Greening the economy: how biodiversity creates jobs

Nearly a quarter of all plant species are estimated to be threatened by extinction. Since 2000, six million hectares of primary forest have been lost each year. More than a third (35 per cent) of mangroves have disappeared in just 20 years. Also, 75 per cent of coral reefs are currently under threat or have already been destroyed.

These are some of the most dramatic environmental crises facing the world today. As the climate changes, the rate of destruction of biodiversity is pushing the planetary boundaries, moving us collectively towards the irreversible, the unmanageable and the unimaginable.

But this is not only about ecosystems and other species; it is also about human beings and the most vulnerable among them, the poor.

Approximately 70 per cent of poor people live in rural areas, and at least 25 per cent of their income depends on profits from natural resources. Between 50 and 90 per cent of the so-called “GDP of the poor” comes from ecosystems and natural goods.

In the meantime, there are brave people worldwide who have lost their lives to defend this wealth.

This September, the body of Cambodian journalist Hang Serei Oudom was found in the boot of his car. He had been axed to death just days after reporting on links between the army and illegal logging activities.

Brazilian environmental activist Chico Mendes was killed 24 years ago for organising local rubber workers and leading them in their fight to preserve the Amazon rainforests. He is still a model for those of us who have a unionist and environmentalist heart.

Unfortunately, the forces behind the devastation are powerful and cruel.

A recent report from UNEP states that between 50 and 90 per cent of logging in key tropical countries of the Amazon basin, central Africa and south-east Asia is carried out by organised criminals worth US$30 billion.

Without proper regulation, they will continue to pursue their profitable trade at the expense of the environment, local economies, and even the lives of people, many of which are indigenous.

The relation between employment and biodiversity has been not researched until now. However, the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) and Sustainlabour presented a new study at the Biodiversity Conference of the Parties in India which delves into this topic.

We look at how many and which jobs depend on biodiversity, which jobs will be lost sooner or later if we continue at the present rate of destruction, which jobs can be created by determined policies for biodiversity protection and which jobs could be jeopardised by the same policies.

Following this report, there is room for optimism: organic farming production creates a third more employment than non-organic farming practices.

In the case of the forestry sector, as many as ten million new jobs could be created as a result of sustainable forest management, whereas, in the fishing sector, 100,000 new jobs would be created in Europe alone if 43 of the 150 European fish populations were renewed. This would mean a 28 per cent increase in the total number of jobs in this sector in the European Union.

The transition to sustainable, green, biodiversity-friendly economies must be used to improve working conditions in key sectors that are highly dependent on biodiversity of the economy, which currently employ millions of people.

In agriculture, for example, the gradual increase in unsustainable practices in the sector has resulted in low-quality and low-income jobs, not to mention a dreadful plague: about two million rural workers are being poisoned by pesticides every year.

Similarly, some forest workers are not paid a salary for their work, but survive on the use of forest products (wood for heat, cooking and building etc) normally without access to the market.

Others are also paid low salaries, endure non-existent or very poor occupational safety conditions and, consequently, suffer a high number of accidents (logging is considered one of the most dangerous jobs in the world). And in the end, dirty businesses are no good for any workers.

When the resources are exhausted, industries tend to look elsewhere or relocate production in order to maximise profits. However, workers who live off the extraction of natural resources will lose their jobs, and their communities will remain polluted and exhausted when the resources run out.

At that point, their chances of finding an alternative job will be scarce; and, clearly, the impact on biodiversity and communities will be irreversible.

Organic farming, sustainable fishing, ecotourism, the sustainable management of forests, environmentally-respectful mining and more, can generate more jobs, and if properly planned, improve working conditions and provide decent livelihoods.