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close this bookConserving Biodiversity (BOSTID, 1992)
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View the documentPreface
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View the documentExecutive Summary
Open this folder and view contents1 Biodiversity and Development
Open this folder and view contents2 Biological Aspects Of Conservation
Open this folder and view contents3 Biodiversity Research: The Socioeconomic Context
Open this folder and view contents4 Biodiversity Research: the Cultural Context
View the documentReferences and Recommended Reading
View the documentBoard on Science and Technology for International Development

Executive Summary

The diminishing of the Earth's biological diversity has consequences far more profound than other, sometimes more widely recognized, environmental dilemmas. Because the loss is irreversible-species that are lost are lost forever-the potential impact on the human condition, on the fabric of the Earth's living systems, and on the process of evolution is immense. Our species has evolved biologically and culturally in a highly diverse world. Our interactions with other organisms have shaped our humanity in intricate ways, and our future cannot be separated from that of the life forms and ecosystems with which we share the planet.

The conservation of biodiversity is a global responsibility. Each nation has a necessary role to play in finding new ways to manage biological resources and new ways to sustain commitment. As part of this responsibility, we need to identify what we do not know about biodiversity and the means that will be required to increase and disseminate our knowledge.

This report presents an agenda for research in areas critical to the conservation of biodiversity in the world's developing countries. It addresses the biological aspects of conservation as well as the socioeconomic factors and cultural context that must be considered in successful, long-term conservation work in these countries.

The challenge of biodiversity research entails not only the gathering of information, but its management, application, and communication. Likewise, the quality of research depends on the people and institutions that perform it. These considerations are especially important in developing nations and are addressed as part of this agenda. The specific recommendations offered here flow from the general conviction that comprehension and conservation of biodiversity in developing nations represent a challenge of such magnitude that all links in the research chain must be strengthened to ensure success.

The agenda presented here is an ambitious one, but the urgency of the situation requires that it be implemented immediately, and to the fullest extent feasible; a delay of even five years will be too late to prevent irreversible losses. Moreover, we already know a great deal about what needs to be done to preserve biodiversity. We must take immediate steps to reduce losses; we must not wait for research to reveal in full detail how we may sustain biodiversity permanently.


The state of knowledge of biological diversity suggests that the most basic research requirement is to gain a better, more complete sense of "what's out there." At the same time, we need to know more about how biological diversity is distributed, how it is faring, how to protect it and use it in a sustainable manner, and how to restore it. We also need to improve our ability to gather, organize, communicate, and apply this basic biological knowledge.

Biological Surveys, Inventory, and Monitoring

To achieve an acceptable standard of knowledge about the diversity of the world's biota, the following actions are needed.

National Biological Inventories

National biological inventories should be organized, funded, and strengthened in each country of the world.

This should be the priority for development agencies in biodiversity research. National inventories offer exceptional possibilities for professional linkages and community development and provide the thorough knowledge of organisms necessary for intelligent management of biological diversity to solve any number of practical problems. In many cases this work, with appropriate investments, can be implemented through existing institutions, but should be coordinated through the establishment of national biological institutes or equivalent centers.

Global Biological Survey

A strategy for gauging the magnitude and patterns of distribution of biological diversity on Earth should be coordinated and implemented.

A global survey, drawing on the work of national biological inventories and supplemented by extensive surveys of particular localities, should be undertaken immediately. The National Academy of Sciences study Research Priorities in Tropical Biology (NAS, 1980) recommended that a comprehensive, multidisciplinary worldwide survey of well-known groups of tropical organisms (for example, plants, vertebrates, and butterflies) be undertaken. This recommendation is even more timely now. Such a survey would serve as an index to the patterns of species distribution and the nature of communities throughout the tropics, and would provide the cornerstone for a globalscale effort.

Screening of Organisms

The screening of plants, animals, fungi, and microorganisms for features of potential human benefit should be systematized and accelerated through strengthened programs.

Screening allows us to determine more systematically the present and potential uses of organisms for appropriate human purposes. The national biological inventories recommended above should provide both screening opportunities for new natural products and rational methodologies for using materials derived from them.


To detect, measure, and assess changes in the status of biological diversity, appropriate monitoring methods, employing specific indicators of biodiversity attributes, should be implemented.

Inventory, survey, and screening efforts must be complemented by the development and implementation of methods to track the continually changing status of biological diversity. These monitoring efforts should not be undertaken as separate activities, but integrated into the other recommended activities.

