extensive exercise involving 160 Bangladeshi biologists, however, could not assess 278 animal species due to lack of sufficient data on them. Further, Bangladesh has only progressed less than five percent in preparing a complete Red List for plants. These facts highlight the knowledge gap in conservation status of our biodiversity.
We often talk about population pressure as the key reason for biodiversity loss. Human actions are indeed degrading and fragmenting habitats, changing land use patterns, and modifying hydrological systems on a large, landscape scale. Over-exploitation of resources, pollutions, and introduction of invasive species by us are also posing direct threats to our biodiversity and undermining the conservation measures. As our economy grows, industrialization and energy consumption increases, and urbanization expands, we do see our institutional and legal systems continue promoting unsustainable resource exploitation. We also see our economic policies and systems, inadequate awareness level, and inequality in the ownership and benefit sharing of biological resources, as indirect threats to biodiversity of this land.
To protect Bangladesh's rich biodiversity, many initiatives have long been taken, especially in the recent decade. Many biodiversity-rich areas have been declared as National Parks, Wildlife Sanctuaries, Ecologically Critically Areas, Eco-Parks, Safari Parks and Botanical Gardens protected by the laws. A total of 51 such protected sites, including 37 Protected Areas, now cover almost four percent of the country. In 2014, Bangladesh declared "Swatch of No-Ground" in the Bay of Bengal, the first Marine Protected Area of the country. This together with the "Middle Ground and South Patches" of the Bay now constitute more than 2 percent of the total marine area of Bangladesh under protection. Species conservation has also received significant push in the last few years. Bengal Tiger, Asian Elephant, dolphins, primates, vultures, gharial, different globally threatened bird and turtle species are, to name a few, major groups. These initiatives are now not only restricted to Bangladesh, but linked with regional and global ventures.
This situation further puts us in a larger dilemma - how to balance our aspiration to become a middle-income country by 2021 and conserving our biodiversity from over-exploitation, pollution and destruction. We need land to grow food, need dwellings to live, need roads to commute, and need power stations to provide energy. But the question is whether we should build these in a place where elephants have roamed for generations, where Garjan trees breathe for hundreds of years.
In addition to envisaging a resilient nation effectively tackling impacts of climate change and natural disasters, the Vision expresses Bangladesh's commitment to conserve and enhance its biodiversity. This commitment has been translated into Article 18 A of the Constitution of Bangladesh (2011); the Wildlife (Conservation and Security) Act, 2012; the National Sustainable Development Strategy (2013); the 7th Five Year Plan (2015); and the National Conservation Strategy (draft 2016). As Bangladesh progresses fast towards becoming a middle-income country, we envisage changes in the ways she protects her biodiversity.
Every species, small or big, has a role in the environment they are in. Conserving the Bengal Tigers of the Sundarbans or the vultures of Rema-Kalenga or the dolphins of the Jamuna is necessary as they are on the verge of extinction due to our actions. But, we also need to think of the ecosystems they live in and all other small and big lives, and the soil and the water, which make those habitats liveable. We need to value nature and its biodiversity not only as resources to be exploited, but a space to be explored sustainably, through conservation.
Worthiness of ecosystem figures on its services - the oxygen it supplies, the food it provides, and the protection it offers us against cyclones, for example. Such economic valuations of ecosystem services are sometimes useful to convince the policy-makers and the people why we need to conserve an ecosystem or how rich we are if we consider the value of our natural systems - monetarily. But, an ecosystem or its species is a result of a very long evolutionary process.
We also need to see our development activities from a landscape perspective. Every developmental action in one place, at one time, does not stay in that space or time. In addition to their good impacts on economy and human wellbeing, negative impacts of our development actions do spread out in nature. We need to consider nature-based solutions and technologies to minimize these negative impacts so that services an ecosystem naturally gives us would continue.
In ever-changing social and economic environments, we need to promote innovations in biodiversity conservation. Such innovations may range from using drones for biodiversity exploration and monitoring to using digital simulations as tools for awareness, influencing and decision-making, to incentive mechanisms for safe-guarding ecosystems.
As we progress towards Vision 2021, we expect that people's participation and political will for biodiversity protection increases day by day. We want to see our conservation policies and decisions supported by up-to-date knowledge and facts. We want to see a culture and a system of evidence-based decision making. We expect an ecosystem where conservation practices, knowledge and policies interact with each other, making each other stronger. In this way Bangladesh can ensure effective protection of her biodiversity at the local, national and regional levels, through collaborations, mutual trust, and collective aspiration.

(Shishir Reza is an Environmental Analyst & Associate Member, Bangladesh Economic Association)

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