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Global Ideas

Understanding the economics of biodiversity

The repercussions of loss of biodiversity are fatal not only for the environment, but also for the economy. Not only animals and plants flourish by protecting biodiversity, but business too.

A Queen Alexandra's Birdwing (Ornithoptera alexandrae)

The world's largest butterfly lives in Papua New Guinea

Papua New Guinea is one of the world's least explored countries - both culturally and geographically - and many undiscovered species of plants and animals are thought to exist in its interior.

Its tropical wilderness is home to a stunning range of biodiversity - from the Queen Alexandra's Birdwing, the largest butterfly in the world, to the flamboyant bird-of-paradise, which graces the flag of Papua New Guinea.

Another rare and endangered species native to the country's rainforest is the golden-mantled tree kangaroo, while a recent discovery was a frog with a Pinocchio-like protuberance on its nose that points up when the male is calling and deflates when quiet.

Local and global value

A Greater Bird of Paradise

The bird of paradise is the country's national emblem

Papua New Guinea contains over 5 percent of the world's biodiversity within less than 1 percent of its total land area.

For now, the rainforests of Papua New Guinea are still intact. But although the overall population density of the country remains low, the population is growing slowly but steadily -- progressing, according to UN estimates, from 5,711,000 in 2003 to a projected population in the year 2015 of 7,169,000.

These inhabitants depend on the local biological resources to sustain their livelihoods. But the result, as recent satellite studies of the region show, is that current rates of deforestation will cause more than half of the Papua New Guinea's rainforests to be lost or seriously degraded by 2021.

Taking a toll

The increase in human population, coupled with the availability of more efficient farming tools, pose a growing threat to biodiversity.

The local agriculture and logging industry are taking their toll on the environment and threatening the natural habitats of valued birds, animals, fish, insects, plants and trees.

UN experts estimate that 130 species of plants, animals and insects are lost worldwide every single day.

"This is 100 to 1000 times faster than the evolutionary process of the extinction of species and appearance of new ones," says Andrea Cederquist, a Greenpeace biodiversity expert.

For now, it is unclear as to how exactly biodiversity in Papua New Guinea is being affected.

"Climate change and the loss of species are closely intertwined, and no one can gauge the full effects," stresses Cederquist. Experts agree that these cannot be predicted. But given that the extinction of one species can have knock-on effects, causing further extinctions, not only Papua New Guinea's birds of paradise are at stake, but entire ecosystems.

Chains of extinction

An ant

Were ants to die out, the result would be global disaster

After all, most living things on Earth support others. The power of the "little creatures that run the world" was spelt out by Harvard biologist Edward O.Wilson and German behavioral biologist Bert Hoelldobler in their Pulitzer Prize-winning 1990 study "The Ants." Their book reveals how humans would die without the ants' soil-tilling drudgery that maintains the existence of plant life.

Army ants are known to support 100 known species, from beetles to birds. Were they to die out, entire ecosystems would collapse and the result would be global disaster.

"Everyone is aware of all this," says Greenpeace expert Cederquist. "but no one acts."

Pricing the earth

Local Yali Tribeman

In Papua new Guinea, locals are leraning to farm sustainably

What might finally spur action is the dawning awareness of the global economic impact of the loss of biodiversity.

Under the aegis of the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP), the Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity (TEEB) project is an international initiative to draw attention to this issue.

In its latest study published in July, it puts the extent of losses of natural capital taking place as a result of deforestation and degradation at between $2 - 4.5 trillion per year, every year.

The full report sets out the economic case for biodiversity and ecosystems, describing how even factors such as insect pollination ultimately have a crucial impact on business and society.

Against this backdrop, environmentalists are well aware that however local they might seem, conservation efforts in Papua New Guinea have repercussions for the entire planet.

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