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The Importance and Value of Biological Diversity

The United Nations proclaimed the 22nd of May The International Day for Biological Diversity (IDB) to increase understanding and awareness of biodiversity issues and has been celebrated on this day since 2001.

noun: biodiversity; noun: bio-diversity
1. the variety of plant and animal life in the world or in a particular habitat, a high level of which is usually considered to be important and desirable.

The cycle of life relies directly on existing biodiversity and resulting ecosystem services that support and regulate natural cycles and atmospheric conditions. Biodiversity provides ecological infrastructure which refers to naturally functioning ecosystems that deliver valuable services to people and support the economy by providing essential services and reducing risk. Diverse ecosystems may deliver the means to sustainably meet current economic and social needs. Ecological infrastructure is therefore the asset, or stock, from which a range of valuable services flow (SANBI, 2014).


SEF has a skilled team of biodiversity specialists that offer clients sound advice and guidance towards solutions centred on the sustainable management of biodiversity including ecological assessments (fauna and flora), wetland assessments and aquatic ecosystems management. (Refer to Specialist Services for more information)


The Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) is a global agreement (presently 193 parties) established in 1992 that addresses biodiversity. It was inspired by the world community’s growing commitment to sustainable development and was established with three main objectives:

  1. the conservation of biodiversity;
  2. the sustainable use of its components; and
  3. fair and equitable sharing of benefits arising out of the utilisation of genetic resources.

A newly revised and updated Strategic Plan for Biodiversity, including the Aichi Biodiversity Targets, for the 2011-2020 period was a decision made at the 10th Conference of the Parties (COP) held in Aichi, Japan, 2010. This plan provides an overarching framework on biodiversity for all parties involved in biodiversity management and policy development. Parties at COP 10 agreed to translate this overarching international framework into revised and updated national biodiversity strategies and action plans within two years. The vision for the Strategic Plan for Biodiversity 2011-2020 is that by 2050, biodiversity is valued, conserved, restored and wisely used, maintaining ecosystem services, sustaining a healthy planet and delivering benefits essential for all people. The Aichi Biodiversity Targets are incorporated within the following strategic goals set out at the conference:

Goal A: Address the underlying causes of biodiversity loss by mainstreaming biodiversity across government and society;

Goal B: Reduce the direct pressures on biodiversity and promote sustainable use;

Goal C: To improve the status of biodiversity by safeguarding ecosystems, species and genetic diversity;

Goal D: Enhance the benefits to all from biodiversity and ecosystem services; and

Goal E: Enhance implementation through participatory planning, knowledge management and capacity building.

Human development impacts on available ecosystem goods and services and is rapidly changing and in many cases deteriorating the state of our ecosystems. Ecosystem goods and services can be separated into four categories, provisioning services (material products such as food, fresh water, fuel wood, fibre, biochemical and genetic resources), regulating services (climate regulation, disease regulation, water regulation, water purification, pollination), supporting services (soil formation, nutrient cycling, biodiversity, primary production), and cultural services (non-material benefits such as spiritual and religious experience, recreation and ecotourism, aesthetic, inspirational, educational, sense of place and cultural heritage) (Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, 2005).

The benefits provided by ecosystem services cannot be separated from each other, they are usually complementary and inter-linked and it is essential to look at them holistically. A negative impact on one ecosystem service can result in a ripple effect of negative impacts on the availability of other services. For example, the sustainable management of forests will reduce the risk of erosion, increase the availability of water, reduce the impact of floods, and secure access to medicinal plants while providing hunting grounds for local and indigenous communities. The loss of one benefit will often mean the loss of many others provided by the same ecosystem (SCBD, 2010).

