Biodiversity Research Ethical and Common Obligations

Biodiversity Research Ethical and Common Obligations

Safeguarding Biodiversity – common obligations

Manfred Ade1, Mariam Akhtar-Schuster2 and Ute Schmiedel2

1 Systemic Consulting & Education, Joachim Karnatz Allee 41, 10557 Berlin, Germany (email: )

2 Botanical Institute and Botanical Garden, University of Hamburg, Ohnhorststrasse 18, 22609 Hamburg, Germany (e-mail: and )

Keywords: Natural resources, desertification, sustainability, interdisciplinary and multinational research, technology transfer, knowledge sharing, drylands vulnerability, poverty


With regard to the steady rise in globally driven strategies for biodiversity utilisation and conservation, the development of prevention methods for areas prone to human-induced biodiversity losses also increasingly require universally applicable communication systems that guarantee continuous as well as reliable knowledge exchange. In fact, this is the prerequisite for any international socio-economic, scientific, technological and/or political co-operation on biodiversity and related issues. Communication on biodiversity relies on a commonly understandable data collection and exchange basis that considers different scales, hence, involving all stakeholders concerned with biodiversity-relevant issues. It is fundamentally true that collective action plans for sustainable environmental monitoring and management must especially involve local rural communities whose livelihoods often entirely depend on the locally available natural resources. This indicates the challenge of knowledge exchange mechanisms that connect pinpoint locations to the regional and/or global-scale biodiversity issues. This new challenge in research on biodiversity restoration and conservation will be exemplified by the BIOTA AFRICA research initiative.


It is generally the low-income rural population in developing countries whose basic needs are satisfied by and whose household economy is based on the local or regional natural resources. Field studies from the drylands of Sudan, Namibia and South Africa reveal that rapidly changing socio-economic structures, particularly during the 20th century, have had serious impacts on dryland biodiversity. In many of the biodiversity hotspot countries, biodiversity losses reflect the marginalisation or complete abolition of local traditional (often unwritten) control and allocation mechanisms which previously guaranteed the sustained utilisation of natural resources. The general trend of land tenure reforms to shift the rights and control mechanisms over natural resources away from the local users and communities to governmental authorities has led to dramatic vacuums for clearly structured agreements and communication mechanisms for the sustained management of native biodiversity (Falk & Kirk, 2003; Bock et al. 2004). Within this context, it seems inevitable to bear in mind also the more general discussions and aspects of communication, i.e. seeing it as a process that links actors or systems more closely, hence, enabling contingent changes in behaviour and system conditions (Luhmann 2000). This aspect is especially true, when considering that at the latest after the UN World Summit on Sustainable Development, Johannesburg 2002 it has become clear that a vast array of aims that were developed during the Rio Conference on Environment and Development have not been reached as yet (Heinrich Böll Stiftung 2002). It seems to be fundamentally necessary to look for more adequate approaches to understand how social systems work and interact and how they can be managed within the context of a very participatory-based approach that involves all stakeholders concerned with biodiversity. Thereby, overcoming polarizations in ´good´ and ´bad´ organizations, countries or other sociological phenomena will be a major advantage, enabling especially sciences to develop more systemic perspectives, hence, encouraging integrative socio-ecological approaches for biodiversity conservation. This presentation has to be seen as a first attempt that could support this trend.

2.Living on the edge - general aspects of biodiversity (mis-) management in drylands

In the communal lands of semi-arid southern Namibia and South Africa, and in the open grazing lands of the eastern Sahel (Rep. of the Sudan) land tenure reforms and the introduction of vaguely defined utilisation agreements have led to the maximum exploitation of the natural grazing lands. Land degradation up to the point of desertification have destabilised rural household economies due to the fact that intensive and often uncontrolled grazing has reduced the availability of important dry season grazing species (Mensching & Seifert 1994, Akhtar-Schuster 1995, Schmiedel et al. 2003). Long-term field investigations showed, that particularly the decline in perennial plants has increased the seasonal fluctuations in available biomass, hence aggravating the risk of animal husbandry and making additional sources of income indispensable (Akhtar-Schuster et al. 2003).

According to Bock et al. (2004) half of the interviewed communal farmers in a field survey that was carried out in the semi-arid southern Namibia (Photo 1) did acknowledge the recent decline in the natural resources availability and quality in the area as land use-induced. Negative externalities such as illegal fire wood collection and overgrazing by third parties as well as the existence of non-internalised externalities, also visualise institutional shortages and the effects of poorly defined agreements in order to husband biodiversity in a sustainable manner. Such socio-economic effects of human-induced biodiversity losses can be devastating. The diffuse definition of resources allocation regulations can effect a large area, often initiating or accelerating the pace of the downward spiral of poverty. Already, the out-migration of family members to cities is regarded as one strategy of destabilised communal households to cope with the land degradation.

