Published by the United Nations Development and Environment Programmes (UNDP and UNEP), the World Bank, and the World Resources Institute (WRI), World Resources 2000-2001: People and Ecosystems, The Fraying Web of Life calls for a new approach to managing ecosystems in order to stem the widespread decline of the processes that sustain life on earth.

“Every measure used by scientists to assess the health of the world’s ecosystems tells us that we are drawing on them more than ever and degrading them at an accelerating pace,” said Dr Klaus Topfer, Executive Director of the United Nations Environment Programme. “We depend on ecosystems to sustain us, and their continued good health depends, in turn, on how we take care of them.”

The report grades the health of ecosystems on the basis of their ability to produce the goods and services that the world currently relies on, such as food production, the provision of clean and sufficient water, storage of atmospheric carbon, the maintenance of biodiversity, and the provision of tourism opportunities. The report identifies many ecosystems as degraded, blaming the twin causes of human population growth and increasing consumption.

“For too long we have focused on how much we can take from our ecosystems, with little attention to the services that they provide,” said Thomas Johansson, Director of UNDP’s Energy and atmosphere programme. “Ecosystems provide essential services like climate control and nutrient recycling that we cannot replace at any reasonable price.”

Though our knowledge of ecosystems has increased dramatically, says Jonathan Lash, WRI President, it has not kept pace with our ability to alter them. “Our failure to think in terms of ecosystems has been rooted in our profound lack of information about how ecosystems affect us and what condition they are in,” he said.

“We already know enough to begin to manage ecosystems sustainably,” said Lash. “We can restore some of the natural productivity we have lost. Many of the ‘fixes’ are simple and non-technical.”

Case studies included in the report on how damage to ecosystems is being reversed include the uprooting of invasive trees in South Africa, and the restoration of Indian community forests by the use of watchmen, simple harvest plans and bans on cattle grazing.

Four basic tenets of ecosystem management are suggested in the report:

  • tackling the information gap to provided a detailed understanding of the current condition of ecosystems and how they function;
  • engaging in public dialogue on goals policies and trade-offs, creating opportunities to air diverse ideas about ecosystem management, which can bring about dramatic improvements and capacities of ecosystems;
  • recognising the value of ecosystem services by removing subsidies and explicitly pricing ecosystem services which, though politically difficult, can promote more efficient resource use;
  • involving local communities in managing ecosystems, often providing the most prudent ecosystem management, and which can also lead to a more equitable distribution of the benefits and costs of management.

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