Threats to Biodiversity – A Loss for Humanity; An Earth Day Discussion

By Akil Crichlow

A Biodiversity Overview 

Planet Earth’s biodiversity encompasses the diversity within and among species and ecosystems. It underpins the survivability of all humans regarding their attendant livelihoods, health, and personal enjoyment. In particular, within Small Island Developing States (SIDS) in the Caribbean, where small fragile economies are hinged on natural resources, impending threats can become problematic. To that end, as ongoing threats occur, there is a subsequent erosion of the ecology and all circumambient ecosystem services. According to the UN Secretary – General António Guterres;   

“…As we encroach on nature and deplete vital habitats, increasing numbers of species are at risk. That includes humanity and the future we want” (United Nations 2021).  

Thus, António Guterres’ remarks further underscore the interwoven relationship between biodiversity and mankind, as we commemorate Earth Day 2021. For instance, biodiversity makes human life possible by providing provisioning services: food, fibre, fuel, and timber; regulating services: purification of water, flood control and climatic regulation; supporting services: nutrient cycling and soil formation; and cultural services: spiritual enrichment, recreation, cognitive development, and aesthetic experiences (Science for Environment Policy 2015; MA 2005). Simply speaking, “Mother Earth” is our provider, and there is only one of her, therefore, we ought to cherish her unwavering kindness.  

According to the FAO/UN (2021), the aforementioned ecosystem services are estimated to the tune of $125 trillion dollars, but ironically, they are not effectively accounted for in the political and economic discourses. Additionally, in light of the contemporary rapid developmental alterations affecting the environment, these services are being expeditiously eroded. This is also as a result due to the accompanying activities triggered by mankind regarding the diversity loss at the ecosystem, species, and genetic levels, respectively. To that end, I am a firm believer in Environmental Education as being a sustainable pathway for society to walk, as we endeavour to right our wrongs amid varying unprecedented and complex circumstances. 

For example, our beloved T&T is a continental island with a biodiversity symptomatic of mainland South America. Whilst its rate of development is characteristic of industrial societies. Accordingly, this juxtaposition cultivates complexities, as the nation grapples with the best possible way to manage its natural assets and the industrial sectors, especially at present. Under lacking data sources regarding levels of biodiversity change in some regards, all under the presence of the COVID-19 pandemic. Requiring us to adopt and utilize strategies that fit within the “new normal” of social distancing and limited economic funding. 

Biodiversity loss is triggered by a plethora of threats; however, I provide a snapshot of five (5) notable threats, as a means to increase public awareness to some of the plights we face as a collective human population. Accordingly, culprits to the prevailing losses, include; 1) invasion of invasive species, 2) over-exploitation of marine and terrestrial resources by way of deforestation and overfishing, 3) human intervention and development by way of habitat loss and fragmentation and 4) anthropogenically induced climate change, and 5) environmental stressors such as pollution. These are mirrored globally, regionally (in CARICOM), and locally within our Twin Island Republic.       

The Nexus between Biodiversity Loss and Human Well-Being 

Wondering what is an Invasive Species? This is linked to the biological invasion or introduction of species via deliberate or inadvertent means, into a new or foreign geographical region, where it undergoes proliferation, thereby subsequently persisting outside its native-historic range as evolutionary processes occur (Ricciardi 2012). Accordingly, they are a growing problem and a continued threat to biodiversity, resulting from a correlation among the expansion of global trade, increases in human travel and connectivity, movement of biological materials and other varying commodities. 

Undoubtedly, over time, invasive species have left a myriad of impacts in its wake. These impacts have manifested environmentally, economically, and socially. To illustrate one such impact, recognition is given to the Achatina (Lissachatina) fulica, commonly known as the Giant African Land Snail, which has been an invasive species in Trinidad since its introduction in (2008) (Ramdwar 2018). According to the Centre for Agricultural and Bioscience International (CABI) (2021), the Giant African Land Snail is a fast-growing polyphagous plant pest. Introduced from its native range in East Africa, it has a natural propensity to become easily attached to any means of transport, resulting in its invasion in other parts of the world, as documented in Trinidad. This invasive species which has been listed in the world`s 100 worst Alien Invasive Species (Ramdwar 2018; Lowe et al. 2000),  and threatens the biodiversity of Trinidad, whilst concurrently impacting food security and the population`s health.    

