At One With Nature - Conservation Jargon, does it amount to more than simply words?

Based on an article by Sue Parker in Algarve Resident, March 22nd 2013. Algarve Resident is the leading English-language newspaper and the source of essential information for Residents and would-be Residents in the Algarve.
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The language of wildlife conservation is changing. Species, habitat, site, nature reserve... these words had real meaning to most of us. Now we hear ‘sustainable development’, the ‘ecosystems approach’, and even more confusingly ‘ecosystems goods and services’. Is this new jargon devised to disguise governments’ shrinking commitment to protecting the natural world that so many people value deeply? Or does the new language truly reflect a new approach to conservation and, if so, how will it benefit us and our natural environment?

Traditionally, habitat and species conservation has been patchy, intentionally so. Patches of countryside – a few quite large but many others pitifully small - have been set aside for nature. Some sites have designated legal protection via national, European or even international law, reflecting their importance on a local, national or global scale. Protection, however, depends on people observing the law or, if not, then on effective monitoring and law enforcement. Protection costs money.

Here in the Algarve we have local nature reserves, Natural Parks and other designated nature sites. There are also other areas of great natural beauty and wildlife diversity which, while greatly valued by many people, are totally unprotected. So much of the natural heritage of the Algarve is vulnerable to development decisions that provide dubious gain for developers and ephemeral kudos for public officials, at the expense of future generations.

The beautiful River Odeluca

The Odeluca River in springtime – if rivers dry up in summer we lose more than our water supply

A Noah’s Ark approach to conservation, keeping a few of each rare species in zoo-like conditions while we plunder the rest of our environment, is not an option. Nature reserves are not impervious to what happens around them. They will not prevent species loss and they cannot save mankind. They could, however, serve as seed banks for repopulating the wider environment as it recovers… once we learn how to produce our food and to harvest other natural resources sustainably.

Although we can have no future without a healthy natural environment, it seems that for many of us our connection with nature is more remote than it has ever been. Supermarkets do not produce food and drink; air conditioning systems and filters cannot create fresh air and clean water; cars and commodities do not come from foundries and factories. Everything we use comes from our natural environment: the soil, the raw materials, and the natural processes that also provide us with energy, purify our air and water, store our carbon emissions, and break down our waste products. The natural environment is also where we find healthy recreation and solace, and it is where our culture is rooted. Vital to our survival and wellbeing, these are ecosystems goods and services in the new jargon, and they all depend on biodiversity – the interactions between a vast range of different organisms. Some ecosystems are already degraded - our fisheries, and land capable of soil-based food production and supporting wildlife species diversity. If in our pursuit of wealth we continue to ignore these natural processes we are robbing future generations.

Sustainable Development takes into account the economic, environmental and social benefits of projects. The ecosystems approach aims to conserve and protect our biological and geological diversity by ensuring that nature gets its fair share of the benefits of our development efforts. All capital, including our natural capital has a limited capacity for growth. If we take out more in interest than Nature can provide, we erode its capital value. The consequences of living on capital are not in doubt, as many struggling pensioners can testify.

Monarch butterfly
The Monarch butterfly - one of the Algarve's iconic wildlife species


Businesses committed to an ecosystems approach do not make plans in the narrow context of profit alone; they know that their activities must add resilience to the environment so that it can recover and continue to provide the essential services we need now and for the future. When (and surely ‘if’ is not an option) we all adopt these principles, it will be a quantum leap towards conserving the Algarve’s natural beauty and wonderful wildlife for our children and grandchildren to enjoy.

Do species and habitats still matter?

Many of us become aware of the natural world as the result of a chance encounter with a butterfly, bird or flower, and increasingly we depend on designated sites to nurture such wildlife species, as elsewhere they become increasingly marginalised by intensive farming, road construction and other developments. Such an experience can lead us to question why a particular plant or animal is in that special place rather than being spread throughout the Algarve like currants in a bun. The answer is that the reserve is nurturing not only the particularplant or animal but also the ecosystems vital to its survival. Every living thing depends upon a bewildering range of factors. While we cannot survive without water, for instance, most plant and tree seeds cannot germinate and grow without particular fungi in the soil. Fungi cannot live in soil that has been heavily doused with pesticides or fertilisers… and so it goes on.

Species continue to be vital, not just as a source of wonder and beauty but also as indicators that we have got the balance right in our pursuit of economic growth. There’s something else, though: whoever heard of anyone visiting a nature reserve to see an ecosystem?

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