A message of hope for the ASEAN’s threatened biodiversity

The ASEAN region’s relentless campaign to conserve and protect its rich but highly threatened biodiversity and ecosystems took centre stage with the recent International Conference on Biodiversity hosted by Thailand. With no less than the Princess of the Kingdom of Thailand, Her Royal Highness Maha Chakri Sirindhorn gracing the opening ceremonies, the event highlighted the conservation collaboration among the 10 ASEAN Member States (AMS) — Brunei Darussalam, Cambodia, Indonesia, Lao PDR, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Viet Nam.

The ASEAN region occupies only three per cent of the world’s total area, yet, its mountains, forests, rivers, lakes, and seas are home to almost 20 per cent of the world’s known plant and animal species assessed by the International Union for Conservation of Nature. The region is endowed with a diversity of forests, marine areas, oceans and wetlands, and many AMS share common biodiversity-rich boundaries, possessing rich natural and cultural resources that provide a variety of ecosystem services, such as provision of food, clean air, and potable water; regulation of natural processes like decomposition of wastes, nutrient cycling, and pollination of crops and other plants; as well as providing spiritual and cultural significance. All these biodiversity and ecosystem services are key to the survival, development, well-being, and prosperity of some 650 million ASEAN citizens.

Development taking its toll on the environment

The ASEAN region has been experiencing rapid economic growth and modernisation. In fact, the ASEAN is known to be the world’s fifth largest, and Asia’s third largest economy, with a Gross Domestic Product (GDP) valued at approximately USD 2.8 trillion in 2017. This is almost four and a half times the GDP value in 2000 which is valued at USD 615 billion.

Moreover, the region’s economic development is highlighted by the ever-increasing tourist arrivals, from 42 million in 2001 to 115 million in 2016, and is expected to expand by an average of 6.4 per cent per annum until 2026. In addition, Southeast Asia boasts of thriving manufacturing and export industries, with exports increasing from USD 1.9 trillion in 2008 to USD 2.5 trillion in 2017.

However, along with this economic advancement comes escalating consumption and ever-increasing threats to biodiversity, such as pollution, terrestrial and marine debris, land conversion, irresponsible mining, illegal wildlife trade, and the introduction and proliferation of invasive alien species. Inevitably, development sectors, including infrastructure, agriculture and fisheries, mining, energy, and tourism, have direct and indirect impacts on biodiversity and our precious ecosystem services.

Not a message of doom but hope for ASEAN’s biodiversity

However, this scenario is not a message of doom and despair, but of encouragement and hope. Southeast Asia has an advantage over other regions. While human and economic development in other parts of the world have often come at the expense of biodiversity, ASEAN’s rich biodiversity and ecosystems remain viable and receptive to protection and conservation measures.  The theme for the International Conference on Biodiversity — Biodiversity for Sustainable Bioeconomy — is both timely and necessary. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization defines bioeconomy as the knowledge-based production and utilisation of biological resources, biological processes and principles to sustainably provide goods and services across all economic sectors. A rich biodiversity and healthy ecosystems mean cleaner air, greater food security, decreased disaster risk, and greater human health outcomes. Clearly, biodiversity — the very foundation of life and livelihoods — supports sustained growth and development for the present and future generations, as long as we recognise our responsibility, not only to care for it, but to utilise it with care.

Economic advancement spearheaded by development sectors such as infrastructure, agriculture and fisheries, mining, energy, and tourism may have negative impacts on biodiversity and our precious ecosystem services but they are the very same sectors that can significantly contribute to halting, or reversing biodiversity loss. Apart from possessing the human, financial, and technological resources to ensure that their operations do not have negative impacts on ecosystem services, these sectors also have the capacity to augment government efforts in arresting biodiversity loss. This is why it is crucial to mainstream and embed biodiversity conservation into development plans, as well as in the business processes of the private sector, to guarantee that biodiversity is protected and conserved in an ever-growing region such as the ASEAN.

The ASEAN at the forefront of conservation

Recognising the invaluable contribution of biodiversity to peoples, the ASEAN and its member states have been taking substantial and concerted action at the national, regional, and international levels, towards conservation and sustainable use of our biological resources and natural heritage to drive inclusive sustainable development, where no one is left behind.

The fact that all AMS are parties to various multilateral environmental agreements demonstrates not only their appreciation of the importance of biodiversity conservation, but also their willingness to be legally bound by their commitments under these agreements, which include the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, and the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands of International Importance, to name a few.

The ACB as precursor of regional cooperation

At the regional level, the AMS established the ASEAN Centre for Biodiversity, or ACB, in 2005 as its response to the challenge of biodiversity loss. Since its establishment, the ACB has been assisting the AMS in promoting regional collaboration in biodiversity conservation, in particular, by supporting concerted efforts to achieve the objectives of the CBD, and ensuring that biodiversity continues to thrive in the region.

All the AMS have their respective national biodiversity conservation programmes. But conservation is a shared responsibility considering that biodiversity loss is an environmental problem that knows no boundaries. To promote cooperation within the ASEAN region, the ACB coordinates the protection and conservation efforts of the AMS into one common front.

