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UN biodiversity conference offers a chance to manage pressing ecological destruction

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Delegates from around the world are expected to gather in Montreal, Canada, this week to try to slow a decline in biodiversity. Scientists say a million living species are threatened, and many could go extinct within decades. So diplomats and advocates are trying to see if they can come to an agreement about the poaching, pollution, farming and ranching methods and other practices that destroy habitats and endanger so many forms of life. Elizabeth Maruma Mrema is the executive secretary of the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity, and she is with us now. Madam Secretary, thank you so much for being with us.

ELIZABETH MARUMA MREMA: Pleasure. Thank you very much for having me.

MARTIN: So when biologists talk about mass extinction, as briefly as you can, could you just help us understand what that would look like?

MARUMA MREMA: I think the easiest way to understand is biodiversity as a foundation of life. It is because the food we eat, the water we drink, the carbon storage needed for climate mitigation, the water regulation needed for climate adaptation, the livelihoods, the medicines we need all come from biodiversity and ecosystem services it provides. As if that is not important, 50% of the global GDP - our economy - depends on biodiversity. So clearly, the main goal of the conference upcoming is to emerge with a road map for repairing our relationship with that biodiversity nature because we, human beings, are the major culprits of the loss of biodiversity. Our relationship with nature needs to change drastically if we are to get away from where scientists say we are almost to the tipping point and that this is our last chance.

MARTIN: What I think I hear you saying is that this is not about one significant event. This is about human activities at this point - the way we mine, the way we farm, the way we travel...

MARUMA MREMA: Yes.

MARTIN: ...All of those things.

MARUMA MREMA: When you mention species, it's not species plants and animals alone. It also include us human beings. It means we will perish just as the animals and plants will be.

MARTIN: Do you have the sense - forgive me, Madam Secretary, but I get the sense that the question of biodiversity, in your view, has, in a way, become like the poor cousin to the climate change conversation.

MARUMA MREMA: Yes.

MARTIN: Do you think that that's so? I get the sense of urgency and perhaps a bit of frustration on your part that biodiversity hasn't gotten the same level of high-level attention and commitment as the climate issue writ large. Do you think that that's true? And why do you think that is?

MARUMA MREMA: It was true. It is no longer true. For a long time, the world had paid attention to climate change, forgetting that we cannot deal with climate change without dealing with biodiversity loss. Now the world has realized that these two issues are intrinsically connected and linked and that they cannot deal with one without the other. Now we're also seeing this attention to biodiversity than ever before - so clearly indicate the trend has changed and the train is moving.

MARTIN: Before we let you go, Madam Secretary, I mean, you have made the case very strongly that biodiversity isn't just about, you know, parks and, you know, walks in nature. But I cannot help but notice that, you know, you've practiced law all over the world, but you come from a part of the world, from Tanzania, that has amazing biodiversity. Is there something, a creature, that reminds you of where you grew up that could go extinct without some intervention?

MARUMA MREMA: Indeed. I - as you have mentioned, I come from a country which is rich in biodiversity, particularly animals. But it is also sad that what I saw as I grew up is not what I'm seeing today. If we talk of species of elephants, rhinos, when you look at the forest, the trees, they continue to disappear because, particularly in the village where I come from and many other villages, firewood is the source of energy. And unless the villagers are given an alternative to firewood, the trees will continue to disappear. So even those slogans and campaign of cut a tree, plant a tree have not worked to its full potential. So this is what I have seen. Coming from the slopes of Mount Kilimanjaro, of course, the women have to fetch firewood because that's the source of energy. And that will continue the deforestation. As long as we are not yet able to deal with illegal trade, with poaching, species will continue to disappear. This is what we are seeing.

MARTIN: And you've seen this just in your lifetime.

MARUMA MREMA: Yes.

MARTIN: That was Elizabeth Maruma Mrema. She is the executive secretary of the UN's Convention on Biological Diversity, which is expected to gather in Canada this week. Madam Secretary, thank you so much for talking with us. I do hope we'll talk again.

MARUMA MREMA: Thank you very much. I appreciate for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Michel Martin is the weekend host of All Things Considered, where she draws on her deep reporting and interviewing experience to dig in to the week's news. Outside the studio, she has also hosted "Michel Martin: Going There," an ambitious live event series in collaboration with Member Stations.
Mia Estrada
Mia Estrada is a 2021-2022 Kroc Fellow. She will spend the year rotating through different parts of NPR, including the Culture Desk, National Desk and Weekend Edition.
Raquel Maria Dillon