Ecuador's Yasuni National Park, which has more plant species than anywhere else on Earth. Photo: Ian McFadden
In 2010, the Convention on Biological Diversity (an international treaty with 193 member countries--the US signed but never ratified the treaty, shocker) set a goal to protect 17 percent of Earth's most biodiverse land by 2020. By doing that, they argued, we're be protecting roughly 60 percent of all of the planet's plant species.
Turns out, they underestimated the impact it'd have: According to a new study by Duke and North Carolina State University researchers published in Science, protecting that land would conserve more than two-thirds of plant species. By proxy, it also protects some of the most endangered vertebrate animals.
This is not surprising. The areas researchers propose protecting encompass some of the planet's most important rain forests and tropical areas, including those in Central America, the Caribbean, the Pacific Islands, and the Amazon Rainforest along the equator--known hotspots of biodiversity.
If we're looking only at the numbers, Earth as a whole isn't too far off from meeting that 17 percent goal. The only problem, according to the authors, is we're protecting the wrong areas (if we're looking to preserve biodiversity). As of 2009, about 13 percent of all of Earth's land was protected in some way. But a lot of that land is not terribly important, biodiversity-wise.
Earth's biodiversity hotspots, for plants. Photo: Clinton Jenkins, NC State University
"Present conservation efforts bias toward lands that are high, cold, dry, or otherwise far from people—often a mismatch with where conservation needs are pressing," they write. "These statistics show that protected areas … do not address species targets directly."
According to the researchers, the most important areas to protect are Costa Rica and Panama—countries that already do a fairly good job of keeping their green spaces. More than 10 percent of the land mass of both of those countries are considered biodiversity hotspots by the International Union for Conservation of Nature. Of the areas they selected as important to conserve (mostly tropical rainforest areas), just 14 percent is already protected.
"To achieve these goals, we need to protect more land, on average, than we currently do, and much more in key places such as Madagascar, New Guinea and Ecuador," Duke researcher and lead author Stuart Pimm said. "Our study identifies regions of importance. The logical—and very challenging—next step will be to make tactical local decisions within those regions to secure the most critical land for conservation."
That's easy to say, but, for the most part, the areas he proposes protecting are in developing countries that are using the land to help pull themselves out of poverty—whether that's by planting tons of palm trees for palm oil sales or extracting oil. Some of the areas Pimm proposes protecting are entirely populated islands, which is also problematic because human development is, at least in modern times, inherently destructive to the environment.
The study puts some statistics behind things that are inherently intuitive: The rain forests are important. But as countries like Ecuador want an increasing part of the global economic pie, the rest of the world is going to have to find a way to convince them not to take advantage of their existing natural resources.
Diego Mosquera is manager of the Tiputini Biodiversity Station in Ecuador's Yasuni National Park, an area that is currently undergoing a fierce battle between conservationists and economic developers who hope to drill for oil in the park. He's seen the argument play out over the last five years, and there are no easy answers.
"The same way you can't go all the way on conservation, you can't go all the way on development," he said. "You can't stop progress, but you can try to shape it to be as environmentally friendly as possible."
Say what you want about Ecuador's failed ITT initiative and President Rafael Correa's plan to drill for oil in the Amazon. But he had a point when he said the country can't be "a beggar sitting atop a sack of gold."
According to Mosquera, "Oil is the main income of the country right now, and the government needs the money. It's a dilemma."