While the monetary benefits of ecosystems are being researched, studies show that goods and services provided by biodiversity have significant economic value. The value of biodiversity-dependent goods and services is difficult to quantify and may depend on the interests of the stakeholder. Ecosystem services may be worth trillions of dollars annually, but most of these services are not traded in markets and carry no price tags to alert society to changes in their supply, or even their loss (Costanza et al., 1997). Access to biodiversity-derived goods and the sustainable use of such goods is provided at low cost to society. An estimated 40% of the global economy is directly based on biological products and processes, and the goods provided by biodiversity represent an important part of many national economies (SCBD, 2014). Ecosystems provide both tangible (mostly provisioning) and non-tangible (supporting, regulating and cultural) resources to carry industrial processes and development activities. On the other hand, when poorly implemented these activities can generate negative impacts resulting in accelerated depletion of ecosystem goods and services and ultimately higher production costs.

Accordingly, the impacts of activities directly dependent on natural resources (e.g. timber harvesting, fisheries, agriculture and mining) need to be assessed in terms of disturbance from both a local and regional perspective, while the requirements of these activities (e.g. raw material, water, fertile soils) need to be assessed based on the type of ecosystem services, their availability, interdependencies and whenever possible their tangible and non-tangible economic value.

The South African National Biodiversity Institute (SANBI) recently published a Framework for Investing in Ecological Infrastructure in South Africa, a collaboration of numerous stakeholders, including SANBI, municipalities and national government. The framework was developed through experience gained from projects, programmes and research related to maintaining and restoring ecosystems for the provision of ecosystem services which also support socio-economic development in South Africa. Biodiversity provides ecological infrastructure which is nature’s equivalent of built or hard infrastructure, and is as important for providing services either directly (such as a coastal dune protecting a road from sea surge), or as part of a broader system that includes built infrastructure (such as a natural catchment functioning with a dam and pipes to provide water to a nearby settlement).

Investing in ecological infrastructure supports national development objectives of poverty alleviation, rural development and job creation, and should be integrated into government planning and expenditure. The private sector also has a significant role to play in investing in ecological infrastructure both as an investor, and as a landowner. The Framework (SANBI, 2014) outlines a number of motivations for private sector investment in ecological infrastructure:

  • Risk management: Investing in ecological infrastructure may serve as a direct investment in risk reduction for a business, e.g. reducing exposure to flood risk;
  • Production or materials: In some cases the importance of ecosystem services that are critical in their supply chain or the production of their products, such as clean, readily available water, may be recognised;
  • Stable society and economy: Investing in ecological infrastructure is also an investment in a more stable society, through helping to address poverty and socio-economic inequalities which is the premise on which much corporate social investment is built;
  • As a licence to operate and as a custodian of ecological infrastructure: Investing in ecological infrastructure may be required as a licence to operate. This could take the form of an offset, or another condition to undertake a development opportunity such as mitigation measures, and rehabilitation commitments post closure (largely applicable in the mining sector). These types of investments from the private sector would rely on some form of regulation, either self-regulation within the sector, or government imposed regulation.

In summary, a systematic planning approach can enhance the understanding of how development sectors benefit from ecosystem goods and services, what policies and incentive measures can be reinforcing, and what activities incur the risk of being damaging or unsustainable (SCBD, 2010). However awareness of the role played by ecosystems is the key to the process of integrating ecosystem goods and services within development policies. The awareness of ecosystem goods and services should motivate stakeholders to maintain or to turn towards greener initiatives without fear of losing economic advantages or access rights.


References and Further Reading

Convention on Biodiversity website (2014): http://www.cbd.int/idb/2014/

Costanza, R., d’Arge, R., de Groot, R., Faber, S., Grasso, M., Hannon, B., Naeem, S., Limburg, K., Paruelo, J., O’Neill, R.V., Raskin, R, Sutton, P. & van den Belt, M. (1997): The value of the world’s ecosystem services and natural capital, Nature 387:253-260.

Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (2005): Millennium Ecosystem Assessment: General Synthesis Report, Washington D.C.: Island Press.

SANBI (2014): A Framework for investing in ecological infrastructure in South Africa, Pretoria: South African National Biodiversity Institute.

SCBD (2010): Ecosystem Goods and Services in Development Planning: A Good Practice Guide, Montreal: The Secretariat of the Convention on Biological Diversity.

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