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The Buzz About The Missing Bees Of Nepal

by Sanjay Suri

Loss of Local Plants, Animals as Troubling as Extinction
(IPS) LONDON -- The United Nations is worrying about bees missing in Nepal. Not just for the sake of the bees, but for our sake.

"The native bees were killed off by pesticides in the Maoxian region of Nepal bordering China," Dr. Eric Chivian, director of the Center for Health and the Global Environment at the Harvard Medical School, told IPS in London. "And so about 25 women had to hand-pollinate about 100 trees in an apple orchard. It took them days, when just a couple of beehives would have done the job better."

Hand pollination meant taking pollen and smearing it on female flowers with a brush or actually by hand -- a job done far better by bees.

The story from the apple orchard in Nepal -- and countless such -- has only just started to be recognized by experts as a story of the link between biodiversity and sustainable development.

"Clearly many lives are endangered by weapons of mass destruction," says Chivian. "But all of our lives depend on ecosystems, and we have only a meager understanding yet of how these systems affect us. These systems are not just food and fuel; these are species necessary to sustain us in all sorts of ways."

The United Nations Development Program (UNDP) is now arguing for a greater stress on biodiversity to achieve the millennium development goals (MDGs).

The links do not seem obvious at first glance. Biodiversity is really all organisms -- human, animal, plant life, and how they relate to one another. It is the organic make-up of the world. On the other hand the MDGs intended to be achieved by 2015 are eradication of extreme poverty and hunger, universal primary education, gender equality, reduction of child mortality, improvement of maternal health, and combating serious diseases.

To think the link, consider the following:

  • Thousands of farmers in China lived off hundreds of varieties of rice, and now they grow just four species. The loss of one more can mean poverty for millions.

  • In California a barley crop was decimated by fungus years ago. Cure came by way of a gene from a variety of barley grown in Ethiopia. That saved much of the Californian beer industry.

  • In South Asia environmental health risks account for 20 percent of disease, malnutrition accounts for 15 percent.

  • Use of malarial bed nets for fishing in Lake Malawi in Africa's 22,490 square kilometer lake bordered by Malawi, Tanzania, and Mozambique, meant fewer fish. Fishermen introduced more snails which led to an outbreak of schistosomiasis among groups of the native population. This was the first reported outbreak of an infectious disease outbreak caused by overfishing.

  • New York City is investing in protecting forests around the city to conserve its supply of water, because alternative sources would cost billions of dollars.

  • The drug Taxol discovered in the bark of the Pacific Yew Tree has led to new and effective treatment against forms of cancer. The rosy periwinkle from Madagascar has already revolutionized treatment of acute childhood leukemia. More cures may sit in the ecosystems -- and many may have been lost.

And so experts now want to build biodiversity into the MDGs more closely than was contemplated before. "People talking development have not been talking to people talking biodiversity a few floors below them," Charles McNeill, environment program team manager with the UNDP, told IPS. "But there has been a shift in the past year, and we are now working on the real connections between ecosystems and the quality of life for the developing world."

The connections were proposed formally by UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan in what he called the WEHAB priorities (Water, Energy, Health, Agriculture and Biodiversity) in May last year ahead of the World Summit for Sustainable Development in Johannesburg. Experts now want to make the 'B' in WEHAB bigger than it has been.

A new target has been set to reduce biodiversity loss by 2010. "Natural ecosystems are fundamentally important for meeting human needs and ultimately influence the development prospects of nations," says Klaus Topfer, executive director of the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP). "When that capacity is diminished, the most serious toll is exacted on the poor who are the most vulnerable to floods or crop failures."

Evidence shows that ecosystems such as the provision of clean water are crucial to the lives of more than 1.1 billion people living in the 25 biodiversity 'hot spots' that hold 44 percent of the world's plants and 35 percent of its bird, mammal, reptile and amphibians.

But it is not all a story of loss. "From the rainforests of Peru to the plains of Kenya, we are finding communities in the tropics that are using ingenuity to stop the loss of plant and animal species and loosen poverty's grip at the same time," says Sean Southey, manager of the Equator Initiative launched by the UNDP last year to track and reward such efforts.

Traditional forms of soil conservation have been introduced to check soil degradation in Tanzania; a fishing project in Fiji has tripled catches, increased local income 35 per cent and also increased marine life; in India the Kani people agreed to share the curative properties of the Argypacha plant in exchange for an equal share from the benefits of commercialization.

And talking bees, the project Honey Care Africa is giving employment to thousands of beekeepers while the bees sustain the environment.

"At the end of the day," says Southey, "you have to bee with the people."

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Albion Monitor January 14, 2004 (

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