Individual vs. Collective Interest of Biodiversity Conservation



‘Rate of environmental degradation puts life on Earth at risk’, ‘Loss of monkeys and birds in tropical forests driving up carbon emissions’, ‘Arctic sea ice fell to record low for May’, ‘Ecuador drills for oil on edge of pristine rainforest’ – these are only some examples of headings taken from The Guardian highlighting recent issues on global biodiversity loss. Sadly, this numeration could be extended by numerous examples.

But why does it seem that there is so little successful action taken to prevent biodiversity loss, if the issue is not only discussed among researches and scientists but is also of strong public awareness?

Today’s global community faces many challenges through a simultaneously increasing globalization and environmental degradation. And one of the key issues includes the loss of biodiversity whose functioning is crucial for our human well-being as it secures livelihoods, especially through the access to food and water. Until today, the pressure on biodiversity continues to increase. Causes are often human-made harming our global richness of species and ecosystems: habitat loss and degradation from agriculture and infrastructure development, overexploitation, or pollution.

Numbers show, that global action to conserve biodiversity is of urgent matter: the world lost over 100 million hectares of forest only from 2000 to 2005, in some regions 95% of wetlands have been lost and two-thirds of the world’s largest rivers are now moderately to extremely fragments by dams and reservoirs. This does not only affect the world’s species richness but put also the benefits humans gain from biodiversity at risk.

Of course, the global community and its policy makers have already recognized the importance of a sustainable utilization of biological resources as well as the need for its conservation in a number of international agreements.

But even though current international action aims to ensure environmental sustainability through a reduction of biodiversity loss, its preservation seems to encounter numerous difficulties and challenges. One major difficulty is the asymmetric relationship between a country’s biodiversity endowment and its economic wealth. Research has shown that the species richness depends on the latitude of a region: exceptional high species richness can be found along the equator, but decreases towards the poles. In general, this means that less developed countries that mostly face high population growth rates and increasing needs for food resources host exceptional high species richness in contrast to wealthier and already (more) developed countries. It does not seem surprising, that this of course causes global conflicts of interests.

A great example of differing intentions of a biodiversity-rich country that is still dependent on its use of its natural resources and the wealthier nations that have already overcome this developing stage and are now trying to push global biodiversity conservation is given by the conflict of interest in the Yasuní national park in Ecuador:

Ecuador and its exceptional high endowment of biodiversity is one of the 35 biodiversity hotspots worldwide. Furthermore, it is one of the ‘hottest’ hotspots. At the same time, Ecuador’s revenues heavily rely on the country’s crude oil reserves and exports: its petroleum exports account for 55% of all export values in 2013. Hence, oil extraction contributes to a large extent to the economic wealth of the country. Thus, continuing with the extraction of its oil reserves that are mainly located in the biodiversity-rich areas of tropical rainforests seems to give the best outcome- if you think in the short-run. However, does biodiversity conservation not also contribute to a nation’s economic, social, or ecological wealth in the long-run? It is clear, that extracting oil reserves in tropical rainforests does not only cause local externalities through damages to the environment by deforestation and the development of (industrial) infrastructure in highly vulnerable ecosystems.  But it also causes heavy global negative externalities harming the global community by contributing to high CO2 emissions and the loss of global species and ecosystem richness.

The asymmetry between individual short-term interest, i.e. profits from extracting and exporting oil, and collective interest, i.e. the preservation of biodiversity, can clearly be seen.

Now, Ecuador, a country with a high endowment of biodiversity but less economic wealth, tried to overcome that conflict of interest and tried cooperate with countries that benefit from their biodiversity richness. In 2007, Ecuador’s government announced the Yasuní-ITT Initiative. It aimed at preserving Ecuador’s biodiversity through non-extraction of oil reserves corresponding to 30% of the country’s proven oil reserves located in the Ishipingo-Tambococha-Tiputini (ITT) area of the Yasuní National Park in the Amazon region. As mentioned before, oil exports are an important income source which was the reason for the Ecuadorian government to demand a financial compensation for the foregone revenues by the global community. The financial compensation was an equivalent of 50% of the expected value of oil reserves, i.e. US$ 3.6 billion.

The idea of the initiative seems basic: a country from the ‘South’ pledges to permanently keep its oil reserves underground to contribute to global biodiversity conservation in exchange for a financial support for forgone needed revenues by the economic wealthy ‘North’ that benefits from a preservation of the tropical forests and its ability to emit the world’s carbon dioxide.

However, in 2013 the Ecuadorian government announced the ending of the initiative as only 10% of the demanded financial compensation had been paid into the set-up fund by the global community by then. Now, extraction in the Amazon rain forest has started putting ecosystems, species and local tribes into danger.

On the one hand, the example precisely underlines that biodiversity-rich countries see their main focus rather on the achievement of short-run cash benefits to boost their economic growth than on the long-term (global) benefits of biodiversity conservation– even though they are aware of environmental impacts caused by their actions. On the other hand, the failure of this un-orthodox approach has shown that collective action by the global community is difficult to reach, maybe due to institutional failures and uncertainties but maybe also due to the unwillingness to give financial support to this idea of biodiversity conservation.


However, would Ecuador’s idea not have been worth a try? Should it not be everyone’s main interest to preserve biodiversity and therefore secure human well-being?


Bucaram, S. and Fernandez, M. A. (n.d.). Has the World Failed Ecuador? The Case of the Yasuní ITT Initiative, URL:

Mittermeier, R.A.; Turner, W. R.; Larsen, F.W. ; Brooks, T.M. and Gascon, C. (2011). Global Biodiversity Conservation: The Critical Role of Hotspots, in: Zachos, F. E. and Habel, J. C. (ed.), Biodiversity Hotspots, Berlin Heidelberg, Springer Verlag, 3-22.

OPEC (2014). OPEC Annual Statistic Bulletin, URL:

SBCD (2000). Sustaining Life on Earth. How the Convention on Biological Diversity promotes nature and human well-being. URL:

The Guardian (2016). Ecuador drills for oil on edge of pristine rainforest in Yasuni. URL:

UNEP (2012). Global Environmental Outlook (GEO-5). URL:


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