Biodiversity and sustainable living


by M.U.A.Tennakoon PhD, DSc.

The planet earth is comprised of a wide range of physical components and a myriad of living beings. The major physical components include: light, air, land, water, vegetation and the living beings including humans, land animals, those living in water, amphibians, reptiles, invertebrates and those in forms of micro-organisms.

Each main physical component has many sub-components. For instance, land has many land forms according to one’s perception as mountainous, rugged, sloping, undulating or flat land. The land is also differently identified in terms of soil composition such as clayey, sandy, alluvial, coarse-grained or rocky. In terms of location it is called coastal, riparian or mountainous. Based on moisture retention capability some prefer to differentiate dry soils from wet soils.

Take water as another example. Its sub-components too are many such as cold water (currents), alkaline water, hard water, soft water, polluted water, fresh water, surface water and ground water. Similarly, the plant sub-categories on the earth’s surface and in all forms of water bodies are also vast and varied. In climatic terms, there are the tundra, temperate, sub- temperate, tropical, sub-tropical, dry deciduous, thorny, grassy, desert, marshy and riparian plants an d sea and fresh water weeds. Air too can be categorized differently as hot, cold, surface, clean, polluted and atmospheric air.

Categorization of living beings is a far more formidable and mid-boggling task than sub-categorization of the physical components of the earth. Just take a single segment of living beings, the humans. Humans themselves categorize people living on earth to a plethora of sub- and sub-sub categories in an unthinkable array of perceptions. From a regional or country perspective largely based on race or colour of the skin people in the world are sub-categorized as whites, blacks or yellow stock races. From a country perspective in particular, the people are differentiated as Australians, Americans, Nigerians, Russians, Cubans, Italians, Malaysians, Sri Lankans etc., The people even living in a single country are further subdivided in terms of religion – Buddhists, Christians, Hindus, Muslims or Animists – each further split in to sects. Needless to say that there are even tribal or caste based human splinter groups. The categorization of other living beings can be infinitely vast. Some are so microscopic that they are not visible to the naked eye.

The natural composition of any sub-component or the interaction of any two sub-components referred to earlier, say in land alone, or amidst an interaction of land and water sub-components give both positive and negative outcomes. When water is spread over a dry and thirsty land, its soil moisture increases well supporting plant growth which is certainly a desired outcome. Another positive outcome of the state of clayey soil on land is that it being able to retain moisture for a considerable period of time facilitating the uninterrupted growth of particular species of plants in that soil. A compaction of clay is that it becomes impervious and water-logged killing plants which prefer well-drained soils for its healthy growth. Fine silt carried down from land in running water in solution and suspension and even in dragging in water gets accumulated in reservoirs and thereby reduce the water storage capacity in those reservoirs. This too is a negative effect arising from land erosion, but on the other hand that silt in running water carries nutrients with it that positively favours the superlative growth of some water plants – lilies, lotus and a multitude of aquatic plants and weeds.

For easy exposition, thus far we were dealing with positive and negative consequences of changes resulting within a single physical component or from the interaction of two physical components. When more than two sub-components are involved, relationships, both positive and negative, become complex and even in some situations they become hard to track and decipher. Take the case of plants. Their survival depends on many complex interactions of air, sunlight, water, land and many other eternally changing physical sub-components. Plants breath air. When they are healthy they sequestrate carbon. That is a positive function. But when plants grow into massive trees, die, fall on the ground and with wood rot emit large quantities of carbon dioxide, a negative process which is detrimental to the wellbeing of both plant and animal kingdoms.

Strong gale winds devastate forest and garden trees. Strong wave currents generate in the ocean waters due to geodetic imbalances in the earth’s base plates, large masses of water invade land as tsunami destroying coastal lands and the costal vegetation. Landslides in steep slopes block the water paths and even change the stream courses. Wind causes land erosion and it creates new land forms or change the existing land forms in the desert margins by piling on new sand dunes or eroding the existing sand dunes. Free flowing strong dry winds over the surface water bodies accelerate evaporation. Tree girdles (gasgommanas) around surface water bodies ( lakes natural or man-made) mitigate the effects of devastating evaporation and even slow down the wind velocities

When forests are denuded: rain aided by strong winds; sere force of lashing rain drops on the surface of the earth; and loose surface soil texture help the erosion of naked or semi-naked earth surface first as sheet erosion, which then leads to gully erosion. It has been already shown briefly how the interaction of water on land affects plant growth both positively and negatively.

Warm oceanic air is moving as currents, they warm some parts of cold air in the ocean. Warm air currents drifting across the Atlantic Ocean from the south-west of that ocean and moving in the north and north-easterly directions keep the North-western European costal belt warm. In the higher latitudes of the globe, where durations of diurnal sun light are short and the temperatures are low, water freezes forming cold deserts. Conversely, in the mid latitudes where the rainfall is scanty and temperature is high plant growth is severely constrained forming complexity of the outcomes of the interactions among and between the physical components, the greater the complexity of interactions of all non-living things and their outcomes.

