Global summit grapples with mass extinctions

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UNITED NATIONS — “Something is going wrong,” said Ole Petenya Yusuf-Shani, a member of the Maasai indigenous community of Kenya. Yusuf-Shani was speaking at UN headquarters on May 22, International Biodiversity Day. He and others said that global warming was quickly wrecking the world’s variety of life forms, or biodiversity.

“We are facing a massive extinction crisis of plants and animals on this planet,” John Scott, of the Secretariat of the Convention on Biodiversity, said. “Each year, between 18,000 and 55,000 species become extinct.”

If current trends continue, one-third to two-thirds of all species of life on earth will be dead within 150 years, according to a recently published report. This would be “a loss that would easily equal those of past mass extinctions,” Scott said.

Two-thirds of all biological resources are already in decline, Charles McNeil, environment team manager at the UN Development Program, said, noting that 75 percent of the world’s fisheries are already fished beyond their sustainable limits.

“Forty percent of all of our economy is based on biodiversity,” he added. “Of medicines currently used, some 40-50 percent is derived from natural products. We all depend on biological resources for our agriculture, our forests, our fisheries.”

However, he added, “it’s a life and death issue for the poor.”

This year, the focus was on global warming and loss of biodiversity and its effects on indigenous populations. On hand were representatives of numerous indigenous groups, all of which face the loss of their lifestyles: the Saami people of Norway, the Hindu Kush of Pakistan, the Inuits of Canada and others.

Maria Nobriga, representing the Pacific Island nations, painted a bleak picture of what climate change and the loss of biodiversity will bring to those nations. In some cases, climate change will lead to their actual destruction.

Because of rising sea levels, the island nation of Tuvalu will soon “be none, and people will be forced to relocate to other places,” Nobriga said. “They will lose their sovereignty as a nation.”

She listed problems on other islands. Many atolls in Micronesia have run out of water, and lack of water is also a problem on the Marshall Islands, where special desalination plants had to be imported.

While the poor nations and indigenous peoples will suffer the most, it is primarily the rich nations that have caused the problem. Nobriga said that the Pacific Island nations favored the “polluters pay” system where those nations pay to address the problems caused.

McNeil, who introduced the Equator Awards, which highlight indigenous peoples who have made great strides in dealing with global warming, said that the official awards ceremony would be held in Germany just before the G8 conference, in order to put pressure on the eight richest nations to do something.

dmargolis @pww.org