Conserving the ASEAN’s best nature parks

One of the region’s banner initiatives is the ASEAN Heritage Parks (AHP) Programme, which encourages the AMS to set aside and protect areas that are of high conservation importance. The protection accorded to these nature parks redounds to the valuable ecosystem services they provide. For example, Khao Yai National Park in Thailand is the source of potable water and irrigation in the surrounding areas of the park. The abundance of forest and other biological products in Hoang Lien National Park in Northern Viet Nam gives sustenance and livelihood opportunities to several indigenous communities. The Mount Apo Natural Park in the Philippines provides natural irrigation for food production in surrounding provinces, as well as geothermal energy and hydropower. Moreover, Mount Kinabalu National Park in Sabah Malaysia is a prime destination for ecotourism enthusiasts, and the Kepulauan Seribu National Park, a marine AHP in Indonesia, provides nutrients to the Java Sea and to the Indian Ocean where the fisheries industry is thriving.

The AHP Programme also offers opportunities to strengthen regional connectivity and cooperation, as ecosystems and their services transcend national borders. Such regional cooperation can be manifested in the collaborative management of adjacent and interconnected protected areas. For instance, a number of countries work together to protect and conserve the biological, ecological, and cultural treasures in environments such as the forests of Borneo, the river systems of the Mekong, and the ocean around the Turtle Islands.

In addition, many AHPs serve as sources of livelihoods to the communities living within and around these areas. As such, the ACB is spearheading the incorporation of biodiversity into the value chain, and ascribing more premium to livelihoods that provide communities with eco-friendly alternatives to unsustainable extraction activities in protected areas. The benefits of these livelihood opportunities are being realised in Cambodia, Lao PDR, and Viet Nam through an ACB project on Biodiversity-based Products as an Economic Source for the Improvement of Livelihoods and Biodiversity Protection, supported by the Government of Germany.

Bountiful diversity of species and ecosystems

The ASEAN appreciates its bountiful diversity of species, some of which are migratory, which move across national borders within the region. The AMS exert collective efforts to protect these species, such as elephants, tigers, hornbills, and marine turtles, most of which have culturally significant value, sources of pride and inspiration for the peoples of ASEAN, and subjects of tourism and recreational activities.

Around 50 million waterbirds journey to Southeast Asia to keep themselves warm during the cold winter months in the Northern and Southern Hemispheres. Hence, we have the ASEAN Flyway Network which supports the monitoring and protection of these migratory birds. The continued presence of these birds is a good indicator of a healthy network of wetlands in the region. The protection of the ASEAN’s wetlands, which serve as watering grounds of these migratory birds, provides valuable provisioning and ecosystem services that are important, to not only to local livelihoods, but also to the food security and ecological integrity of the region. A healthy network of wetlands recharges groundwater for sustained water supply, absorbs flooding and sea level rise, supports fisheries, and keeps bird-borne and water-borne diseases in check. Clearly, conserving this important ecosystem secures sustained benefits for the people, communities, and industries that depend on these migratory birds and wetlands.

Similarly, healthy ecosystems mean reliable irrigation and water supply for one of the most vital industries in the region: agriculture. As such, the ACB, together with the Southeast Asian Regional Centre for Graduate Study and Research in Agriculture, has catalysed greater cross-sectoral collaboration to promote agrobiodiversity and biodiversity mainstreaming in the agriculture sector. The importance of cross-sector cooperation, particularly in agriculture, cannot be overemphasised, in light of the increasing need for food security, in order to respond to the region’s growing population. 

Urban areas have biodiversity too

Consequent to human development in the ASEAN is the rising demand for housing and shelter, which brings with it the creation of more urban spaces. Seeing this as both a challenge and an opportunity, the AMS and the ACB are promoting urban nature and green infrastructure to ensure that the establishment of urban spaces are cognisant of biodiversity considerations, and that inhabitants of these spaces have access to nature and its associated benefits. Singapore has formulated the Singapore Index on Cities’ Biodiversity, a self-assessment tool for measuring a city’s biodiversity efforts. Through the index, cities are guided to incorporate biodiversity in urban planning to allow its inhabitants to benefit from nature-based solutions to environmental concerns common in these areas, such as the provision of clean air, the reduction of urban heat, and the prevention of flood water retention, all of which contribute to health and well-being. The Singapore Index is already being utilised, not only in Indonesia, the Philippines and Thailand, but also in countries beyond Southeast Asia.

Science and policy interface  

Another important area of cooperation is the promotion of the interface between science and policy. The ACB is working with the AMS to advance knowledge-sharing, capacity building and technology transfer within the region. Needless to say, science-based and informed decision-making is one of the foundations of crafting sound and sustainable policies for development planning and implementation.

Ensuring healthy biodiversity for the next generation  

The ACB is fostering the engagement and leadership of the next generation. Our youth, who represents over 33 per cent of the population, and is a key stakeholder in contributing to a sustainable, healthy, and resilient future. To ensure that our future generation is empowered to inherit and steward our region’s rich biodiversity and ecosystems, the ACB is spearheading the ASEAN Youth Programme in collaboration with the Global Youth Biodiversity Network, the official youth constituency to the CBD. This is supported by the European Union, through the Biodiversity Conservation and Management of Protected Areas in the ASEAN (BCAMP) Project.

Under this programme is the ASEAN Youth Biodiversity Leaders, wherein 20 inspiring youth leaders from all across the region are selected for a year-long fellowship that provides them with in-depth training and mentorship to strengthen youth-led conservation in the region. They also get the opportunity to conduct youth consultations on biodiversity issues, and exchange best practices on enhancing several youth-led activities in the region.

All these efforts are made possible through the strong collaboration and cooperation of the AMS, supported by the ACB and our international and regional partners.

The ASEAN region is the repository of rich biodiversity and ecosystem services, the site of exemplary natural wonders, and home to the ASEAN community. Let us continue working together as one community to conserve and sustainably use our biological diversity; because biodiversity is for people and for progress. (Dr. Theresa Mundita S. Lim/ACB)

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