Feeding on over 500 species of flora and vegetation (Ramdwar 2018; Raut and Barker 2002 and Capinera 2011), further cementing its threat to Trinidad`s biodiversity, as the species has the ability to reproduce rapidly, reaching high densities in short temporal scales, under optimal conditions which challenges pest management. Thus, challenging the food security of individuals, communities, countries, and even regions. Given that Trinidad is self-sufficient in vegetable production (Ramdwar 2017), the burden of the pest could also impact the agricultural economy. Additionally, human health and well-being is under peril, as the Giant African Land Snail is a vector for the rat lungworm (Angiostrongylus cantonensis) causing (eosinophilic meningoencephalitis) commonly known as Meningitis. Henceforth, it is seen how the threat of invasive species towards species can cripple the provisioning services of biodiversity within Trinidad, causing cascading environmental, economic and health effects.  

Ecosystem exploitation that is anthropogenically induced, bears long lasting consequences on the future availability of natural resources and ecosystem services (Lampert 2019; MA 2005; Groom 2006).  Increases in human population and the accompanying needs for building/developmental resources e.g., timber and for food sources e.g., fisheries, resulted in decades of overexploitation of terrestrial and marine resources. Two notable examples include deforestation and overfishing practices. Contextually, the Caribbean region is regarded as one of the world’s biodiversity hotspots, but only retains just over 10% of original forest cover due to high rates of deforestation (USAID 2009). For instance, subtropical moist broadleaf forests once covered 85% of Jamaica, but then reduced to 6% by 1983, and in the Dominican Republic and Haiti, forests shrunk from around 60% to levels less than 15%, accompanied by shrinking tropical forests in the Leeward and Windward Islands and in Trinidad and Tobago (USAID 2009). Furthermore, this loss of biodiversity, aids in reducing the Caribbean`s capacity in the sequestration of Carbon Dioxide (CO2).   

When forested ecosystems are removed, there is the expulsion of Carbon reserves being added to the already high global CO2 atmospheric concentrations, which fuels the climate change phenomenon. Increasing our vulnerability to rising sea levels and intensified hurricanes and other meteorological and climatic disasters. Plunging the Caribbean Region into a cycle of crises management annually, which is costly. Other notable effects include; soil erosion, loss of wildlife habitats and decreased surface water flows in rivers and streams. Thereby impeding the provisioning of water, a critical building block of life as we have come to know it. Affirmed by the World Resources Institute (WRI), forested ecosystems maintain the hydrological cycle via precipitation, evaporation, and flow regulation; assists in diminishing the impacts of flooding from storm events as its physical structure blocks and slows runoff flow; and acts as a natural purification system for water, reiterating the interwoven relationship between mankind`s survivability and ecosystem functionality. As, if uncontrolled deforestation is continued, it poses water insecurity to nations, water-related disasters like flooding, and increased treatment cost for potable water which governments and in some cases, citizens bear the cost.      

Additionally, according to the IUCN (2017), within the Caribbean, around 5% of marine bony shore fishes are threatened by overfishing, degradation of coral reefs, and estuaries, which provide the feeding grounds and habitats for many species. Mirrored in Trinidad, FAO (2018) indicates that inshore fisheries resources are fished or severely overfished. Such a threat to biodiversity is also upheld by the marine fisheries assessments by the Institute of Marine Affairs (IMA) (2018), which postulates that our marine fisheries are either heavily exploited or over exploited, e.g., hard bottom demersal snapper stocks are fully exploited with evident overcapitalization in the trawl fishery. Such reality was emphasised by the European Union`s (2016) decision to “yellow card” T&T as a non-cooperative state in the global fight against Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated (IUU) fishing. The overfishing practices threaten biodiversity, as it leads to resource depletion, low biological growth rates, and critically low biomass levels (Bari 2009). The decreased fish supply and size, therefore, lower the economic revenue of the fisheries industry in the long term and in particular our coastal rural fishing communities which line our region’s coasts. Also, it limits the supply of an important source of protein regionally, as, fish consumption ranges between 10 and 35 kg/capita in CARICOM annually (FAO/UN 2014). Consequently, overfishing bears the capacity to alter many West Indian`s diets in long term, if fish stocks are not sustainably harvested moving forward.  

Climate change also poses major impending threats on biodiversity and human health, as the rapid shift and variation would be detrimental to the variety of life on earth as we have come to know it (Rinawati and Lindner 2013). Marselle et al. (2019), states that climate change is expected to increase the number of extreme climatic events including; heat waves, droughts, and flooding, directly and indirectly threatening human health with the rising prevalence of non-communicable diseases. To expand, intensifying pathogen emergence is interwoven with climate change, biodiversity loss, habitat degradation and increased connectivity with wildlife (Schmeller, Courchamp and Killeen 2020). For instance, Trinidad’s coasts, where approximately 10% of the coastlines are being fringed by coastal mangrove assemblages (Juman and Ramsewak 2013), have been eroded due to rising sea levels, coastal erosion, and infrastructural development. The foregoing has, resulted in saltwater intrusion in inland watersheds and the inland mangrove colonization phenomenon (Mohammed and Van Oosterhout 2020). As such, this biodiversity loss results in the creation of more brackish water habitats, which favour brackish water tolerant mosquitoes like the Anopheles which is the vector of Plasmodium which causes Malaria. To that end, it is seen how anthropogenic climate change, which cultivated biodiversity loss or change, can then result in Emerging Infectious Diseases (EID), which can impact the health of all of humanity especially those within Small Island Developing States (SIDS) and can potentially catalyse increased public health expenditure.