The complexity tend to go further complicated when living beings are associated with each other species and their interactions with the physical sub-components. At this point, it is considered pertinent to separate humans from other beings because we need to place the humans at the center of our discourse of the complex relationships of physical components and other living beings. In that differentiation let us see what positive and negative relationships are there between the humans and other living beings. Take the case of human-cattle relationship. One of the positive relationships between these two types of beings is that cattle provide food (meat and milk) and hides to the humans. In under-developed and developing countries oxen still serves as people’s beasts of burden. In some other situations cattle devastates the crops grown by the humans by feeding on them, which is a negative relationship between humans and animals.

There are other animal-animal relationships as well. Some living beings need other living beings for their very survival. Parasitic ticks and some other species of blood-sucking flies survive on blood sucked from the bodies of other living beings such as sheep, cattle and dogs. There are living species who fore-warn others about impending dangers to their lives. Some birds and even monkeys forewarn deer and other innocent and helpless animals on ground to escape attacks from carnivorous animals such as leopards getting ready to charge an animal to prey on it. This goes on even in the air (flying birds catching airborne insects and flies), on land, in water and in plants. In most of those separate entities there are interactions serving different purposes. These interactions are inseparably inter-twined in a single cell, that is, in the planet earth as shown in the diagram bellow. A clear understanding of them is necessary before we set out ourselves to design sustainable bio-diversity improvement and protection projects for the eventual well- being of the human race on this planet of ours.

Each relationship has several sub-relationships relationships

1. Water – People

2. Land – People

3. Land – Air

4. Plant – Air

5. Animals – Plants

6. Water – Animals

7. Water – Land

8. Land – Plants

9. Plants – Water

10. Animals – People

11. People – Plants

12. People – Air

13. Air – Animals

14. Animals – Land

15. Air – Water

Human population in the planet earth has dramatically increased in the recent past. In the twentieth century it doubled twice to 7 billion. That population explosion is supposed to be under better control according to some demographers. However, it is likely that another 2 billion will be added to that 7 billion making a total of 9 billion by the middle of the twenty-first century.

. Population growth is geometrically exponential while food production increase is arithmetical. So the food crisis is ever looming large with varying magnitudes. Nevertheless, it is argued that there is enough in the world to meet the needs of the people but not to satisfy their greed. This argument has to be put in to question when we see the uncontrolled exploitation of nature’s resources. In a free market economy, where people are tempted by all too luring advertisements and growing affluence of many, we see no end of the human greed that is increasing ever and ever exponentially. This is particularly so in the developed and fast developing countries in the world and among those particularly within those in the higher income brackets. This limitless craving is continuously fueled by the developed countries in particular. For political power and market supremacy these developed countries are relentlessly luring the developing countries to increase the wants and consume them more and more so that the developed countries produce the wants for the expanding markets in the developing countries, where, even though the per capita purchasing power is low there are teaming millions of people, when put together form formidable market opportunities. Thus the developed nations are the fore-runners of a "no limit" purchasing mind-set in the world.

All the 15 direct relationships shown in the Figure here, can be formed into compound groups with each sub- component (people, water, land air, plants and living beings other than the humans) placing each as a cardinal component and lumping all other components as associated/linked components as follows.

At this stage it is deemed necessary to remind that each of the above six components are further sub-divisible into many sub-components as explained earlier. With that increase in multiplicity of sub components and their intricate relationships, we have to be extremely careful to not to get lost in unnecessary details or miss the most pertinent relationships, in all our development efforts.

Biodiversity in the strict sense of the term means plants’ and living beings’ relationships. Their relationships cannot be understood without reference to land, water, air and even sun’s light (energy). They all affect plants and living beings on land, in water or in both like the amphibians. The mistake that the persons designing sustainable biodiversity enrichment projects or the agricultural development projects with so called safeguards to biodiversity is that they being perhaps inadvertently over conscious about the easily avoidable threats from plants and animals forgetting that they are often essential at one stage or other, for healthy and safe human existence on this earth. The humans also tend to care the least for the inseparable relationships between these two components – plants and animals – have with the other components (land, water, air) individually or collectively which exerts a profound influence on human existence. Therefore, the development project designers are required to have an appropriate concern and due reference to land, water, and air while properly dealing with the two main interconnected components --plants and living beings.

