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May 23, 2016 10:18 EST

Species Loss, the Migration Hiding in Plain Sight

iCrowdNewswire - May 23, 2016

The author is Executive Secretary of the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification

BONN, May 23 2016 (IPS) – Two months ago, I was in Agadez, a city in the middle of the famous Ténéré Desert of Niger. Agadez has become a major transit point on a hazardous journey for the hundreds and thousands of desperate people from all over West Africa trying to make it to the Mediterranean coast every year.

Monique Barbut

Monique Barbut

The loss of productive land and unpredictability of the rainy seasons has left many Sahelians with far too few options. Their livelihoods are under threat. When communities that are culturally nomadic and that practice seasonal migration as a coping mechanism resort to permanent migration and abandon the land, it signals an unfolding crisis.

Migration has become the ‘hot potato’ issue of our times. Alongside it, hidden in plain sight, is another threat that closely reflects this same abandonment dynamic. Plants and animals are also moving from their native homes to other parts of the world. A recent example is the mosquito carrying the deadly Zika virus. In a relatively short time, it has migrated from South to North America, and is now threatening to reach Europe.

The transformation occurring in ecosystems as a result of climate change, as plant and animal species selectively find new habitats, is difficult to fathom or explain to the public. It will be even harder to contain it.

The rate at which plant and animal life is migrating signals deepening trouble in the systems that support life on Earth – land, water, plants, climate, etc. Species migration, like human migration, has an impact in the new locations, but also in their places of origin.

An assessment in 2012 of the impacts of the ragweed species in Europe, for instance, shows it poses a risk to human health and agriculture. In future, more people may suffer allergies and maize, potato and sugar beet farmers, among many others, may be fighting a new weed.

On the other end is the predicted loss of food crops such as maize, beans, bananas and finger millet from much of sub-Saharan Africa. The loss of these crops, which are widely consumed in the region, could lead to new types of hunger crises.

Human migration is guided by reason and choice, and can be managed, even reversed, with the right policy incentives. For instance, if land is restored people may return. However, areas that are abandoned by humans are depopulated and eventually collapse and die for lack of investment.

By contrast, the migration of biodiversity is irreversible beyond a certain threshold. It is almost impossible to recover plants and animals that have become extinct or have migrated due to ecosystem change. Areas that are abandoned by species eventually die for lack of ecosystem services.

The forces driving species migration are strikingly similar to those driving people in West Africa’s Sahel region towards Agadez.

According to the local people, the forces driving their migration North are: land that is no longer productive; droughts and flash floods that are stripping much of the fertile top soil from the land; and population pressure in some of the most fertile areas of West Africa.

Climate change impacts, such as droughts that transform the local vegetation, the emergence of dust in new areas and migration of plants that are swept by floods, are some of the forces behind species migration and the disappearance of native species.

The damage already done to the climate system makes the transformation of ecosystems almost inevitable. Restoring degraded lands is the last hope we have to keep ecosystems functioning at the level they are in today. That window of opportunity, however, is closing fast.

That is why, in observing the International Day for Biological Diversity on 22 May, we must celebrate the countries leading the way in mainstreaming the biodiversity that has sustained us and our livelihoods for millennia.

Let’s celebrate and recognize the 90 countries that are setting national targets to restore degraded lands in order to ensure the fertile lands in use by 2030 stays stable and, in turn, sustains species and ecosystems.

Many of these are the poorest countries and communities of the world. But they have chosen to share their labor, knowledge and limited finances to maintain the integrity of an Earth that we all share.

Contact Information:

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