SOS for biodiversity

BRUSSELS – Plant and animal species are becoming extinct at an ever-increasing pace. Scientists estimate that the natural rate of extinction – one species per million per year – has multiplied several thousand-fold. Ecosystems are disappearing at the same rate as forests have diminished by 9.4 million hectares a year for the past 15 years – an area the size of Portugal. Yesterday was World Environment Day, an occasion to remind us of our share of responsibility for the worsening state of the planet and of the need for countermeasures. The dwindling of biodiversity in Europe and the rest of the planet was the main topic at Green Week, which was held last week at the European Commission building in Brussels. Experts from around the world explored the economic, social and environmental dimensions of the loss of biodiversity and proposed measures. The European Union aims to halt the extinction of species by 2010. «Maintaining biodiversity is crucial for our well-being and economic development,» said Environment Commissioner Stavros Dimas. «In Europe, 30-50 percent of the most important groups of species – mammals, birds and fish – are already in danger. When development damages or destroys the ecosystems on which we depend, it is obvious that we are heading in the wrong direction.» A European Environmental Service (EES) report on species loss was presented at the meeting. «Most parts of Europe remained intact until the middle of the last century,» said Vane Feehan, a researcher at the EES. «Mankind has basically guided biodiversity in line with his own needs, tilling the soil and propagating certain species of animals. From the 1950s on, the sudden change of land use, intensified agriculture, urbanization, the abandonment of the land, and the movement of populations to the cities led to a widespread collapse of the socioeconomic systems that supported the earth as we knew it. «The result was that, while some groups of animals multiplied, there has been a decrease in others, such as the more vulnerable species who are at the top of the food chain, like large carnivores, various endemic local species, small seasonal species and migratory species. «On the other hand, some species thought to be in danger of extinction, such as the beaver, have recovered.» The report examined the state of agricultural land, forests, seas, coastal ecosystems and wet habitats and provided statistics to show that marine and coastal ecosystems are in the worst state. «The loss of biodiversity is significant, especially in the Mediterranean area,» states the report. «Immediate measures are required to revive fish populations, deal with land-based pollution and total protection of species under threat and the natural coastal environment.» In many cases, there is little that can be done. «Europe is the most densely populated region in the world,» said Feehan. «Nobody wants to stop development, but it must be kept in balance with the environment. We have so little left, and it is our responsibility to hand that on to future generations.»