Why the surprise over biomass vs biodiversity?
If you’re a member of a poor rural household, used to gathering forest debris for burning and creating mulch, how much attention do you pay to the idea of biodiversity anyway? The answer is unsurprising to most people who have worked on questions of rural development – biomass means fuel for cooking stoves, whereas biodiversity is a concept usually found in communities that have a history of preserving indigenous cereals, legumes, leafy greens and fruit.
Yet surprise has been expressed over the finding, as reported by SciDev.net, that “preserving biodiversity may be the goal of conservationists and environmental activists, but preserving biomass is a more important priority for the poor”. SciDev has reported that researchers said the finding “was unexpected”.
I can’t imagine the reason for their surprise. Agriculture extension workers have long known that the idea of food security, which finds its way into the speeches and strategy documents of government bureaucrats, has no place amongst poor cultivators or subsistence farmers. A rural cooperative bank official had once told me: “The farmer wants to know what he can grow which will earn him enough for his family. For him, what you call ‘food security’ has no meaning. He is looking for income.”
In the SciDev.net report, Craig Leisher and Neil Larsen of the US-based Nature Conservancy, have said much the same thing. “People just don’t care about biodiversity,” Leisher told SciDev.Net, and then gave the example of a poor fisherman, for whom the route out of poverty is to catch more fish — not more kinds of fish.
The findings were presented on the same day as a study was published in Science magazine, showing that the world has failed in its bid to halt the decline in biodiversity by 2010. “If you restore degraded lands, you will increase biomass and restore nature,” Leisher said, adding that the result was a direct impact on poverty reduction. [Use this link, via SciDev.net, to download the paper.]
Jayant Sarnaik — deputy director of the Applied Environmental Research Foundation, India, said that a problem dogging studies of biodiversity and poverty is that the former is defined in various ways. “The biggest financial institutes like the World Bank … say that biodiversity is non-renewable biomass. So how can we expect that communities will not [use up resources]? They need biomass for a number of reasons.”
“We are always trying to understand things from our perspective, we are not trying to look at how [local communities] perceive biodiversity,” said Sarnaik, and he is spot on. An academic understanding of biodiversity and the need to nurture it – however necessary and laudable, however uncontentious – can be and usually is quite different from the poor household’s view of a biome’s net primary production.