Getting a grip on a mysterious species; Biodiversity #1

So… I am just reading this article ‘The Invention of Biodiversity: Social Perspectives on the Management of Biological Variety in Africa, by Jane Guyer and Paul Richards’ which turns out to be an introduction to a number of others. You have to appreciate that understanding has moved on since 1996 (when this text was published, nonetheless the points still stand and usually ignored) I am going to break it down into a number of posts of quotes, each with a slightly different point:

A Theory: The conventional argument on biodiversity tends to play out as follows. Pristine environments are naturally rich in biodiversity, and unknown biodiversity tends to a maximum in such localities. Unknown biodiversity is potentially valuable. Applying the precautionary principle (restrain human agency where intervention is not demonstrably safe), these natural environments of exceptional potential richness in biodiversity should be protected from further human interference at least until fully assayed.’

A Result: In practical terms, this leads to sets of strict policy prescriptions to exclude humans from protected areas and to strengthen the capacity of state elites to enforce those exclusions. …. if an area has long been fully incorporated into the human sphere one of the first results of human exclusion may be environmental degradation, threatening a reduction in levels of known biodiversity. A further implication is that strengthening the hand of central government in the name of bio-security may be distinctly anti-democratic in impact, and foster the seeds of future dissent in local political communities.’

A Question: ‘Is it better to enhance the maintenance of known levels of biodiversity, through encouraging the best established local practices, or to bank on the unknown through rigorous exclusionary tactics?’

So… ‘Much depends on how the unknown portion -the iceberg- of biodiversity is regarded [as will be explained in coming posts biodiversity conservation is premised on acting on what is not known].’

One way to answer:  ‘One powerful practical argument for strict protection is the idea that rare and unknown plants and insects, especially in the more remote tropical forest reaches, are important sources of natural molecules with potential applications as medicines. Technologists will one day be able to synthesise most of these molecules, but building them from scratch is altogether a more mind-stretching exercise. Studying a natural toxin in a forest insect, and how it has evolved, is seen therefore as a major potential prop to the human technological imagination.’

One way to reply: ‘A contrary argument suggests that many parallel life forms may have evolved within the especially favourable tropical rain-forest environment, and that keeping all these forms afloat may one day prove to have been an expensive and politically harmful exercise in redundancy at the expense of concentrating on what is already known and cherished.’