Moreover, human induced activity is notably one of the most profound causes of habitat loss in contemporary times. With the doubling of the human population within the past 50 years, there has been increased pressures placed on natural ecosystems, resulting in manipulation, degradation, and fragmentation. The aforementioned impacts are a direct result of food production, urban development, and road infrastructure. As such, the global phenomenon of human encroachment into natural habitats, drives habitat fragmentation and causes species decline (Wilkinson et al. 2018). Hence, endangering human livelihoods as there is evidence of habitat fragmentation also leading to increases in infectious diseases emergence, such as Malaria as mentioned above. Accordingly, human encroachment into species-rich habitats can concurrently increase biodiversity loss (Wilkinson et al. 2018; Karesh et al. 2012), by way of patch-size effects, edge effects and isolation effects (The Wildlife Society 2017) but can also increase the exposure of humanity to novel microbes (Patz et al. 2004). Depicting how every initial irresponsible action can easily return negative outcomes tenfold to us all. 

Furthermore, pollution, which speaks to the introduction of substances or things into the environment which causes harmful effects, is another major catalyst to biodiversity loss. Within the Caribbean Region, marine pollution is one of the major concerns and can have major impacts on the “blue economy”. A type of economy which sustainably defines and encourages improved stewardship of the ocean and/or “blue” resources. This is affirmed by Diez et al. (2019), stating that whilst many Caribbean countries are recognizing the value of their marine jurisdiction, marine pollution poses a notable threat to the economic benefits that can be generated by the region`s ocean economy and biodiversity. These benefits are as follows: economic; fisheries, shipping, tourism, and recreation; tangible ecosystem services which are vital to human life; production of atmospheric oxygen with 50% being created by microscopic marine plants, natural carbon sinks i.e., mangroves and seagrass beds, and coastal protection from corals and mangroves to coastal communities (Diez et al. 2019). Loss of this natural coastal protection can be catastrophic for the region as 60% of the region’s population reside and 70% of the economic activity occur within two miles of the region`s coastlines (CDEMA 2014).  

According to a World Bank Report on Marine Pollution in the Caribbean, there is a “circular interaction” between the economic sectors and the marine environment, as approximately US$57 billion is generated by coastal tourism in the insular Caribbean. However, this is highly dependent on marine biodiversity, ecosystems, and its services. Accordingly, the loss of biodiversity, can infringe on the economic productivity of the entire tourism sector regionally, which can cause devastating socio-economic and environmental impacts to all (SIDS), as it reduces the value of the provided goods and services. Especially, in those (SIDS), whose economy are hinged in part or to great extents, on their marine jurisdiction and attendant “blue resources”, socio-political and economic upheavals can be expected. 

Looking Ahead… 

In light of the above, biodiversity loss is a complex and interwoven discourse, that requires a holistic approach and knowledge base that considers how current and future losses impact individuals, families, communities, and entire nations/regions. Biodiversity is indeed a building block of the ecosystem’s goods and services, and any erosion of that biodiversity, whether it be via; invasive alien species, overexploitation of terrestrial and marine resources, human intervention, climate change and marine pollution, results in catastrophic effects on all of humanity. As we commemorate Earth Day today, I want all readers to bear in mind that our actions towards “Mother Earth” must be enshrined in good sustainable governance. Societies ought to endeavour to renounce unsustainable ideologies as they prove to be counterproductive to mankind`s intergenerational survivability and ecosystem longevity. The context provided above shows that the threats to biodiversity are indeed great, and as such, would require a paradigm shift in the political, social, and environmental will at the community and central governmental levels to address these threats. Such shifts will allow a reduction in biodiversity loss, thereby reducing impacts on humanity, creating a mutually beneficial situation. In closing, I leave you with the following quotes from Edward Osborne Wilson, an American Biologist and Johan Rockström a Professor of Environmental Science as food for thought.  

“…Look closely at nature. Every species is a masterpiece, exquisitely adapted to the particular environment in which it has survived. Who are we to destroy or even diminish biodiversity?” 

  Edward Osborne Wilson 

“…The value of biodiversity is that it makes our ecosystems more resilient, which is a prerequisite for stable societies; its wanton destruction is akin to setting fire to our lifeboat.”

Johan Rockström

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