3.Agreements - the prerequisite for safeguarding biodiversity

Incomplete legal frameworks for sustainable resource management often reflect the fact that many societies in drylands are in transition processes. In many drylands, the safeguarding of biodiversity is aggravated by the continuously growing demands for natural resources. Also, insufficient financial resources or lacking political incentives, minimal educational resources and restricted access to technology as well as insecure or absent agreements over resource utilisation rights were identified as major obstacles which hamper sustainable management, conservation or restoration of biodiversity in the study areas.

Long-term field investigations underline the importance of developing participatory based multi-scaled and scientifically sound communication mechanisms in order to gain knowledge on human-induced impacts on biodiversity. The system should allow the active involvement of all relevant stakeholders and must be seen as indispensable for discerning deficiencies in the existing land tenure mechanisms which currently impede biodiversity conservation. Simultaneously, such a communication or knowledge sharing technique would provide sound scientific data in order to support the elicitation of new forms of agreements and incentives to safeguard biodiversity.

However, it is important to ask what communication actually is and what we can expect from processes we see as communications. To reach people it is necessary to understand how they work as information generating entities and how they link with other systems. Communication has to be regarded as a process that leads to changes in affected systems and their behaviour. We need to have a theoretical background, if we want to judge the efficiency of what is called communication or knowledge sharing. One important tool for this purpose is the phenomenology of the structures of the Live World of humans (Lebenswelt), the foundation of which has been laid by the philosopher E. Husserl (1859- 1938). It has been further developed in the social-philosophy (see Schütz & Luckmann (2003)). The phenomenology of the Life World describes the relationships and forms of action of an individual as part of a complex system of social interrelationships. Major insights are, that daily live phenomena are seen as given without any further transcending (things are done and felt without questioning, due to lacking alternative incentives or thoughtful self-awareness). Perception and interpretation of inputs (things that happen in the surrounding) are influenced by former experiences and always embedded into a closed “field of sense”, i.e. an area of relationships in mind that makes sense from the individual point of view.

Even contradicting experiences are allowed to co-exist in such a field unless the “normal” flow of action is not seriously disturbed. These aspects are important to judge the possible impact of, e.g. management or the support of capacity development strategies. We are forced to consider personal development paths of individuals or groups (systems) that are determined by what is called epoché or the time in which an individual/group has learned to overcome the basic resistance of its surrounding. Resistance here is meant simply as any circumstance of the surrounding that prevents a human being from surviving. One major task identified by these theoretical insights is that we have to understand the driving forces for habits that lead to a certain situation. To achieve an effective management we have to understand traditions, modes of reflection, emotions and experiences, before we try to change a certain process or situation. The closed fields of sense are not only produced by logic or scientifically sound knowledge, but have to been seen as self-organization of single humans and groups. This becomes more clear if we ask in more detail about the actual outcome of communication.

The contingent outcome of a communication is always a genuine operation of an affected/perturbed system (mind or organisation) (Luhmann 2000). To some, yet not fully understood extent, the basic phenomenology of the Live World matches the predictions of General System Theory (GST). GST sees human minds and organizations of society no longer as things that can be broken down into subunits without loosing important qualities. It refers to communicational systems of society but also to biosystems and regards them basically as self-sustaining and operationally closed (you can not think for me, one company cannot decide for another etc). Systems are acting according to internal codes that cannot be fully explored from outside, they are black boxes. Typically, systems are blind for the outcome of their actions, because “outside” is something that they generate internally by themselves (self-exploring establishes the outside world). GST describes systems as nothing more than the (internal) process of making a difference between surrounding and system (which is a paradox). By doing this, they reduce complexity which is a major adaptation to cope with the infinite complexity of the world, thus it is a basic adaptation for their survival. There lies the reason for the often noted inertia of organizations to react according to external sensible advice, i.e. scientist (first order observer is the system that makes a difference). GST helps to understand failures of communication in the conventional sense (why certain things are not done the way intended from outside) and helps to find more effective mechanisms for delineating new strategies and paths for human actions. One practical outcome is, that systems often react positively (according second order observers) by perturbations that do seemingly not affect any direct aims (protection, use etc).

It is interesting to note that recent biophilosophers stress – by overcoming the dichotomy of genomically vs. environmentally determined human behaviour – that organisms produce activities by a synthesis between genomic and environmental inputs (Heschl 2002). No wonder, that we have to accept that even reason is something that merely serves human systems to achieve certain aims, i.e. showing that even reason is subjectively/systemically instrumentalised (Calne 1999). This is most important with regard to the actual struggling to stop detrimental effects produced by humans onto the bio-, geosphere and climate. It becomes clear, that behavioural change is fairly unpredictable because more than reason or knowledge is involved. Emotions and traditions as part of an individual (human mind) or system. In fact, among other factors economy and politics are driving factors as well and can be even more relevant than scientific, subjective or system reasoning. Communications with desired outcomes are most likely to occur if all the mentioned factors congregate. The worst prerequisite/scenario for communication or technologies is obtained by disregarding the existing socio-economic norms, values and demands as well as environmental features (especially restrictions) or their sound interpretation. A trial and error approach on the basis of interdisciplinary and participatory fine tuning of possible influential parameters with monitoring is invaluable, because, in principle, the behavioural change is non-predictable according to these theoretical insights.

