The Price of Survival: What Would It Cost to Save Nature?

By Philip Bethge, Rafaela von Bredow and Christian Schwägerl

Part 2: "A Sixth Global Mass Exctinction Has Begun"

To make matters worse, the rate of decline is formidable. A current UNEP estimate concludes that species are becoming extinct 100 times faster today than would normally occur as a result of evolution.

"A sixth global mass extinction has begun," says UNEP Executive Director Steiner. The diversity of species has already been severely compromised five times in the past in the wake of meteorite collisions, volcanic eruptions and rising sea levels. But today it is the more than 6.6 billion people that are destroying nature at an unprecedented pace. They hunt and fish at uncontrolled rates. They transform more and more land into farmland to fill their bellies. They chop down the last virgin forests to produce biofuel for their automobiles. They pollute the water, the soil and the air with toxic substances. And they drag species from one part of the earth to another -- with sometimes devastating consequences.

Ascribing a Monetary Value to Nature

Man's footprint on the globe is growing inexorably. And Homo sapiens, the supposedly perceptive human race, have failed miserably to secure the Earth's biological diversity. But now a revolution is taking shape in the way we think, as environmentalists and economists discover the marketplace of nature. They are putting their heads together to translate the achievements of mangroves and nightshade, whales, moors and rainforests into monetary value. Under this new mindset, destroying nature will no longer be profitable while protecting it will. Pavan Sukhdev, the director of the joint German-EU study on biodiversity, considers this the obvious solution. It is now or never, says Sukhdev, that "the economic weapon must shoot in the right direction."

On a recent spring morning, the 48-year-old Indian pointed to the concrete wasteland of Berlin's Alexanderplatz square. "That's how desolate the entire earth will be if we don't succeed," says Sukhdev, who also heads the global markets division at Deutsche Bank's Indian office in Mumbai. Ten years ago, he says, a friend asked him the following question: "You're a banker. So tell me, why are some things worth something while others are not?" While searching for an answer to her question, he hit upon the idea of calculating prices for forests, wetlands and the courses of rivers.

Sukhdev's calculations, ridiculed at first, have since become the driving force behind the conservation revolution. Economists now perform detailed calculations to reflect what diversity does for people. Bees, for instance, are worth $2 to $8 billion (€1.3 to €5.2 billion) a year, because they pollinate important crop plants worldwide. Reeds growing along riverbanks are also considered valuable. Along the central part of Germany's Elbe River, for example, they are responsible for €7.7 million ($11.9 million) in annual savings, because they filter the water, thereby eliminating the need to build additional sewage treatment plants.

On the coast of Pakistan's Beluchistan Province, one hectare (2.47 acres) of intact mangrove forest produces the equivalent of about $2,200 (€1,420) in annual income. The ecosystem is a breeding ground for economically attractive fish species, as well as acting as a protective wall against flooding. Salt marshes in Scotland are worth about €1,000 ($1,555) per hectare to the region's mussel industry.

Tourists visiting Germany's Müritz National Park to marvel at sea eagles, ospreys, cranes and red deer contribute €13 million ($20 million) in annual revenue. In Britain, a team of researchers working with conservation biologist Andrew Balmford has calculated that a global network of protected areas could produce about $5 billion (€3.2 billion) in annual revenue. The group's calculations reflected the reserves' economic benefits for tourism, climate protection, nutrient cycles and the water supply.

If the destruction of natural habitats continues unabated, even the key to the earth's future energy supply could go undiscovered. US geneticist Craig Venter has collected thousands of samples of microorganisms living in seawater during voyages on his yacht, the Sorcerer II. Venter hopes that the samples will contain genetic sequences that could be used to produce fuels for cars and airplanes in the future.

In 1997, American ecological economist Robert Costanza estimated the annual value of the services nature provides for mankind at $33 trillion, a figure that was 1.8 times the world GNP at the time.

A Shift in Thinking

Despite their enormity, these numbers have been of little use to species and ecosystems in the past, because few have been willing to pay money for nature's assets. Indeed, the world's powerful corporations continue to treat animals, plants, forests, rivers and wetlands as a free resource. But at least some industries seem to be approaching an important watershed moment.

For instance, companies already earn $43 billion (€28 billion) in annual revenues with plant-based natural remedies. The active agents in 10 of the world's 25 most successful drugs were originally derived from fungi, bacteria, plants and animals living in the wild. The precursors of aspirin came from willow bark and meadowsweet. The purple foxglove plant is the source of the agent in the heart drug digitoxin.

Companies spend billions searching for the next mega-drugs derived from nature's diverse sources. But does nature get anything out of the bargain? Initial models show that it can. In Costa Rica, for example, there is already a tradition to the search for miracle drugs from the jungle. The Instituto Nacional de Biodiversidad (INBio) was founded in the capital San José in 1989. In the 1990s the pharmaceutical company Merck invested $4 million (€2.6 million) in the research institute, which has since acquired a global reputation. Merck executives pledged to donate 10 percent of the profits of potential discoveries to the country, with part of the proceeds to be earmarked for conservation.

Do Costa Rica's butterflies, forest plants and slime molds hold the key to new drugs to fight malaria and cancer, or can they at least provide the ingredients for new skin creams and anti-dandruff shampoos? World-renowned researchers at INBio continue to seek answers to these questions, constantly hunting for useful natural substances.

On a recent morning, for example, fungus specialist Jorge Blanco was carefully scrutinizing the leaves of Monimiaceae siparuna, a plant that resembles the laurel family. Using a scalpel, he cut apart the precious green leaves and placed the pieces into dishes of culture medium. Soon fungi that previously thrived only inside the leaves would sprout. To get the plant Diego Vargas, a biologist working at INBio, spent two hours on the previous day in an SUV, driving the winding roads in the Parque Nacional Braulio Carrillo along the slopes of the Barva volcano.

Vargas, wearing a baseball cap, a white T-shirt and blue rubber gloves, photographs plants in the virgin forest, then uses garden shears to snip off the seed heads of various plants and carefully places them in bags. Peering into the undergrowth, he finds Monimiaceae siparuna, a plant with tiny yellowish blossoms. He twirls his garden shears like a cowboy wielding his Colt, then deftly cuts off the seed heads: a small snip for Vargas, but could it be a giant snip for mankind?

"Many of the fungi that live in the leaves of this plant have never been studied, because they are so hard to isolate," says Vargas. "They may very well produce many interesting substances with which we aren't even familiar yet."

Since INBio was established in the late 1980s, its scientists have examined thousands of insects in their quest for useful natural substances. Nowadays, the high-tech equipment at the institute's special laboratory in Heredia, a San José suburb, is used mainly to analyze plant extracts, microbes and fungi.

The great bio-boom has not materialized yet, prompting Merck and a few other major investors to withdraw their funding. "The pharmaceutical companies no longer want to pay for the long process that is needed to find promising substances in nature," says Giselle Tamayo, technical coordinator of INBio’s biodiversity prospecting division.

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