“Is what I’m doing making sense to a local person?”
An interview with Prof. Dr. Margaret Owuor ahead of the 2022 UN Biodiversity Conference Margaret Owuor, Professor for Integrative Biodiversity Conservation Science at the Wyss Academy for Nature, knows all too well that policy statements and declarations for conservation are being decided on a global level. Which is one of the reasons why the scientist wants to see such issues broken down to the local level. With this strategy she intends to empower communities in her native Kenya. Which in turn could contribute to the goal of an ecosystem-based management approach.
Recently, you joined the Wyss Academy for Nature at the University of Bern as a Professor for Integrative Biodiversity Conservation Science. What does integrative biodiversity conservation stand for as opposed to more traditional approaches? In simple terms: For me this means looking at all the aspects of conservation science and the stakeholders involved. When we talk about biodiversity this includes all the plants, fungi, microorganisms, and all the animals we find in the world. But how do we look at them in a holistic way? Let us assume there is a freshwater system with fishers, tourists, and maritime boats. How do we ensure that the ecological system works and all the actors involved in its harnessing are concerned with its conservation? How can we bring all the information from the scientists, researchers, practitioners, land users, the fishers, and the community together in one common pot – and ensure that they all speak the same language? Always with the goal to have an ecosystem-based management approach that works.
How can your line of research help further the post-Aichi targets? Before I talk about the Aichi targets, there are things we need to focus on in terms of integrative biodiversity conservation. For me, this is an enormous opportunity to work together with a global community of researchers and experts at the Wyss Academy for Nature. It is also a way to give back to my community in Kenya. But back to the post-Aichi targets. For that, we have to look at what did work and what didn’t. Only then we can see how to move forward. Each country is meant to report back to the Convention on Biological Diversity on how far they have gone in realizing or achieving the targets. For example, Kenya does this. These targets are set at the global level, but how are they broken down to the local person who is directly benefitting from the natural resources? How are the different countries supported to achieve the targets? I see my line of research as an opportunity to bring back integration. A friend once said: “Margaret, is what you are saying making sense to a local person in the village? How relevant for him is the scientific paper that you have just produced?” After all, most local communities and indigenous people are the direct users of these resources.
You specialize in marine biology. What is the role of the oceans for biodiversity conservation?
Oceans and coastal systems cannot be underestimated when it comes to biodiversity conservation. The ocean and coastal ecosystem is home to a wide diversity of organisms that have been identified, with more yet to be identified, and the oceans contribute to some of the most important fisheries. And if you look at mangroves, they are home to the shrimps and the crabs. And it is also where fish breed. Therefore, oceans and coastal systems play a very important role for biodiversity conservation.
Compared to climate change, biodiversity loss has not received as much attention, especially from companies or national policy, even though the topics are closely interlinked and are already having serious impacts on the global economy. Biodiversity loss results in declining ecosystem functionality, causing a loss of USD 5 trillion a year due to lost natural services. How do you explain this discrepancy in attention between the two topics?
Let us not delink the two topics. After all, climate change is one of the drivers of biodiversity loss. For example, in the ocean and coastal systems, where we have the corals which can only grow when the water temperature is around 25 degrees, when temperature changes as it is projected by climate change experts and the ocean waters warm up, this would affect the corals and the biodiversity therein. And when climate change causes flooding, there is property loss. People not only lose crops, but also their food security. Still, they don’t always realize the loss of biodiversity immediately. So maybe it’s time for us biodiversity conservationists to become more vocal regarding our findings on species trends and on which ones are disappearing.
From the previous goals – the Aichi targets – none have fully been met, and only six were partially achieved. From your point of view, what are the reasons and what can we learn from this failure to achieve the goals?
It is true that these targets were not met. But then most of these things require support, and even more so in the case of developing countries which are home to biodiversity hotspots, to implement the processes necessary to achieve the targets. Like, for example, biodiversity monitoring requires finances for field research and the purchase of monitoring equipment over long periods of time. I have to admit I have never been to any of these deliberations on a global and local level. So, I am not exactly sure how they are broken down there. One would have to go back and find out: What hasn’t been achieved? In Kenya, the government has made efforts towards enacting the new constitution that covers environmental conservation as a chapter, and has given room for policy creation such as the Forest Conservation and Management Act, which allows for community based resource management. Achieving the targets also calls for research and collaboration between the global North and South, so how can we ensure proper and transparent collaboration with the goal to share and enhance knowledge globally? My personal answer: I work with a local researcher, collect my data and go back to Switzerland, for example, and make sure that the research is brought back to Kenya and is being used for policy and decision making. But sometimes researchers in developing countries even struggle in getting the funds needed to go for fieldwork to collect data. There is also a need to have scientists and practitioners be able to communicate and understand each other. So, I think when the global community meets to discuss the Aichi targets, and then post-Aichi, the realities of many of the developing countries really need to be checked.
Almost all drivers of biodiversity loss stem from human activities. Only four value chains – food, energy, infrastructure, and fashion – are responsible for over 90 percent of pressures on biodiversity, for example through land use change. A transition to a circular economy is often propagated as a solution to achieve a sustainable economic system. What are the implications of such a transition for biodiversity?
