Millennium Ecosystem Assessment
Strengthening Capacity to Manage Ecosystems Sustainably for Human Well-Being

Presentation by Dr. Walter Reid at the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues

Madame Chairperson and distinguished delegates, thank you for this opportunity to speak about the findings of the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment and the relevance of those findings and the assessment process for the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues and for efforts to achieve the Millennium Development Goals. 

Five years ago, recognizing the potential threat that environmental degradation posed for people around the world, United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan called for the first-ever international scientific assessment of the health of the world’s ecosystems. The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (which I will refer to as the “MA”) was established in response to that call after governments took decisions endorsing the process through four international conventions.  The assessment was carried out over the last four years, and involved nearly 2000 experts from 95 countries.   The secretariat of the assessment was coordinated by the United Nations Environment Programme.

The MA was unique in looking not just at the environment but also at the consequences of ecosystem changes for human well-being.  To do this, it focused on the role of ecosystems in providing a set of ecosystem services that benefit people.  These include provisioning services such as food, freshwater, and timber, regulating services such as the role of ecosystems in regulating climate and disease, cultural services such as aesthetic, spiritual and recreational benefits, and supporting services on which the other three categories depend. 

While the MA was authorized through governments, it was governed by a multi-stakeholder board that included representatives of governments, UN Agencies, Business, NGOs, and Indigenous Peoples.

In addition to the global assessment of ecosystems, the MA included a set of sub-global assessments, carried out at the scale of regions, nations, river basins, and even local communities.  Three of these sub-global assessments – in Peru, Costa Rica, and Papua New Guinea -- were carried out largely or entirely by indigenous peoples.

Let me briefly summarize some of the findings.

The changes that we have made to the planet over the past 50 years have been unprecedented in their pace and scale. 

  • More land was converted to cropland in the 30 years after 1950 for example than in the 150 years at the height of the agricultural revolution during the 1700s and 1800s.
  • 20% of the world’s coral reefs were lost and 20% degraded in the last several decades.
  • Flows of biologically available nitrogen doubled and flows of phosphorus tripled in the last forty years.  These changes to cycles of nutrients degrade water quality and lead to the creation of vast “hypoxic” areas or dead zones in coastal regions. 

In the aggregate, these changes to ecosystems have provided significant benefits to people, since many of the changes were made to increase the supply of food and water needed by the growing population.   But these gains have been achieved at growing costs that, unless addressed, will substantially diminish the benefits that future generations obtain from ecosystems. 

There are three major costs involved:

First, of the 24 ecosystem services assessed, 15, or 60%, are being degraded.  The list of degraded services includes fisheries, freshwater, water purification, flood control, air quality regulation, regional and local climate regulation, pest regulation, and loss of spiritual, religious, and aesthetic values.

Second, ecosystem degradation is resulting in an increased risk of abrupt changes that hold serious threats for people.  Examples include increased risks of:

  • Disease emergence
  • Fisheries collapse
  • Creation of hypoxic “dead zones”
  • Regional climate change

Third, the degradation of these services is exacerbating poverty for some groups of people.  More than 70% of the 1.1 billion poor people surviving on less than $1 per day live in rural areas, where they are directly dependent on ecosystem services and most vulnerable to their degradation. 

The MA finds that it is likely that the degradation of ecosystems and their services could grow significantly worse during the next 50 years and present a significant barrier to the achievement of the Millennium Development Goals, particularly Goal 1 which focuses on poverty and hunger.  Most of the driving forces causing the degradation of ecosystems are either staying constant or growing in intensity, and two -- climate change and excessive nutrient loading -- will become major drivers of change in the next 50 years.

But the MA also concludes that the future is very much in our hands.   In three of the four scenarios developed in the MA, it was found to be possible to reverse the degradation in many ecosystem services over the next 50 years.  However, the changes and investments required are substantial, and not currently underway.

What should be done?  First, the MA findings indicate that we need to invest in ecosystems just as we invest in other aspects of the productive base of our societies like education and infrastructure.  The problem can’t be solved so long as we treat ecosystem services as free and limitless. 

Second, it is clear that the demands and pressures being placed on ecosystems are more than they currently can withstand.  Action is needed to reduce consumption of ecosystem services where there are already clear problems of unsustainable use, such as fisheries and water, and to reduce harmful drivers of change, in particular climate change and excessive nutrient loading.

And third, the findings indicate that we must dramatically increase the attention and resources being given to the development needs of the poorest countries and the poorest people.  The assessment documents the presence of a vicious cycle of environmental degradation contributing to poverty which in turn contributes to more environmental degradation. 

Let me conclude with several observations regarding the benefits of indigenous people’s involvement in the assessment and some of the lessons learned in this regard.

Environmental assessments have traditionally relied exclusively on “scientific” information, despite the fact that considerable relevant knowledge is held by non-scientists.  The importance of local and traditional knowledge, in particular, was clear in the MA sub-global assessments where local community members typically hold most of the knowledge concerning changes in local ecosystems.

But the challenges to the incorporation of multiple knowledge systems in an assessment are significant and involve such issues as: how to validate information, how to prevent the misuse of information, and how to create capacity for assessments. 

Recognizing these challenges the MA organized an international conference in Egypt in March 2004 involving assessment practitioners, scientists, and indigenous peoples, to discuss theory and practical experiences and to debate the strengths and weaknesses of various approaches.

Both the conclusions of that meeting and the experience of the MA indicate that while the challenges are real, the benefits of inclusion of multiple knowledge systems are significant.  First, it does clearly improve the findings of the assessment.  In the MA, for example, without the involvement of the local assessments and traditional knowledge the importance of cultural ecosystem services would not have been given the attention that it deserved. 

Second, the indigenous assessments benefited from their involvement in the MA process in that it helped to empower or strengthen their voice in policy debates and to legitimize the knowledge that they hold.

In closing, the MA provides a powerful framework for linking environmental and development considerations.  While it points to tremendous environmental challenges, it also shows that opportunities exist to reverse many of the most dangerous trends within a matter of decades. 

We are also convinced that the experience of the MA will transform the nature of future environmental assessments.  ‘Scientific’ assessments, which privilege scientific knowledge over other types of knowledge, will now give way to ‘knowledge assessments’ that recognize the value and legitimacy of many forms of knowledge held by different groups of people.