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New report reveals widespread
decline in world’s ecosystems

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Summary Online in HTML and PDF formats.

WASHINGTON, DC, April 17, 2000 -- Summary findings of a new report reveal a widespread decline in the condition of the world’s ecosystems due to increasing resource demands and warn that if the decline continues it could have devastating implications for human development and the welfare of all species.

"Many signs point to the declining capacity of ecosystems," says the Guide to the World Resources 2000-2001: People and Ecosystems: The Fraying Web of Life. The full report, to be released in September, is published by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), the UN Environment Programme (UNEP), the World Bank and the World Resources Institute (WRI). Over 175 scientists contributed to the report, which took more than two years to produce.

Ecosystems are communities of interacting organisms and the physical environment in which they live; they are the biological engines of the planet. At the heart of the report is the first-of-its-kind Pilot Analysis of Global Ecosystems (PAGE). The report examines coastal, forest, grassland, freshwater and agricultural ecosystems.

It analyzes their health on the basis of their ability to produce the goods and services that the world currently relies on. These include production of food, provision of pure and sufficient water, storage of atmospheric carbon, maintenance of biodiversity and provision of recreation and tourism opportunities.

The scorecards that accompany the World Resources 2000-2001 describe most of the ecosystems in fair, but declining conditions. The statistics it contains are staggering:

  • Half of the world’s wetlands were lost last century.
  • Logging and conversion have shrunk the world’s forests by as much as half.
  • Some 9 percent of the world’s tree species are at risk of extinction; tropical deforestation may exceed 130,000 square kilometers per year.
  • Fishing fleets are 40 percent larger than the ocean can sustain.
  • Nearly 70 percent of the world’s major marine fish stocks are overfished or are being fished at their biological limit.
  • Soil degradation has affected two-thirds of the world’s agricultural lands in the last 50 years.
  • Some 30 percent of the world’s original forests have been converted to agriculture.
  • Since 1980, the global economy has tripled in size and population has grown by 30 percent to 6 billion people.
  • Dams, diversions or canals fragment almost 60 percent of the world’s largest rivers.
  • Twenty percent of the world’s freshwater fish are extinct, threatened or endangered.
"For too long in both rich and poor nations, development priorities have focused on how much humanity can take from our ecosystems, with little attention to the impact of our actions, " said Mark Malloch Brown, UNDP administrator. "With this report, we reconfirm our commitment to making the viability of the world’s ecosystems a critical development priority for the 21st century."

However, World Resources 2000-2001 warns that halting the decline of the planet’s life-support systems may be the most difficult challenge humanity has ever faced.

"Our knowledge of ecosystems has increased dramatically, but it has simply not kept pace with our ability to alter them," said Klaus Töpfer, UNEP executive director. "We can continue blindly altering Earth’s ecosystems, or we can learn to use them more sustainably."

World Resources 2000-2001 recommends that governments and people must view the sustainability of ecosystems as essential to human life. It calls for an ecosystems approach to managing the world’s critical resources, which means evaluating decisions on land and resource use in light of how they affect the capacity of ecosystems to produce goods and services.

"Governments and businesses must rethink some basic assumptions about how we measure and plan economic growth," said James D. Wolfensohn, World Bank president. "The poor, who often depend directly on ecosystems for their livelihoods, suffer most when ecosystems are degraded."

According to World Resources 2000-2001, one of the most important conclusions of PAGE is that there is a lack of much of the baseline knowledge that is needed to properly determine ecosystems conditions on a global, regional or even local scale.

"The dimensions of this information gap are large and growing, rather than shrinking as we would expect in this age of satellite imaging and the Internet," said Jonathan Lash, WRI president. "If we are to make sound ecosystem management decisions in the 21st century, dramatic changes are needed in the way we use the knowledge and experience at hand and the range of additional information we need."

The PAGE report has provided the impetus for the Millennium Ecosystems Assessment - a plan put forward by governments, UN agencies, and leading scientific organizations to allow an on-going monitoring and evaluation of the health of the world’s ecosystems.

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