When I was growing up in Kenya, there were still people with up to eleven children. And I remember that my grandmother and my mother were collecting vegetables from the fields, of which some would be dried. After the vegetables were cooked, milk was added – the result was a bowl of food that kept us going for a long time. Nowadays people get their food from the supermarket. Which makes it necessary to cultivate and produce more food, and this puts a lot of pressure on our ecosystems – for example on the wetlands, where the rice production is located. I think changing our current ways of consumption would help conserve our natural resources. To ensure that we produce enough these days means pesticides and the loss of pollinators. Maybe it is time to learn from our old ways again. On top of that, companies should check the sustainability of what they are producing, and they should integrate proper production mechanisms that do not harm the ecosystem. I think that circular economy and the new global biodiversity framework are indeed some of the ways that will help us to address some of the pressing challenges – like biodiversity loss.
Do you also see any negative implications from such a transition?
It is not negative when it helps us to conserve our biodiversity. But then negative implications might happen in the form of implementation. Let me give you an example: In Kenya, we banned the plastic bag – one of the major pollutants leading to biodiversity loss. But the bag that was supposed to replace it, I think, is non-degradable and not durable. Which is why our landfills are now full of it. But at least we were able to move away from plastic. Some of our neighbouring countries still haven’t banned plastic bags though, so single-use plastic bags still sneak into Kenya. Which illustrates that the prospect of realizing the goal of a circular economy would be good, but are people sensitized enough for such an approach? And was there actually a strategy in place when they banned plastic bags? For me, such events are not necessarily negative. Basically, it’s a form of adoption – but what would be required is sensitizing the people to enhance adoption and uptake..
One of the achievements of the Sustainable Development Goals as well as the Paris agreement was the massive interest and response across a variety of actors, including the private sector. How can we use this momentum for biodiversity?
When we talk about the private sector, we are referring to industry, for example. And what we need to find out from them is whether they are harnessing natural resources for their production. And have they also been mentioning conservation? Or is it all about raw materials for them? I guess, that is mostly the case. But there’s also a lot of discussion about the scope, for example, of Corporate Social Responsibility initiatives that want to plant trees once a year, for example – in the Mau Forest, Kenya. And I think this should be encouraged. Sometimes I wonder: Do people realize that once wetland is destroyed, the ecological integrity of its system is also destroyed? Which is why we need a holistic conversation that includes all parties. Community empowerment has been one recent focus of your research. What roles must communities play?
I remember researching the effect of medicines and personal use products being thrown away and ending up in our aquatic system. I wanted to know the impact of this on biodiversity. But ultimately, I realized that people in the community might not understand my findings. Where I grew up, there is a very important ecosystem, the Yala Wetland, which started to degrade, and I asked myself: why? When I went back to do my PhD at the University of Cadiz in Spain, I grappled with my laboratory based work because I wanted to find out how I could integrate local communities into my research activities. Then I came across the ecosystem based approach to assessing ecosystem services, which is the benefit we get from nature. I was sure that this is the course we have to take to help us conserve our environments – always in collaboration with the locals. After all, they are the ones who are impacted directly. We also have to find alternative livelihoods that are compatible with their way of life as we work towards conservation. That is why our scientific research must integrate on all levels with the local community and indigenous people. That is why I work with them often and they are the reason why the focus of my research has shifted. My goal is to educate and to empower them.
Ecosystems, through their regulating, provisioning, cultural, and supporting services, provide economic benefits of twice the global GDP each year, and half of this GDP depends on the functioning of our ecosystems. How can we find a balance between using and conserving nature – especially in light of the 30 by 30 targets?
Let us not assume that change is free. Because once we have lost an ecosystem, it will take money and time to restore it. When a representative from a rice production company tells me that a wetland is to be converted and that the rice farm that follows it will be worth billions, we must make sure that we also find a way to communicate the value of nature. This is something people need to understand. The ecosystem approach does bring the conversation to people in management positions who are willing to listen. Of course, in developing countries we cannot run away from development. So, the question must be: Can we have clean development, and how can it be achieved?
Can you elaborate a little more on the perspective of a country such as Kenya on the plans for 30 by 30?
For me the plans for 30 by 30 are a step in the right direction. For example, in our Forest Conservation and Management Act in Kenya, we have a provision for community involvement in conservation work. Community members are encouraged to form, for example, Community Forest Associations towards the conservation of forests. So this is in tandem with the plans for 30 by 30, as far as I know. But personally, I prefer to talk about the value of nature and the integration of local communities and indigenous persons. The question remains: How can we achieve this? That is why, when we do have a conference on conservation, I always want to know how many youths are present and what about the voice of women and local persons? Nevertheless, it is a fact that there are good things happening in regard to ensuring our conservation initiatives.
Interview: Michael Gasser
SERIES COVERING THE CONFERENCE
The Centre for Development and Environment (CDE) and the Wyss Academy for Nature, University of Bern, are illuminating some of the most important aspects of the ongoing negotiations in interviews with their experts. In addition, we wish to draw attention to the presentations held at the “Swiss Forum on Conservation Biology” online conferences SWIFCOB21 and SWIFCOB22, organized by the Swiss Biodiversity Forum of the Swiss Academy of Sciences.