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Canadian Biodiversity Strategy

Biodiversity: Our Living Legacy

A. The Biological Foundation for Sustainable Development

Conserving biodiversity and using our biological resources in a sustainable manner are essential parts of Canada's effort to achieve sustainable development. The Earth's ecosystems, species and genetic resources both individually and collectively support human society - ecologically, spiritually and culturally. Together with the development of mineral, petroleum and other non-renewable resources , they provide the basis for our economy. The diversity of life on our planet supports vital ecological processes and provides us with a wider range of resources for human use.

Life-sustaining Services

Ecosystems are composed of a variety of animals, plants and other organisms each of which performs a specialized role within the ecosystem. Ecosystems provide ecological services such as the conversion of solar energy into carbohydrates and protein, oxygen production, water purification and climate moderation. They produce the soil in which we grow our crops and remove greenhouse gases from our air. Although human health depends on these ecological services, their value has never been fully appreciated by society.

Biodiversity in our Lives...

When we go to the pharmacy to have a prescription filled, few of us think about the connection between our medicine and biodiversity. Yet many of today's medicines have been developed from plants found around the world. For instance, the active ingredient in aspirin was first discovered in the white willow.

Satisfying Human Needs and Desires

The diversity of the Earth's life forms provides us with a wide array of options for satisfying our needs and desires, including our need for gainful employment. Millions of people who work in agriculture, fishing and forestry rely on biological resources to earn their living. Eco-tourism and outdoor recreation activities are an increasingly important part of our economy, as are pharmaceutical and biotechnological research and development. Many indigenous communities, particularly in the north, depend on the sustainable harvesting of biological resources to provide a large portion of their food and income.

Supporting Canadian Communities

All across Canada, communities have developed with their own distinctive cultures and traditions based on their livelihoods ­ from fishing and hunting to farming. The future of these communities and their local economies is tied directly to the sustainable use of biological resources.

Spiritual Importance and National Identity

For many Canadians, the diversity of spaces and species in this country is a source of emotional, artistic and spiritual inspiration and cultural identity. Indigenous people have developed, over thousands of years, an intimate cultural relationship with nature. The natural beauty of the rugged coast of Newfoundland, the Gulf of St. Lawrence, the Great Lakes, the Canadian Shield, the grassland regions of the prairies, the west coast forests and the arctic has helped shape the Canadian spirit. This wild, elemental beauty ­ captured by painters, writers and musicians ­ defines our country to us and to the world. Many Canadians believe that each species has its own intrinsic value, regardless of its value to humanity, and that human society must be built on respect for the life around us. They believe that we should conserve biodiversity for its own sake, regardless of its economic or other value to humans.

Insurance for the Future:

Rice, maize and wheat supply nearly 60% of the calories and protein humans derive from plants. There are tens of thousands of other edible plants on the Earth. In the future, we may need some of them to feed the world's growing population.

United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, 1993

Insurance for the Future

Maintaining the Earth's biodiversity and using biological resources sustainably means keeping open our options for responding to unforeseen and changing environmental conditions. Maintaining our potential as a country to be creative, productive and competitive will also provide us with opportunities for discovering and developing new foods, drugs and industrial products. For example, many of our native plant species must endure both cold winters and hot summers. These plants may possess genetic material that could be used to develop agricultural crops that can withstand greater temperature ranges. Failing to conserve biodiversity puts future options, flexibility and economic opportunities at risk and passes enormous costs onto future generations. Conserving biodiversity is an investment in the future and makes good business sense.

B. Biodiversity in Jeopardy

Despite the importance of biodiversity to humanity, we are currently witnessing a global biodiversity crisis. Ecosystem, species and genetic diversity are being reduced, largely by human activity, at an unnaturally high rate. It has been estimated that the current rate of global species extinction is 1,000 to 10,000 times greater than natural. Scientists estimate that upwards of 25 percent of the total number of species on Earth could vanish by the first decades of the next century. Forests, wetlands, lakes, coastlines and other natural areas are being altered by human activities, while genetic variation within species ­ including domesticated crops and animals ­ is decreasing. These changes threaten our ecosystems and the ecological services that make life on Earth possible.

Extinction is occurring at rates faster than it has ever occurred before. Scientists believe that we are on the brink of a mass extinction and that humans are the cause.

E.O. Wilson, 1992

One important indicator of the decline of biodiversity is the changing status of many species. The Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC) evaluates the status of mammals, birds, fish, amphibians, reptiles, plants, lepidoptera and freshwater mollusks. Of the small number of species evaluated to date, 255 have been designated extinct, extirpated or under some degree of risk. Each year more are added to the list. The status of species of fungi, bacteria, viruses and invertebrates is not well known. For example, as many as half of the estimated 140,000 non-viral species and the vast majority of the estimated 140,000 viruses have not yet been identified. This lack of knowledge makes the task of conserving biodiversity and sustainably using biological resources more challenging.

Unique Canadian Species...

The rigours of the seasonal changes of Canada's climate have forced Canadian species to be highly adaptive. They have developed insulation and anti-freeze compounds, circulatory heat exchangers and dietary changes, as well as innumerable life cycle modifications such as hibernation and migration.

In modern times, the reduction of biodiversity in Canada has been due primarily to human activities. The cumulative impacts of industry, farming, forestry, commercial fishing, expanding urban areas, developing transportation corridors , and our high per capita consumption of resources have led to the degradation of ecosystems and habitats and the reduction of species and genetic diversity. Ecosystems and habitats have also been degraded by pollution, the introduction of alien species, and fragmentation resulting from many aspects of human activity.

