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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Averting the Biodiversity Crisis

Air Date: Week of

Palawan Island is the largest in the Philippines and is known as “The Last Ecological Frontier of the Philippines." (Photo: Patrick Kranzmüller, Flickr, CC_BY_NC_ND_2.0)

As many as 1 million species are at risk of going extinct within decades. To try to address this biodiversity crisis, thousands of delegates from around the world are meeting in Montreal, Canada from December 7-19, 2022, with a goal of updating the United Nations treaty on biological diversity. KM Reyes is co-founder and advisor of the Centre for Sustainability PH, in the Philippines. She joins Host Steve Curwood from Montreal to describe the rich biodiversity of the Philippines and the Indigenous Batak people who safeguard it.


BASCOMB: From PRX and the Jennifer and Ted Stanley studios at the University of Massachusetts Boston, this is Living on Earth. I’m Bobby Bascomb.

CURWOOD: And I’m Steve Curwood.

The biodiversity crisis is often overshadowed by climate change, but just like the climate emergency we ignore it at our own peril. Less diverse ecosystems are less able to absorb excess carbon, respond to extreme storm events, and provide basic ecosystem services like clean water and clean air. According to the United Nations, as many as 1 million species are at risk of going extinct within decades and that’s the fastest rate of extinction in human history. As we go to air, thousands of delegates from around the world are meeting in Montreal, Canada to address the biodiversity crisis by updating the UN treaty. We’ll follow up in the new year with the results of the talks but today I’m joined by KM Reyes, from the Philippines. She’s the Co-Founder & Advisor of the Centre for Sustainability PH and joins me from Montreal where she is attending COP 15 of the Biodiversity Treaty. Welcome to Living on Earth KM!

REYES: Thank you, very happy to be here.

CURWOOD: We're speaking now as the negotiations are proceeding in Montreal and tell me, what's important now for the Philippines in these negotiations? As I understand it, it's one of the most biodiverse places on earth. Describe it for us, please, and tell us in fact, why the Philippines are so graced with so much biological diversity.

Palawan Pangolin. Pangolins are among the most critically endangered animals due to heavy poaching and worldwide trafficking. (Photo: John Christian Yayen)

REYES: Yeah, so the Philippines is one of only 17 mega-biodiverse countries on the planet. It was previously 95% covered in pristine rainforest, and now only 3% is left.

CURWOOD: Whoa, wait, you've lost all but the last 3%?

REYES: Yes, of pristine rainforest.

CURWOOD: Wow. Okay.

REYES: And even though we only have 3% of pristine rainforest left, we actually still have the most vertebrate diversity on the planet. So we're a really small country, we're made up of 7,000 islands. But we still have incredible biodiversity across our islands, and also in our oceans, so our coral reefs and our seas. We have all sorts of really charismatic wildlife and ocean fauna, from thresher sharks, to the Philippine pangolin, which is critically endangered and the number one poached animal globally. And this area is also this perfect meeting place of volcanoes and the Coral Triangle. So it's a meeting place for all sorts of different, you know, tectonic movements that happened. And that's why we are also really mega biodiverse. And the reason why this specific treaty is so important for us in the Philippines is if we don't have a good global strategy, then we don't have a national strategy to build off. And obviously, as a conservationist, I want the strongest possible policies at the international level, as well as at the national level.

Indigenous Batak mothers of Manggapin. (Photo: Jessa Garibay)

CURWOOD: What are the developing nations and Indigenous peoples asking for at this biodiversity treaty Summit?

REYES: We are lobbying for really ambitious biodiversity targets, including 30 by 30 target, which is a global target to protect 30% of land and ocean by 2030. As well as, and I would argue, most importantly, to ensure that we have the free prior and informed consent of Indigenous peoples and local communities in any kind of protection and conservation that happens. And then the other big piece that we're really fighting for here in Montreal, is that we also have the right finance for it, right. So there are lots of reasons why we have biodiversity loss, you know, whether it's deforestation or other kinds of mining industries, and so on. And these are often activities that are driven by the Global North. And if we're going to reach our biodiversity targets, if we're going to reach these very ambitious goals, we need adequate financing to do it, especially with something like 30 by 30, that requires a lot of follow up monitoring and management of these protected areas.

Batak women and children in traditional dress. (Photo: Jessa Garibay-Yayen)

CURWOOD: Tell me a bit more about the role of the Global North here and why financing is necessary to help protect the biological diversity in the Philippines.

REYES: Yeah, so a lot of the environmental destruction is often caused by Global North and industries in the Global North. And so there is a lot of importance here on ensuring that the Global North also pays their dues. For example, you know, we're working on a protected area in Palawan. And we're up against a mining company that is Canadian, funnily enough. And so these are the kinds of international and kind of transnational issues that we deal with when trying to protect biodiversity. And so it's extremely important that the Global North really takes responsibility for the footprint that they're making on biodiversity in different areas, especially in the Global South. And you will see this across mega-biodiverse, you know, Global South countries, the Democratic Republic of Congo is another classic example, whether it's cobalt or nickel, or, you know, other kinds of minerals. And specifically in the Philippines, the big issue that we're dealing with is that we're very rich in nickel. And so this is obviously a key mineral for the electric car revolution. And so for us, in the Philippines, it's very far away in our timeline that we're going to have access to these electric cars, right? A lot of these electric cars will go to Europe and North America, but they're coming from and destroying biodiversity in Global South countries like the Philippines.