4.Capacity development, supporting human and social capital for sustainable environmental monitoring and management – The example of the BIOTA AFRICA initiative

Since 2001, the interdisciplinary BIOTA AFRICA research initiative (funded by the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research) conducts research towards the sustainable use of biodiversity in Africa. The goal is to gain knowledge for decision makers for the feasible and sustainable management of biodiversity by developing a standardised data communication and continual knowledge exchange system. The development of a corporate identity of institutions and individuals in the African countries with the BIOTA AFRICA initiative was supported by the formation of Namibian and South African liaison groups. In a co-operative process, these two African (Namibian and South African) scientific communities and the German BIOTA Southern Africa teams jointly defined new goals for a truly international integrated research initiative on historic and recent changes to biodiversity, the sustained utilisation as well as the safeguarding and restoration of biodiversity in southern Africa.

It is a major aim of the BIOTA AFRICA initiative to develop standardised integrative research tools for the long-term monitoring of biodiversity (Biodiversity Observatories of 1x1km, Fig. 1). These Biodiversity Observatories form a basis for multi-scale communication not only between scientists over space and time but also between land users and decision makers at the local and national level. The Biodiversity Observatory approach also provides sound scientific data for the development of cost-effective and sustainable utilisation, restoration and biodiversity conservation practices. It is one of the major tasks in the near future to establish tools that affect the psycho-social systems in a sustainable way and to understand these monitoring results as an output of sociological, biological and abiotic processes.

Major components of BIOTA AFRICA also refer to education and interactive training (e.g. environmental awareness raising), hence, supporting (individual) human capital building on biodiversity-relevant issues. Continuous communication among all stakeholders provides the basis for collective action projects. These initiatives also explore alternative modes of income generation (information trails, eco-tourism) in the rural communities of southern Africa, hence, supporting ways out of poverty or migration which are caused by land degradation. In case other options for stabilising the economy of rural economies can be found, they could on the long run also mitigate or remove the pressure on the natural environment that is caused by any negative consumptive use of biodiversity.

The mutual support of partner institutions as well as co-operation in the field of data sharing policy guarantees access to information (development of biological archives, uniform data banks, publications) on ecological and socio-economic aspects tangent to biodiversity issues. Thus, the sharing of scientific data as well as data management policies in close collaboration with the governmental counterparts assist institutional or social capacity building. On the fundament of sound scientific information on biodiversity, existing organisational structures for resources management are strengthened and can support and boost legislative changes that effectively support biodiversity conservation and sustainable land use. Knowledge transfer is however not a one-way street. The development of stable communication and information exchange systems also ensures the dissemination of traditional ecological knowledge into the international scientific community. Community-based capacity building (e.g. of para-ecologists) involves training, hence, providing target information to rural communities who urgently require perspectives and technological options for the sustained management of biodiversity.

5. Perspectives:

Technology being any procedure that serves within processes as a mediator to raise effectiveness of operations, to increase the spectrum of perceptions and options and to enhance the reliability of processes induced by human activities (see Rammert 1999: 1603) is multi-dimensional and should be regarded in its economical, sociological and political dimensions. A major problem is the often stated impossibility to forecast the outcome and collateral effects of technical operations (Grunwald 2002: 280). It has to be stressed that options for guiding technology transfer along sustainable paths have to be developed on the basis of local realities, norms and values. This implies that the risks of detrimental aspects cannot be judged on the basis of purely technical or economical reflections. This insight urges us to include right from the beginning of any intended “technology transfer”, the firm integration of stakeholders at all levels of a project. This requires the development of knowledge transfer (communication) mechanisms for facilitating the appropriate transmission of necessary research and action. However, it seems to be clear that contingency of the communicational process as a systemic phenomenon, i.e. causing, among other phenomena, unforeseeable reactions of systems, should be taken into account. Instead of trying to govern the psychological/sociological systems by what some (researchers, organizations) regard to be as sound knowledge, it seems to be more valuable for instance to create incentives and various options that are non-critical (reduced risk of system brake down) in terms of system reaction. However, to find out these variables affords research addressing hypotheses on internal codes of the psychological and sociological systems and their ways of defining and sustaining themselves. Extending this approach into the biosphere, it is suspected that this will even minimize the gap in the scientific handling between biological systems (like organisms and ecosystems) and sociological systems (see Becker 1998 in Ade et al. 2004).