Conservation Research

To advance our understanding of successful conservation strategies and methods, the following actions are needed.

Site-Specific Research

To advance the understanding of ecosystem composition, structure, and function; to use this knowledge to link basic and applied research, sustainable land use and development, and the conservation of biological diversity; and to provide baseline data for environmental monitoring, long-term ecological research should be supported at selected sites in developing nations.

Progress toward truly sustainable land use systems requires information on the effect of management options on the ecosystem dynamics, and this information can be gained only through long-term research. Long-term ecological research is especially necessary in the tropical ecosystems of the developing world, where few comprehensive investigations have been undertaken.

Conservation Biology Principles and Methods

Research on biological diversity in developing countries should focus on the application and further development of the methodologies and principles of conservation biology.

The implementation of conservation strategies in developing nations, particularly the establishment of biological reserves and parks, presents an opportunity to test the sustainability of conservation concepts and practices. Most of these originated in developed nations of the Temperate Zones, where human population pressures are much lighter than in the tropics, and where ecosystems are generally less diverse. Testing and comparing conservation methodologies may enable us to elucidate principles that can be more widely applied.

Sustainable Use of Biological Resources

Research should be conducted on strategies for the sustainable use of biological diversity and for returning something of the value of biodiversity to developing countries.

Sustainable use implies that current human needs should be met without degrading the resource base for future generations. Although many strategies for accomplishing this have been advanced, few have undergone scientific scrutiny. Substantive research results are needed to guide policymakers in choosing among them.

Restoring and Utilizing Degraded Lands

Increased support should be given to research on the restoration and utilization of degraded lands and ecosystems in developing countries.

Restoration of degraded lands, although practiced on a small scale for a number of years in some developed nations, is a relatively new area of emphasis in most developing countries. Currently, only a limited theoretical foundation can be applied to site restoration, and there are very few cases in which these theories have been tested. Development agencies must play a larger role in encouraging these efforts and applying restoration techniques more widely.

Information Needs

To enhance the availability and application of scientific information for the purposes of managing and conserving biological diversity, the following actions are needed.

Computer Data Bases and Inventories

Resources should be devoted to the development of computer data bases, inventories, and information networks for the collection and collation of information. Support should be given to the improvement of interinstitutional coordination, system design, and operational administration through the establishment of national biological institutes or equivalent centers.

As conservation faces greater competition for resources, the need for coordination and shared information to prevent duplication of effort becomes paramount. Researchers and administrators involved in conservation efforts must have access to information on the classification, distribution, characteristics, status, and ecological relationships of species. Much of this information, when it exists, is scattered and difficult to obtain. The development of computer data bases and inventories would be a major factor in overcoming this constraint.

Remote Sensing and Geographic Information Systems

Additional research and technical development are needed to advance the utility of remotely sensed data for ecosystem monitoring in developing countries.

The data of remote sensing techniques, coupled with the data management capacity of geographic information systems, offer unprecedented opportunities to assess and monitor ecosystem processes. Even regions that are experiencing rapid change, such as tropical environments, can be closely surveyed through means not available a decade ago. However, remote sensing data must be made more available in developing countries, and training opportunities must be increased.

Strengthening Scientific Networks

Development agencies should use their financial and institutional resources to establish and encourage networks that foster communication among scientists working with biological diversity in developing countries.

As the need for scientific information on biological diversity grows, and as the volume and the quality of information increase, scientific networks must keep pace. These networks should serve to improve communication among scientists in developing countries, between scientists in different countries, and between scientists in both developing and developed countries.

Human Resources

To strengthen the human resources necessary to survey, research, monitor, and manage biological diversity in developing nations, the following actions are needed.

Developing Taxonomic

International development agencies should sponsor and support the development of taxonomic expertise, both paraprofessional and professional, as an increasingly important part of their conservation programs.

Many of the recommendations previously outlined presume the existence of the taxonomic expertise to implement them. Yet the cadre of trained taxonomists able to perform this work simply does not exist. To describe, inventory, classify, monitor, and manage biological diversity, such expertise must be cultivated.

Strengthening Local

Because the fate of biological diversity in developing countries depends ultimately on the sense of stewardship, scientific capacities' and administrative structures within these countries' it is important that development agencies invest in strengthening local institutions.

Only native institutions are capable of imparting the understanding of biological diversity among the general public and the proficiency among professionals that will result in effective conservation. It is especially important that development agencies support nongovernmental organizations, educational institutions, museums, and libraries in developing countries, and foster effective operation of the government agencies legally charged with managing resources.