A Batak woman washing clothes in the river. (Photo: Robin Moore)

CURWOOD: Now, what about the Indigenous communities living within the islands there, what's their role in protecting biological diversity?

REYES: So Indigenous peoples globally represent 5% of total population, and protect 80% of global biodiversity. So Indigenous peoples and local communities play an outsized role in ensuring that biodiversity continues. And actually the reason why we still have biodiversity now is because of our Indigenous peoples and local communities that are living in and around our frontlines and protecting these areas, whether it's freshwater and salmon runs, to pristine rainforest. Certainly in the area that we protected, at Cleopatra's Needle Critical Habitat, this is home to the disappearing Batak tribe, there's only 200 people left of this ethnic group, and they have protected this area since time immemorial. So wherever we are in the world, Indigenous peoples and local communities are the key to ensuring that these areas are protected and biodiversity is retained.

A Batak woman and children fish in the river. (Photo: Robin Moore)

CURWOOD: Yeah, tell me more about Cleopatra's Needle. Your organization, the Center for Sustainability PH worked on helping to protect this area. Why is it so important?

REYES: Cleopatra's Needle Critical Habitat is the Philippines' biggest critical habitat. It's the size of the City of Montreal, so some 41,350 hectares, and it's the highest peak of our city, Puerto Princesa city. It's about 1500 metres above sea level, it takes about four days to hike up to the peak because it's extremely difficult terrain to get up. And it's pristine rainforest, as I mentioned, that is the ancestral home of the Indigenous Batak tribe. And with summary scientific research, we've already been able to identify that it's home to 61 Palawan endemic species and 31 globally threatened IUCN species. So it's an area of extremely important biological diversity. And it's also very important as a critical habitat, because this is habitat that's critical for the survival of a very, very special and threatened species globally, not just in the Philippines. So, this area is magical. It's, you know, flowing rivers and pristine rainforest, the hiking is incredible. It's an area that has many, many sacred spots, and is tied with the culture and tradition of the Indigenous Batak community. And I think without their stewardship, we would not have Cleopatra's Needle, for sure. And also, without this forest remaining, the Batak people would also not survive, they are so tied with this forest that for them, their existence could not be without it. And so for example, you know, their naming of how they name their children is always about, what are the natural things that are around them at the time of birth. So sometimes they're named after the tree that they're born under, or the weather on the day of their birth. It's very much tied in with specifically this rainforest.

Burned rainforest near Cleopatra’s Needle in the Philippines. (Photo: Jessa Garibay-Yayen)

CURWOOD: By the way, why is it called Cleopatra's Needle? That doesn't sound like an Indigenous term to me anyway!

REYES: Yeah, so Cleopatra's Needle is a military name that came from the US, because it was the US military that mapped most of our island, but it does actually have an Indigenous name. So Cleopatra's Needle is named after the obelisk peak of the mountain, but Puyos ni Bayi is the Indigenous name. And this means the hair bun of Bayi. So Bayi is a common foremother of the Indigenous Batak people, so generations before she was seen as the foremother of their people. And puyos means hair bun. So they see it as the hair bun at the top. And that's what makes it so pointy. And so they see Bayi as the protector of this forest. So internally, we talk about it as Puyos ni Bayi, but internationally, it's called Cleopatra's Needle.

CURWOOD: So, from your perspective as a conservationist, what would be an ideal agreement that will be reached at this biodiversity summit now? What sort of financial commitments and agreements need to happen in order to consider this, I think it's COP 15, or the biological diversity treaty, in order to consider that successful?

KM Reyes is a conservation lobbyist, community organizer, and National Geographic Explorer, based on Palawan Island, the Philippines. She’s the Co-Founder & Advisor of the environmental non-government organization, Centre for Sustainability PH, which she co-founded together with a small group of local colleagues. Their mission is to conserve the Philippines’ last remaining 3% of pristine rainforest through the legal establishment of protected areas. (Photo: Courtesy of KM Reyes)

REYES: For this COP to be successful, we need an ambitious framework that's agreed upon, that has 30 by 30, so protecting 30% of global lands and water; doing it specifically with the free and prior informed consent of Indigenous peoples, and/or recognizing Indigenous territories as part of the 30 by 30 target. We know that Indigenous peoples have protected biodiversity successfully, even if they're not protected areas. And having sufficient financing. So our ask is $70 billion annually from Global North countries to Global South countries in order to finance and upkeep biodiversity protection over the next 10 years. And so $70 billion is a tiny amount of money to be asking for protecting global biodiversity per year, if you compare that to other kinds of spending that, you know, governments are doing, if you think about, you know, how much the US has spent on Ukraine, or how much, you know, the US spends on military every year, $70 billion is not a huge ask to ensure that we have strong and resilient areas for agriculture and ecosystem services like clean running water, like clean air. This is a really small amount of money.

CURWOOD: KM Reyes is the co founder and advisor of the environmental NGO, Center for Sustainability PH. Thanks so much for taking the time with us today.

REYES: Thank you so much.



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Learn more about Centre for Sustainability

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Learn more about KM Reyes


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