1 April 2005


Human activity is damaging the planet's ecosystems at unprecedented rates that call into question the ability of the environment to provide life-supporting services, according to a landmark report released on 30 March. The Millenium Ecosystem Assessment Synthesis Report, the result of four years of research by over 1,300 experts, says that as many as 60 percent of life-supporting systems are being degraded and predicts abrupt changes such as emergence of new diseases, sudden changes in water quality, the collapse of fisheries and shifts in regional climate as a result of ecosystem deterioration. Such changes, the report suggests, will harm the poor the most.

Taking stock of ecosystems

Efforts to meet growing demands for food, fresh water, timber, fiber and fuel have led to widespread changes in ecosystems over the last 50 years, the experts say. For example, more land has been converted to cropland -- with adverse impacts on biodiversity -- since 1945 than during the whole of the 18th and 19th centuries combined. They identify the ecosystems most under threat as fresh water, fisheries, air and water regulation, and the regulation of regional climate, natural hazards and pests. In particular, evidence suggests that the adverse state of capture fisheries and fresh water are currently well beyond the levels that can sustain current, much less future demands and as such should be the focus of particular attention. Only four ecosystem services have been enhanced in the last 50 years: increases in crop, livestock and aquaculture production, and increased carbon sequestration for global climate regulation, the report says.

Environmental damage induced by human activity is likely to place strains on nature leading to major changes in ecosystems and new threats. While in 100 years global warming can be expected to be the main source of damage, the report also looks at short-term changes such as the collapse of fisheries, nitrogen build-up from fertilizers leading to algae blooms, and increased likelihood of cholera as a result of warmer lakes.

The deteriorating state of the world's ecosystems is likely to affect the poor the most, given that sub-Saharan Africa, Central Asia, some regions in Latin America, and parts of South and Southeast Asia -- all of whom are facing challenges achieving the Millennium Development Goals -- will experience degradation the most. In addition, the report draws links between poverty reduction and ecosystem sustainability, saying that "any progress achieved in addressing the goals of poverty and hunger eradication, improved health, and environmental protection is unlikely to be sustained if most of the ecosystem services on which humanity relies continue to be degraded". Disease reduction, food production, access to water and sanitation are all fundamentally linked to the survival of ecosystems under threat.

What next?

The report suggests that a significant change in human attitudes and actions is necessary to ease pressures on ecosystems in coming decades. A change in perception that recognises that ecosystem services are not free and limitless, and that takes into account their full value, will enable the harnessing of technology and knowledge to preserve ecosystems. Such efforts should, according to the researchers, involve local ownership and decision-making on natural resource conservation efforts along with coordinated efforts across governments, businesses and international institutions to make wise policy choices. Better governance, tax incentives, investment choices, consumption choices, trade, subsidy and regulation rules, new technology and more research would all work towards improved ecosystem management.

Lay blame, suggest solutions, critics say

While the comprehensive scope and scientific basis of the report was commended by all sides, critics said that the report should have taken the next step by assigning blame and making prescriptions for the future. Roger Higman, environmental coordinator of Friends of the Earth, noted that the report "does not, for instance, identify the rich nations for having taken more than their fair share of the world's natural resources". In addition, he noted that the researchers had failed to make the link between natural resources and trade liberalisation. Given international pressures on countries, and particularly small developing countries, to open up their markets, there was a need for local and national governments to focus on regulating access to resources within their borders, he stressed. "These countries are often not strong enough to resist the pressure of transnational corporations", he said. This "enables these corporations to pillage the resources of the countries".


The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, launched by UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan in June 2001, is an international program with the stated aim of meeting the needs of decision makers and the public for scientific information concerning the consequences of ecosystem change for human well-being and options for responding to those changes. It includes 1,360 experts in 95 nations and includes the participation of the Convention on Biological Diversity, the Food and Agriculture Organisation, the Global Environment Facility, the Ramsar Convention, UNDP, UNEP, WHO, the World Bank, IUCN and the World Resources Institute. This synthesis report is the first of six synthesis reports summarising the findings of four working groups, with the next five aimed at different audiences.

"Human Damage To Earth Worsening Fast - Report," REUTERS, 30 March 2005; "Environment: Most Ecosystems Threatened, Major Report Says," IPS, 30 March 2005.

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