United Nations goals to halve poverty and hunger by 2015 will not be met, and hunger and malnutrition will remain problem even in 2050 unless governments pay greater attention to what nature does for humanity, says a UN report published on 30 March.

The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (launched on 30 March 2005 in London, Tokyo, Beijing, Delhi, Cairo, Nairobi, Washington and Brasilia) was prepared over the past four years by 1300 scientists from 95 countries. This scientific assessment of the impact that changes to ecosystems will have on human well-being is a joint project of a range of UN and international scientific agencies and NGOs.


Friends of the Earth International welcomes the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment’s recognition of environmental limits – the constraints nature places on what we can take out or put into the environment.

“We would have liked to see greater recognition of the disparities in consumption between countries. Northern countries have consumed more than their fair share of the world’s resources. They bear the greatest responsibility for the pressure that ecosystems are now under,” said Friends of the Earth International Chair Meena Raman in Malaysia.

For comments contact:
Friends of the Earth International Chair Meena Raman (in Malaysia)
mobile +60-12-4300042; office direct line +60-4-8295612;
email: meenaco@pd.jaring.my

The four main findings of the synthesis report are:

I. Humans have changed ecosystems more rapidly and extensively over the last 50 years than in any comparable period of time in history:

More land has been converted to cropland since 1945 than during the whole of the 18th and 19th centuries combined;
One quarter of the world’s coral reefs and about 35 per cent of the mangroves, in countries surveyed, were destroyed or badly degraded in the last decades of the 20th century;
The amount of water impounded behind dams has quadrupled since 1960, and three to six times more water is held in reservoirs than is in rivers;
More than half of all the synthetic nitrogen fertilizer ever used has been used since 1985;
The atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide has increased by almost a third since 1750. 60 per cent of that increase has happened since 1959.
The population size or range of the majority of species in many groups of animals and plants is decreasing and the number of species on the planet is falling.

II. The changes made have contributed to substantial gains in well-being for some people but are unsustainable and have left many in poverty:

Between 1960 and 2000, the world population doubled, food production increased by two and a half times, water use doubled, wood pulp and paper harvests tripled, hydropower doubled and timber production rose by more than a half;
15 out of 24 ecosystem services assessed in the study are being degraded or used unsustainably – e.g. at least a quarter of commercially important fish stocks are over harvested and 15-35% of irrigation withdrawals could exceed replenishment rates;
Actions to increase one ecosystem service often cause the degradation of another – e.g. increased fertilizer use pollutes water supplies;
The degradation of ecosystem services often causes significant harm to human well-being – e.g. the collapse of the Newfoundland cod fishery has cost at least $2 billion in income support and retraining
Pressures on ecosystems may be increasing the chance of sudden changes which could harm human well-being – examples include new diseases, coastal dead zones, collapsing fisheries, invasive species and regional climate change;
Despite increased use of ecosystems, levels of poverty remain high, inequalities are growing – over one billion people survive on less than $1 a day, 856 million are under-nourished and 1-2 billion are affected by water scarcity;
The degradation of ecosystem services is harming many of the world’s poorest people and is sometimes the principal factor causing poverty – 1.8 million people die annually due to inadequate hygiene, sanitation or water supply;
Wealthy countries cannot insulate themselves from ecosystem degradation.

III. The degradation of ecosystems could grow significantly worse over the next fifty years and is a barrier to achieving the Millennium Development Goals. The Assessment considered four different scenarios for global development over the next fifty years. In all four, the pressures on ecosystems continued to grow and biodiversity continues to be lost:

A further 10-20 per cent of grassland and forestland is forecast to be converted to agriculture;
Fish harvests are expected to increasingly focus on less valuable, ‘lower trophic level’ species (e.g. smaller fish, shellfish, jellyfish etc);
The flow of nitrogen through coastal ecosystems is likely to rise by 10-20 per cent;
10-15 per cent of plant species may go extinct by 2050;
Climate change may be the dominant driver of biodiversity loss and changes to ecosystem services by 2100;
The Millennium Development Goal to halve hunger between 1990 and 2015 is not achieved and hunger and child malnutrition remain problems even in 2050;
Ecosystem degradation will also be a barrier to the achievement of Millennium Development Goals on poverty eradication, health and environmental protection.

IV. We can reverse the degradation of ecosystems and meet increasing demands for ecosystem services, but only by changing the way we manage our economies. Three of the four scenarios analysed showed that significant changes in policy can reduce many of the bad effects of rising pressures on ecosystems, although the changes required are large and not happening. Significant investments in environmentally sound technology, adaptive management, preventative action, investments in education and infrastructure and the reduction of poverty and inequality are all needed. Interventions include:

Better governance: the integration of ecosystem management in decision-making and in development planning; better coordination within environmental policy and between environmental, economic and social policy; greater transparency and accountability of government and the private-sector, including more involvement of concerned stakeholders.
Financial carrots and sticks: ending subsidies which encourage excessive use of ecosystems; taxes and market-based approaches, including payments, to manage pressure on ecosystems;
Changes in behaviour: changes in consumption, education, empowerment of directly affected communities, including women, indigenous people and young people;
New technology: cleverer farming, ecosystem restoration
Wider intelligence-gathering: building non-market values into resource management decisions and using traditional and practictioners’ knowledge.

The Assessment recognises that our limited understanding of ecological and human processes means that any forecast is uncertain, but praises active adaptive management of ecosystem services as a way of ensuring benefits to humanity are maintained. This implies that governments must intervene in the economy to ensure ecosystems are managed sustainably.
How will it be launched and followed up?

The Assessment’s outputs will be released from 30 March, 2005. The partner institutions are organising press conferences in London, Tokyo, Beijing, Delhi, Cairo, Nairobi, Washington and Brasilia. They will distribute the reports widely once they are printed.

The detailed schedule is as follows:

30th March – “Millennium Ecosystem Synthesis Report” and a statement from the MA Board, “Living Beyond Our Means: Natural Assets and Human Well-being.”

19th May – The “MA Biodiversity Synthesis Report” will be released from Montreal.

10th June – The “MA Business and Industry Synthesis Report” will be released from Tokyo.

17th June – The “MA Desertification Synthesis Report” will be released from Bonn.

There are also plans for seminars around the world on 5 June (World Environment Day) and subsequent outreach.

How is it likely to be used?

The Assessment aims to provide policy-relevant information to support the work of the Convention on Biological Diversity, the Convention to combat Desertification and the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands. It has also produced a methodology for producing similar assessments at local and regional levels (and over 30 local assessments are being produced in places as diverse as Canada, Colombia, Papua New Guinea, Chile and South Africa).
What about local/traditional knowledge?

As part of the Assessment, the organisers held a conference on “Linking Local Knowledge and Global Science in Multi-Scale Assessments”. This aimed to foster dialogue among academics and indigenous peoples on how to integrate information and insights from individuals who possess different “ways of knowing the world”. The Assessment says that “effective management of ecosystems typically requires “place-based” knowledge – that is, information about the specific characteristics and history of an ecosystem. Traditional knowledge or practitioners’ knowledge held by local resource managers can often be of considerable value in resource management but is too rarely incorporated into decision-making processes and indeed is often inappropriately dismissed.”
Where can I learn more?

The official website contains lots of information: www.millenniumassessment.org