Expanding Cooperative Research Programs

New and existing programs of international cooperatite research should undertake research on biological diversity as a fundamental part of their mission, and should be given the financial and administrative support to do so.

New and existing international cooperative research programs should devote more attention to research on biological diversity and should emphasize increased levels of cooperation with developing countries. Biodiversity and its relationship to sustainable land use are central to attaining development goals and should be fundamental considerations in carrying out all research programs involving natural resource management. In particular, these programs need to involve more systematists and other biologists to perform basic research on biodiversity.


The accelerated rate at which the world's biological diversity is being eroded can be attributed, in large part, to socioeconomic factors
that encourage exploitative development practices while discouraging conservative resource use. The economic aspects of biodiversity conservation in developing countries demand sophisticated analysis, necessarily involving economists and ecologists working together and with other researchers. The overall objectives of an economic research agenda are: to identify the economic forces leading to the loss of biodiversity within a country; to determine the role of international economic institutions and trends that support this depletion; to elucidate the principles operant in cases of successful development and conservation; and to develop and test economically viable mechanisms for slowing resource depletion and stimulating conservation.

Project- or Country-Level Research

Project- or country-level socioeconomic research is considered urgent. Emphasis should be placed on three critical areas of inquiry: causal mechanisms, valuation, and incentives or disincentives.

· Causal Mechanisms. Economic instruments (including rents, taxes, royalties, concessions, tax holidays, low- or no-interest loans, government-financed infrastructure development, and land tenure systems based on landscape alteration) are integral components of development programs and should be analyzed carefully to determine their short- and long-term effects on natural resource depletion rates.

· Valuation. Because the full value of biodiversity is not yet recognized or incorporated in the policy process, valuation research must be given high priority.

· Incentives and Disincentives. Economic incentives and disincentives play an important role in inducing local people, governments, and international organizations to conserve-or deplete-biological diversity. Research needs to focus on their application and effect.

International Economic Research

Many of the economic forces that profoundly affect the depletion or conservation of biodiversity within a country are transnational in origin. However, the relationships between these transnational forces and natural resource exploitation within countries are poorly understood. Therefore, more research is needed that focuses on the interaction between national and international economic factors, institutions, trends, and impacts.

Global Macroeconomic Research

Because biodiversity is important at the global as well as the local and national levels, many nations and institutions will have to contribute if conservation efforts are to succeed. Development agencies often have central bureaus that attempt to anticipate global needs and to apply a global perspective when designing their in-country activities. These bureaus should support research that focuses on macroeconomic forces operating on a global scale and establishes principles of biodiversity conservation that can be applied in most countries.


Biological diversity has been lost as a result of social processes, and will ultimately be conserved only through adjustments in these processes. Unless and until they are understood, there is little lasting hope for conservation. In developing countries, the fundamental challenge for researchers in the social sciences is to determine if, where, and how complex local systems can be adapted to modern needs while still retaining the biological diversity of both agroecosystems and surrounding nonagricultural lands. The social sciences can also mediate between indigenous people and institutions, examining indigenous knowledge and land use patterns to understand the problems of biodiversity loss and methods of biodiversity conservation. They can help identify not only the components of local knowledge and land use systems' but also the timing, ecological processes, and structural characteristics that result in the conservation or reduction of biological diversity.

Local Management Systems

Research should provide information on local management systems. We need information on local cultures that are particularly good examples of productive relationships between people and their environment. Special attention should be given to the identification of management systems that are endangered.

Adapting Local Knowledge

Research should promote the application of local knowledge to modern resource management. Based on this information, development agencies would be able to design projects that benefit indigenous people and that benefit from local knowledge. Agencies should identify opportunities to demonstrate how local knowledge can be combined with modern scientific studies in the design of systems for sustainable resource use.

Promoting Local Knowledge

To promote the idea that local knowledge and practices remain relevant for contemporary natural resource management, especially in terms of the scientific insights they provide, the rationale for examining local knowledge and rules should be communicated to professional groups.

Priority Groups

There are, at minimum, thousands of indigenous cultural groups in the developing nations, and it is clearly impossible to study all existing or possible resource use patterns, traditions, combinations, and relationships. A selection of people and places is required. Of highest priority are those use patterns and knowledge systems that are changing most rapidly or disappearing, including those of foragers and collectors, particularly tropical forest dwellers and desert nomadic pastoralists; coastal fisherman, strand foragers, and small island villagers; subsistence agriculturalists raising unconventional staple crops; subsistence agriculturalists raising local cultivars and breeds of conventional crops and animals; and groups that have successfully adapted traditional technologies and resource use patterns in developing market opportunities.


