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United Nations Environment Programme
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Freshwater Management Series No. 7

Phytotechnologies

A Technical Approach in Environmental Management

II. GLOBAL ISSUES REQUIRING INNOVATIVE SOLUTIONS

Sustainable development is a complex process of purposeful change in the attitudes, behaviours, and institutions of human societies. An ecological viewpoint is essential to any valid concept of development because the development process itself is inherently ecological. In other words, it is a process of purposeful change in the systematic interrelationships of living and inanimate things as they have evolved and continue to evolve in a biosphere dominated by human society.

Biodiversity, biosafety, integrated water resources management, urban environmental management, climate change, and the valuation of natural capital are global issues of concern where phytotechnologies can play a beneficial role.

A. Biodiversity and the Biodiversity Convention

White swans in lake  

Biological diversity can be defined as the variability among living organisms and the ecosystems of which they are a part. There are three levels of diversity and the interactions amongst these different levels must be considered simultaneously. The three different levels are: genetic diversity (diversity within species, from the molecular level to the level of populations); species diversity (the richness of species in a given place at a given time); and ecological diversity (the heterogeneity of ecosystems, habitats and landscapes).

The importance of biological diversity lies not merely in conservation-related aspects. Genetic and molecular diversity focusing on the selection of plants and animals for greater productivity is an important economic driver. Equally important, at a higher level of ecological diversity, are issues such as land use, landscape dynamics and sustainable tourism.

Anthropogenic activities increasingly disturb the integrity of global biodiversity. Pollution, the introduction of exotic species, unsustainable agricultural practices, urban sprawl and climate change all contribute to the loss of biodiversity through ecosystem disruption and habitat destruction. Furthermore, although some developing countries may be rich in biodiversity, their development, food sufficiency and survival policies usually do not consider species conservation as a high priority.

Genetic diversity has a positive function in the durability of biological systems and hence genetic erosion is a significant issue. Of particular concern is the rate at which species are currently becoming extinct, the threat of dysfunction in major ecosystems such as tropical rainforests, and the reduction in genetic resources of modern agriculture resulting from the widespread distribution of high-yield strains and varieties.

The United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity is a multilateral instrument designed to respond to this ecological crisis. It was preceded by a number of other international legal agreements on species and habitat protection. The objectives of the Convention, which came into force in December of 1993, are the conservation of biological diversity, the sustainable use of biological resources, and the fair and equitable sharing of benefits from genetic resource use. The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) serves as the Secretariat for this Convention.

An important element of the Convention is that the Parties commit to conserve biodiversity in natural settings through the establishment, management and maintenance of parks and protected areas. The Convention on Biological Diversity requires that the Parties develop legislative provisions to protect endangered species, including plants. It stipulates that the Parties agree to develop or maintain necessary regulatory provisions for the protection of threatened species and populations. Other aspects under the Convention include the requirement to:

establish systems of protected areas, manage biological resources, rehabilitate degraded ecosystems, regulate risks of living modified organisms, control alien species, protect threatened species
respect, preserve and maintain knowledge, innovations and practices of indigenous and local communities embodying traditional lifestyles relevant for the conservation of biodiversity and sustainable use of biological resources
facilitate access to genetic resources, on mutually agreed terms and under prior informed consent of the Party providing such resources.

Another important international instrument is the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), which provides for the protection of wild species against overexploitation through international trade, by regulating the international movement of animal and plant species. CITES, which came into effect in 1975, operates through an import/export permit system that controls or prohibits trade in approximately 48,000 species and subspecies of wildlife. Products made from endangered species of plants and animals are also regulated.

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