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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Rethinking Hotspots

Air Date: Week of

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In recent years conservation groups have focused on protecting hot spots, threatened areas with the greatest concentration of native species. Host Steve Curwood speaks with scientist Peter Kareiva about why that might not be the best idea.


CURWOOD: It’s Living on Earth. I’m Steve Curwood. In recent years, organizations trying to save biological diversity have focused on what they call “hotspots,” threatened areas that have the highest concentration of individual species. The thinking behind the hotspot approach can be summed up as saving the most species for the fewest dollars. But now two researchers writing in the American Scientist argue this may not be the best way to preserve nature. One of the authors is Peter Kareiva. He's a scientist at the Nature Conservancy and a professor at Santa Clara University and the University of California at Santa Barbara. Professor Kareiva says, though the hotspot approach sounds logical, it has fundamental flaws.

KAREIVA: It assumes two things. One, is it assumes that all that we care about are long lists of species, sort of like collectors collecting long lists of species. And that’s not all we care about in conservation. We care about working ecosystems, we care about erosion, we care about fisheries production. We care about a lot of nature services that aren’t captured just by listing species. The second thing is that, try to imagine that world, imagine a world where we have secured that small percentage of the land, but we haven’t paid adequate attention to that other 98 percent. That could be a world that would suffer huge climate change, because of degradation in the other environment. Even the protected two percent might be imperiled if people so abuse the environment in the rest of the world.

CURWOOD: You’ve got a concept in your paper where you talk about the importance of functioning ecosystems. Can you explain this to me?

KAREIVA: This is a concept that has really emerged in the last 10 to 15 years in the ecological sciences, not so much in conservation. And the notion is that ecosystems do things. They provide services. They recycle water. They purify water. They fix carbon. They mitigate the effects of erosion, or huge storms, or huge droughts. They provide fertile ground for migratory birds, or for fish and so forth. So they perform these functions, and those functions demand not just the list of species, but abundances of species and intact interactions, predator-prey interactions, wolves and elks. They demand that you have the right functioning species in the water and so forth. So it’s a notion that pays attention to processes.

CURWOOD: You also bring up an issue that has nothing to do directly with science, and that’s the stability of local governments. What does this have to do with how to direct conservation money?

KAREIVA: Conservation works in countries. And even though it’s a biological activity, it demands laws that are enforced, agreements that are held to. It demands enforcement of the borders of a national park. It demands enforcement of restrictions on land use, whether it’s logging or exploration for minerals. And so governance can totally inhibit effective conservation. If laws and signed agreements aren’t agreed upon, if there’s not enforcement of protected areas, all the money that you spend in a country may be for naught.

CURWOOD: Now, some critics would say that Colombia, places like it, have governance problems there—and of course it has a lot of hot spots—it would end up getting shortchanged. What’s your response?

KAREIVA: Well, that’s a good challenge, and I don’t think we should ever ignore those countries like Colombia or Indonesia. We would maintain a presence in those countries. But it’s a matter of the degree of investments. So when governance is poor— I would argue that in Colombia and Indonesia we should be paying attention to biological inventory, figuring out what are the species that are there and how we might work to improve them. Things that don’t cost too much money, and that don’t require government support. And then, if government improves, then we can invest heavily in establishing reserves and written agreements to protect species. So, we have a limited amount of money. And every year, you know, our goal has to be to make the greatest and best use of that money in promoting conservation around the world.

CURWOOD: Now based on what you’ve researched and what you’ve explained here, you would say—and correct me if I’m wrong here—that programs should take into account not only species diversity, but unique ecosystems and ecosystem services to humans, and political stability of host countries. Taking this as a framework, what countries do you see that aren’t getting their share of conservation attention today?

KAREIVA: Well, some of the countries that turned up in our analysis—and in no way is our analysis complete yet, we’re still working to improve it—but countries like Mozambique, Bangladesh, and Argentina are countries that don’t really come out on hotspot lists, but it looks like they would be good returns on investment.

CURWOOD: Peter, it seems to me that on a number of levels here, you’re challenging the conventional conservation wisdom, or dogma here, depending on one’s perspective. What do you hear in response to your papers from other conservation scientists?

KAREIVA: A lot of people—I think it resonates. One of the reasons we wrote the paper, it really resonates with ideas I’ve heard from conservationists in the field. Imagine a world where we focus too much on hotspots. Somebody living in Montana, somebody living in Alaska, somebody living in Mongolia—it’s hard to connect them with nature if there’s so much press, and so much attention to these tropical rainforests. So it resonates with a lot of scientists because it admits the value of their local work, and local work is very important. On the other hand, there is some worry, because it makes it look like conservationists haven’t figured it all out yet, that we’re not all on the same page and that we don’t all agree. And to be frank, some people are worried about that. They worry that, geez, if it looks like the conservation NGOs don’t all agrees, and they don’t have their act together, then why should we be giving them money? So they’re concerned about that. And I think that misses the point. We do all agree on the problem, we all agree that biodiversity and our ecosystems are at risk and we have to protect them. We don’t necessarily agree on how we should set priorities, but as organizations committed to biodiversity, we should also be committed to diversity of solutions, diversity of strategies, and diversity of ways of thinking about priorities.

CURWOOD: Peter Kareiva is a lead scientist at the Nature Conservancy, and a professor at Santa Clara University, and the University of California Santa Barbara. Thank you so much for taking this time with me today.

KAREIVA: Thank you.

[MUSIC: The Notwist "Pilot" Neon Golden]



Biodiversity Hotspots


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