October 6, 2010
President, Japan International Cooperation Agency
When Cyclone Nargis struck Myanmar in 2008 it quickly developed into the worst natural disaster in that country's history. At least 140,000 persons were killed, millions were displaced and material damage ran into billions of dollars.
A contributing cause to the high casualty rate was that Myanmar's once extensive mangrove forests had been steadily destroyed, leaving the country, its people, flora and fauna more vulnerable than in the past to Nargis' devastating 130 mph winds and 12 foot high waves.
A minor casualty of the cyclone was a two-year project undertaken by my organization, the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA), in the Ayeyarwady Delta to try to preserve and revive that dwindling forest cover.
Ironically, the tragedy of Nargis and the destruction of the mangrove program only served to underline both the absolute centrality and importance of biodiversity in everyday life and the increasing inter-connectedness of all of our activities.
It was a lesson I learned close-up as the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in the 1990s, being responsible for the safety of millions of displaced persons worldwide.
Some of those crises began as a scramble for dwindling natural resources such as water, trees and plants. Situations could develop quickly into a vicious cycle, the very ingredients of the world's worst current humanitarian crisis in Darfur and Chad.
As people flee, not only their homes but also nature itself is often destroyed. When huge camps were then established in, say Zaire in the early 1990s, refugees were often forced to destroy nearby forests to survive. If and when they returned home they unwittingly left behind them huge areas of desolation and returned to an area equally devastated by earlier conflict.
In such circumstances ongoing poverty turned out to be the winner and some of the world's most vulnerable people and their natural habitat losers.
As Japan's official assistance agency, JICA's core mandate is to provide assistance to developing countries by helping to eradicate poverty and improve overall daily quality of life. A vibrant biodiversity is a key factor in this process.
It has become increasingly clear that while some local communities or refugee movements may be responsible for local forest destruction or a clash with wildlife, they are more often overall victims of larger forces beyond their control—the destruction of biodiversity for industrial farming, political and military instability, climate change.
Thus, though they are least responsible for those global mega-trends they are often the major victims, unable to effectively protect their traditional way of life and the least able to resist or reverse these malign trends.
JICA's evolving activities reflect the above realities. In recent years we have devoted more personnel, financial and technical resources to biodiversity conservation, environmental and climate change projects.
However, one situation in Malaysia underscores the complexity of the problem. It is the world's second largest producer of palm oil but that economic success came with a major price tag – the destruction of part of the rain forest in the country's Borneo region.
Rain forests like those in Borneo and even more so, in the Amazon river basin, are home to more than one half of all the world's flora and fauna. The forests also absorb vast amounts of carbon dioxide and in the case of the Amazon, produce 20% of the world's oxygen which is key to the planet's very survival.
We recently began an exciting four-year project with Brazilian partners to map exactly how this system works, information which will be vital in preventing further biodiversity loss and positively influencing the lives of not only endangered indigenous peoples but populations across the globe.
The Myanmar mangrove project has been revived, one small step in helping particularly poverty-stricken communities to eventually recover. There are similar mangrove programs as far apart as Indonesia and Mexico and related projects to protect the world's dwindling coral reefs---systems on which hundreds of thousands of people depend for their survival.
For JICA the key to our activities is to strike a balance between a community's legitimate needs, at the same time preserving the very diversity of the world which will ensure those people the brighter future they want.
In welcoming a new strategy for biodiversity at the coming meeting of the Conference of Parties in Nagoya-Japan in October, I hope that the future global conservation efforts continue to focus on human welfare, and look forward to sharing and discussing with our partners the JICA's efforts to achieve harmony between human activities and biodiversity conservation in the countries we assist. Human progress and biodiversity should be mutually supportive, not destructive.