With that proviso in mind, let us now consider the separate and mutual relationships that the plant world and the animal kingdoms having at present or how they should be made to prevail in future, with necessary dependence on them on land and water in particular, to increase their positive gains avoiding their negative consequences injurious to the mankind .A good part of the resources to propel the human greed that we referred to earlier which is being ever fueled and fanned, comes from the plant world and from the living beings on land and in agricultural works and in wasteful use of water. They are being over-exploited alarmingly. Some living beings are already extinct and some are endangered. Valuable timber trees in forests around the world have been butchered and hacked by the merciless wood-cutters though those trees provide shade to the very same butchers until the hacked trees fall on to the ground to whither! It is no secret that there are cartels of illicit timber wheeler-dealers operating nationally and internationally. The rate of felling trees has already far exceeded the rate of tree growth and forest expansion. Due to these processes not only some of the plant species are in danger but many living beings as well as the planet’s major physical components and their sub-components, either individually or collectively leading to many negative consequences briefly mentioned earlier.

It is the duty of the biodiversity project formulators to identify these on-going damages and suggest clear remedial actions in their project domains. At the same time, they should recommend in their proposals clearly the remedial actions – reforestation, afforestation and setting up of forest management strategies curtailing wanton destructions to plant and living beings associated with forest.

Similar protection measures are necessary in respect of the living beings in association with plants and land for their food. These living beings have been excessively killed to meet the human needs directly. They are killed in the nasty processes of land development. A glaring but an ignored example is the destructions caused to trillions of earth warms in farmlands. These creatures help the farmers in aeration of the surface and sub-surface soils, bit they are destroyed by the farmers by applying excessive doses of chemical fertilizers to the soil. The residues of chemical fertilizer used in farms also washes down to the streams and reservoirs which too have already threatened the very existence of fishes, some already extinct and others endangered, which is again a denial of food to some living beings including people, birds, some land animals and amphibians as well.

The loss of vegetation has been universally accepted as a cause of climate change. The use of wood fuel, occurrence of natural forest fires and purposeful forest firings of all forms – for game and slash and burn agriculture in particular, emit so much carbon dioxide to the atmosphere that the rainfall patterns and their vagaries , droughts and global warming – all have increased. Carbon emission by ever increasing fleets of vehicles and machines is another curse to biodiversity that we urgently need to protect.

Melting of polar ice caps due to global warming is causing rise in sea level which is likely to inundate low lying coastal areas and submerge the low-lying coral island chains like those in The Maldives. Both big and small countries are subjected to change their shoreline contours.

In a short period that is from 2002 to 2012, the average surface temperature in Sri Lanka’s dry zone has increased by 0.9 degrees centigrade and it is likely to keep on increasing. In August 2016 the diurnal temperature in Jaffna, Mannar and Vavunya rose to 42 degrees centigrade the critical limit that the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) do not want many countries to surpass. The number of rainy days in a year is progressively decreasing and conversely the number of rainless days in a year is increasing. Spot rains have increased over the years and the force of rain drops falling have increased causing erosion of the loose thin veneer of surface soil as well as compacting the next remaining sub-soil layer. So the messages of these symptoms are clear. All large and small countries notably in the tropical countries are in for an impending disaster of a global climatic change

It is true that the biggest culprits are the developed countries which have been releasing so much of carbon to the atmosphere via their industrial activities expanded since the Industrial Revolution both located in their own countries and the multi-national industrial activities located in overseas developing countries damaging the ozone layer of gas over the Antarctic continent. Whatever the sins caused by the developed countries, let all of us, both in developed and developing countries rally round to slow down this ongoing climate change to make our planet a happier place at least for the future generations, if not for us.

The developing nations during the last two or three decades have been dragging their feet like children unwilling to school and did very little to combat climate change earlier. Two of the industrial giants in the world, United States and Australia have even refused, under various pretexts, to sign the Kyoto protocol well designed to arrest global climate change. At least since the Paris conference on climate change held in December 2015 there seems to be a serious effort being made by the developed countries to curb the climate change that is currently on the move.

All heads of states interested in arresting the on-going climate change should get their governments to read and adhere to the numerous UN conventions held to formulate strategies to check the climate change. There are the big things that the rich and powerful nations can do and should do. At the same time, there are many things that the small countries like Sri Lanka can do too. One thing is the sustainable biodiversity enrichment particularly through the protection of our vegetation cover discussed earlier. Just imagine when Japan has 75 per cent of her land under forest Sri Lanka has a dangerously low extent of 20 per cent of her land in forest! It is high time that we begin to think revolutionarily about new indices of economic development such as per capita tree density in the country.

By increasing and protecting our vegetation cover we certainly have at least some conducive micro-climate changes around us but more importantly we can successfully increase our carbon sequestration efficiency contributing our share to the universal effort to arrest climate change. Remember that every well grown middle aged tree can sequestrate 50 pounds (22.5 kg) of carbon without letting it to go to the atmosphere by felling and burning it! The plea here is to launch a sustainable biodiversity enrichment clearly identifying only what can be done and doing it without getting lost in the unclear verbose discourses about biodiversity. It is far better to do and show how a thing can be done than jabbering about what should be done.


animated gif
Processing Request
Please Wait...