All areas of research on biodiversity and its conservation-biological, economic, and cultural-will require activities across ecological zones and at each level of the "development hierarchy" (project, national, and global). Based on the agenda outlined above, development agencies should place priority on the following actions.

· Development agencies should promote the conservation of biological diversity by strengthening institutional capacity in developing countries. Unless developing countries can build their own corps of competent researchers and develop solid institutions in which they can work, little effective research on biodiversity will be accomplished. The most relevant institutions in this regard are universities, museums, and government ministries, which will require adequate funding, equipment, and personnel to mount national surveys and to establish monitoring capabilities. Information, as it is collected, should be built into data bases so that it can be readily retrieved by other institutions.

· Development agencies should support long-term ecological research sites (comparable to La Selva in Costa Rica or Barro Colorado Island in Panama) with provisions for continuous monitoring to provide a baseline for understanding natural ecosystems and learning how to modify them most effectively, consonant with development needs.

· Development agencies should place greater emphasis on, and assume a stronger role in, systematizing the local knowledge base-indigenous knowledge, "gray literature," anecdotal information. A vast heritage of knowledge about species, ecosystems, and their use exists, but it does not appear in the world literature, being either insufficiently "scientific" or not "developmental." Much of this information can be interpreted only by local scientists. The U.S. Agency for International Development, the World Bank, and other donor agencies can lend support to the collection and analysis of this important information through their resident offices or missions by providing support to local universities and research institutes as part of project and program development.

· Development agencies must support more and broader-based research in connection with their development projects, including specific studies of the projects' impact on biological diversity, along with the required environmental impact statements. Specific examples of projects that have a direct impact on biodiversity include forest clearing, dam construction, road construction, large-scale human resettlement, and the introduction of new crops or new agricultural production packages and technologies (including the expansion of crop production for export earnings). The impact of these and other activities on ecosystem function and diversity must be investigated more thoroughly, and the likely consequences for affected species must be identified and characterized.

· Development agencies should assist their counterparts in client countries in building the capacity to carry out multidisciplinary research on development options. The capacity to assess and monitor the impact of development activities on biodiversity should receive specific attention. This continuing process should feed its results into the political process at the highest levels-the Ministry of Planning, the Presidency, or equivalent-and provide for the assessment of future economic options in terms of their long-term human and ecological impact. This research should build greater understanding about the relationship between biodiversity and local systems of knowledge and resource use, and should translate this understanding into useful policy and program tools.
· Development agencies should support occasional broader studies of the operation of economic systems as they affect biological diversity. These studies should focus on macroeconomic policy and development strategy-the operation of the economic system locally or regionally-in attempting to provide more generalized conclusions about the relationship between development activities and natural resource management. Studies should analyze the impact of these activities on the conservation of biological resources for agriculture and other economic activities, for their amenity values, and for their influence on future ecosystem stability, including the effects on regional and global climate change, watershed maintenance, river basin flood regimes, and coastal zone (marine, reef, tourism, fishing) resources.


In the past decade, the conservation of biological diversity has come to be understood as an essential aspect of sustainable development worldwide. Biodiversity is a basic determinant of the structure and function of all ecosystems and provides the foundation on which the future well-being of human society rests. Research must be expanded and strengthened to improve our understanding of biodiversity, its conservation, and its role in building sustainable human societies.

Many of the nations that are home to the highest concentrations of biological diversity are also crippled by persistent poverty and high rates of population growth, which work against conservation in two ways: (1) by increasing the pressure for inappropriate and harmful land use, and (2) by limiting the ability of individuals and governments to take the steps necessary to halt the degradation of ecosystems and the loss of diversity. International development agencies can and must play a special role in overcoming these obstacles. They are often the most significant sources of funding for human resource development and exert important influence on national and regional policies, economic incentives, and resource use practices that affect the status of biodiversity. Support for research on biodiversity is therefore a critical responsibility of development agencies as they assist client countries in improving the management of their economies and their natural resources.

We need to understand a great deal more about what, why, and how to conserve, and the need is urgent. Although this report focuses on that need, it is also premised on the conviction that research should not serve as a substitute for immediate action to stem the loss of genetic, species, and ecosystem diversity. Rather, research must serve to inform, supplement, and improve these efforts.