Africa’s responsibility to protect biodiversity


Africa is among the world’s most biodiverse regions. At least 50,000 plant species inhabit our biomes. Around 1,100 mammal and 2,500 bird species, and between 3,000 and 5,500 freshwater fish species make their homes on our lands and in our air and waters. Our living organisms represent one-quarter of all biodiversity on Earth. We have a responsibility to protect them.

Africa has big development ambitions. Taking advantage of our significant human and natural resources together with our massive market and robust trade links, Africans aim to achieve strong, inclusive growth that improves the lives of millions of people. Achieving this goal will require comprehensive economic modernisation – a process that historically has tended to cause significant environmental harm.

Already, rapid population growth, agricultural expansion, exploitation of wildlife, unsustainable fishing practices, deforestation and land degradation, urbanisation, and infrastructure development have put Africa’s biodiversity under heavy strain. Add to that the effects of climate change – to which Africa is particularly vulnerable – and the continent could lose more than half of its bird and mammal species by the end of this century.

But we do not have to choose between environmental conservation and economic development. On the contrary, key economic sectors – including agriculture, forestry, and fishing, which account for large shares of African countries’ GDP – depend on ecosystem services. The agricultural sector alone generates at least 50% of employment on the continent.

With sound strategies for managing our natural resources, we can build a future in which healthy ecosystems and the biodiversity they support are leading drivers of growth and development. Africa’s wildlife resources, for example, can yield significant economic value and opportunities.

A strategy for harnessing conservation to drive sustainable economic growth would be transformative. But the obstacles are formidable. Africa’s natural assets transcend legal, geographic and political boundaries. Birds have no interest in politics; they care about natural shelter. Elephants don’t stop at borders; they seek fresh water.

Just as we share a network of rich ecosystems and natural assets, African countries also share the challenge of devising a viable strategy for protecting and preserving them. We will also share in the spoils of success – or the costs of failure. This understanding must underpin a common outlook that facilitates the concessions and expenditure needed in order to bring vast benefits for our people and the planet.

African countries will have to build a consensus that bridges the gaps between our diverse approaches to environmental governance without losing sight of local needs and demands. Any such agenda must be aligned with science-based global goals – such as the ‘30×30’ goal of designating 30 percent of the planet’s land and ocean area as protected areas by 2030 – and consider Africa’s development aspirations.

We cannot reach our goals for either development or conservation if we do not act in concert – first on our own continent, and then on the global stage. On December 7, representatives of governments from around the world will convene in Montreal for the 15th Conference of the Parties (COP15) of the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity to agree on a new set of goals for the next decade and beyond. African leaders must overcome divisions and seize this opportunity to defend our common natural heritage and capital.

This means pushing for a global agreement that includes the ‘30×30’ goal, which studies show would increase economic output globally. African countries – including Ethiopia, Nigeria, Rwanda and Senegal – were among the first to champion this goal, and the continent as a whole can now ensure its adoption. To this end, we must highlight the importance of biodiversity conservation in ensuring our food supply, combating climate change, and sustaining inclusive long-term growth and employment creation.

The stage is set for us to demonstrate at COP15 that we can own our conservation agenda and lay the groundwork for a prosperous future. This is a critical opportunity for us to position ourselves as leaders in advancing an economic-development model that has conservation, sustainability and respect for natural heritage at its heart.

Acting as one, we can establish ourselves as a strong negotiating partner, capable of securing the needed financial support to preserve our continent’s biodiversity. We have already demonstrated such leadership potential by advocating that all countries commit to earmarking 1 percent of GDP to close the biodiversity financing gap and protect our planet’s natural assets.

We owe it to our local and indigenous communities, to current and future generations, and to the thousands of unique species of fauna and flora which depend on our ecosystems to advance viable, long-term solutions to the biodiversity crisis. And as the stewards of some of the world’s richest, most biodiverse ecosystems, we owe it to the entire global population.

Hailemariam Desalegn is a former Prime Minister of Ethiopia.

Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2022.

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