C. Conserving Biodiversity: A Shared Responsibility

Under the Canadian constitution and specific administrative arrangements, federal, provincial and territorial governments share legal authority for the management of biological resources and terrestrial, marine and freshwater environments. As well, indigenous people on settlement lands, reserves or land they own have certain authority relating to the management of these resources. As a result, agreements involving federal, provincial and territorial governments and aboriginal authorities have led to cooperative management efforts for wildlife, fish and forests. Such efforts need to be continued.

How Many Species Are There?

Scientists believe that there are somewhere between 5 and 25 million species on Earth. Some even think there could be as many as 100 million species! Even the number of species recorded to date is uncertain: estimates range from 1.4 million to 1.8 million species.

World Conservation Monitoring Centre, 1992

There currently exists a wide range of policies and programs for the management of biological resources. The Canada Forest Accord, the Wildlife Policy for Canada, the RENEW strategy, the Federal Policy on Wetland Conservation, and provincial and territorial conservation and sustainable development strategies, wildlife and wetland policies, forest management plans and protected area strategies, all reflect the efforts of governments to promote sustainable development, through the conservation of biodiversity and the sustainable use of biological resources. These efforts provide the Canadian Biodiversity Strategy with a strong foundation. The Strategy will build on this foundation by promoting greater cooperation and coordination among governments.

In recent years, governments have used a variety of processes to provide for public participation in decisions affecting biodiversity. By drawing on the knowledge, experience and interests of members of the public, governments are trying to develop and implement policies and programs that reflect the range of values held by Canadians. They are also attempting to develop a strong base of support and to avoid the harmful consequences of new initiatives.

Partnerships involving governments, non-government conservation organizations and the private sector, as well as individual and community stewardship initiatives, will be essential to achieving the goals of the Canadian Biodiversity Strategy. Businesses and industries, local and indigenous communities, citizens' groups and individuals all take actions that affect biodiversity. As land claims are settled, indigenous people are managing extensive tracts of land and resources in conjunction with other jurisdictions. Conservation organizations are developing and delivering information and education programs to mobilize public action. Businesses, individual farmers and private landowners all manage significant proportions of Canada's land base. The active participation of all Canadians in the effort to conserve biodiversity and sustainably use biological resources is vital.

Who Would Have Thought?

By studying biodiversity scientists have been able to develop many of our medicines. Who would have thought that:

  • the rosy Periwinkle, a Madagascar flower, could help treat childhood leukaemia;
  • bee venom could be used to treat arthritis;
  • research on black bears during hibernation would provide clues to curing human kidney disease;
  • or the Purple Foxglove, a species native to western Europe and Morocco, could help treat heart failure.

Growing awareness of the environmental consequences of everyday activities has already motivated people to try to adopt more sustainable lifestyles. Individuals and communities are adopting ways to reduce their impact on the environment. Industries are establishing codes of practice, changing land-use practices and taking other steps to ensure that their operations are more environmentally friendly. The Canadian Biodiversity Strategy builds on these efforts, but can be a success only if everyone recognizes that "business-as-usual" is not an acceptable option.

D. Biodiversity's Link to the Future

If we fail to recognize the link between biodiversity loss and human well-being, future generations will face significant ecological, economic, social and cultural costs. Degraded forest, agricultural and aquatic ecosystems are less productive and require greater inputs if they are to continue supporting the communities that depend on them. It has recently been estimated, for example, that the cost of managing the crisis caused by the closure of most east coast ground fisheries is several billion dollars. Soil erosion has cost agriculture hundreds of millions of dollars. Rehabilitation programs currently being pursued in the St. Lawrence River, the Great Lakes and the Fraser River Basin are also costing hundreds of millions of dollars.

Hopes for future prosperity require that our actions and decisions reflect the value of biodiversity. Lessons from our history illustrate the importance of conserving biodiversity and using our biological resources in a sustainable manner. Our production of wheat has benefited greatly from selectively breeding domesticated wheat with genetic material from wild relatives found in other parts of the world. If these relatives had been lost, wheat production would not have reached its current state. If we fail to conserve biodiversity, we risk losing genetic material that could be used to enhance agricultural productivity further. We risk losing opportunities to develop new drugs and industrial products. In short, we risk losing opportunities to improve the quality of our lives. These costs can be avoided, however, if we recognize that preventive action and more careful management of the Earth's resources are more cost-effective in the long-term than relying on programs to tackle problems once the damage has been done.

E. Contributing to Global Biodiversity Conservation

Canada is one of the largest countries on the planet, with approximately 13 million square kilometres of land and water. Canadians are stewards of almost 20 percent of the planet's wilderness, 24 percent of its wetlands, 20 percent of its freshwater, and 10 percent of its forests; as well as 244,000 kilometers of coastline and a large arctic ecosystem that covers nearly ¼ of the country's landmass. Some of Canada's ecological features contribute to global ecological processes. For example, forests, wetlands and peat bogs serve as sinks for greenhouse gases while the arctic region acts as a global heat sink by cooling the air and absorbing the heat transported north from the tropics.

Heritage Gardens in Canada

Members of the Heritage Seed Program are taking action to preserve the genetic diversity of heritage flowers, fruits and vegetables by planting them in their own gardens and sharing seeds with other interested groups and individuals.

Canada has many skilled and experienced farmers, fishermen, foresters, trappers, scientists, planners, resource managers and operators, businesses and conservation organizations ­ all of whom can be called upon to meet the challenges posed in the Convention. With expertise in biological resource management, remote sensing, satellite imaging and geographic information systems, we can contribute scientific, traditional and technical knowledge to global conservation efforts. Our experience in policy-making could also be useful to decision-makers and others. Canada has long shared its knowledge and financial resources to assist other countries in their efforts to conserve biodiversity and to use their biological resources in a sustainable manner. The Canadian Biodiversity Strategy recognizes our responsibility to continue to contribute to the global efforts to achieve these goals.