Biodiversity publications archive

National Strategy for the Conservation of Australia's Biological Diversity

Department of the Environment, Sport and Territories, 1996
ISBN 0 6422 4427 8


Biological diversity is the variety of all life forms – the different plants, animals and microorganisms, the genes they contain, and the ecosystems of which they form a part. It is not static, but constantly changing; it is increased by genetic change and evolutionary processes and reduced by processes such as habitat degradation, population decline, and extinction. The concept emphasises the interrelatedness of the biological world. It covers the terrestrial, marine and other aquatic environments.

For the purpose of this Strategy, biological diversity is considered at three levels:

Millions of years of isolation from the other continents have resulted in Australia's plants and animals evolving in ways different from elsewhere. As a result, a high percentage of Australian species occur nowhere else. At the species level, about 82 per cent of our mammals, about 45 per cent of our land birds, about 85 per cent of our flowering plants, about 89 per cent of our reptiles, and about 93 per cent of our frogs are found only in Australia. Australia is also very rich in some groups of species: the Acacias, comprising perhaps 1070 species, subspecies and varieties, are one example. Some of Australia's species contain populations with markedly different genetic makeups.

Human activity has been changing Australian ecosystems for approximately 50 000 years, but the pace and extent of change has increased since European settlement, about 200 years ago. Australia's temperate zones and coastal ecosystems have been extensively altered, many wetlands have been degraded, and most other parts of the country have been modified to some extent by various factors, including introduced plants and animals. The result has been dramatic declines in the distribution and abundance of many species.

Maintaining biological diversity is much more than just protecting wildlife and their habitats in nature conservation reserves. It is also about the sustainable use of biological resources and safeguarding the life-support systems on earth. Ecologically sustainable management of all Australia's terrestrial and marine environments is essential for the conservation of biological diversity.

The benefits of conserving biological diversity are numerous. Biological diversity is the primary source for fulfillment of humanity's needs and provides a basis for adaptation to changing environments. An environment rich in biological diversity offers the broadest array of options for sustainable economic activity, for nurturing human welfare and for adapting to change.

The world's species provide us with all our food and many medicines and industrial products. For example, the fishing, forestry, and wildflower industries rely on the harvest of biological resources from the wild. There is great scope for developing new or improved food crops from our biological diversity.

Benefits arising from the conservation of Australia's biological diversity are not, however, restricted to the continued harvest of resources – they include the provision and maintenance of a wide array of ecological services. The maintenance of hydrological cycles (groundwater recharge, watershed protection and buffering against extreme events), climate regulation, soil production and fertility, protection from erosion, nutrient storage and cycling, and pollutant breakdown and absorption are some of the services. They are fundamental to the quality of our life and our economy, but they are often grossly undervalued.

Another benefit of conservation is avoidance of the rising costs incurred through degradation of ecological systems. Although measurement is difficult, the CSIRO estimates that land degradation costs about $1 billion annually (arising from lost production and ongoing nutrient losses valued at replacement cost)1 Redressing environmental degradation can be prohibitively expensive.

Australians have broad expertise in managing a diverse array of species, habitats and ecosystems, ranging from arid lands to tropical rainforests and coral reefs. This expertise is itself a marketable commodity.

Biological diversity can be important for cultural identity throughout Australia. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples have a rich cultural diversity that is closely linked with their environment.

The aesthetic values of our natural ecosystems and landscapes contribute to the emotional and spiritual wellbeing of a highly urbanised population. Both active and passive recreational benefits of our ecosystems are highly valued by an increasing number of people.

There is in the community a view that the conservation of biological diversity also has an ethical basis. We share the earth with many other life forms that warrant our respect, whether or not they are of benefit to us. Earth belongs to the future as well as the present; no single species or generation can claim it as its own.

Individuals, organisations, governments and the private sector are making numerous efforts to conserve, understand and manage parts of our biological diversity. Some of these efforts have been continuing for many years.

Internationally, Australia is party to a large number of agreements that are relevant to the conservation of biological diversity. These range from agreements about the protection of the habitats of migratory species, World Heritage properties, Antarctica, and the South Pacific region to agreements on trade in wildlife and pollution control. Australia is pursuing further agreements to fill some of the gaps in the present range of agreements.

The Convention on Biological Diversity is global in scope, covers the full range of biological diversity, and has as its primary aims the conservation of biological diversity, the sustainable use of its components, and the fair and equitable sharing of the benefits arising from the use of genetic resources. Australia ratified the Convention on 18 June 1993.

At a national level, major initiatives agreed to by governments include the National Strategy for Ecologically Sustainable Development, the InterGovernmental Agreement on the Environment and the National Forestry Policy Statement. The National Strategy for Ecologically Sustainable Development has three core objectives: to enhance individual and community wellbeing and welfare by following a path of economic development that safeguards the welfare of future generations; to provide for equity within and between generations; and to protect biological diversity and maintain essential ecological processes and life-support systems. It will be used by governments to guide policy and decision making, particularly in those industry sectors that rely on the use of natural resources.

Current Commonwealth efforts for the conservation of biological diversity are aimed at all three levels of biological diversity – genetic diversity, species diversity and ecosystem diversity – and consist of a number of programs relating to identification, research, management, control of alien species, and rehabilitation. The Commonwealth also has legislation relevant to biological diversity conservation including the import and export of species, endangered species protection, and environmental impact assessment.

There are many State and Territory initiatives for the conservation of biological diversity, among them: identification and biological survey; the establishment and management of protected areas, from nature reserves to multiple use areas; education, extension and support programs outside protected areas; legislation by several States for the protection of native species, especially those threatened with extinction; legislation by some States to protect wilderness areas; and reviews by some States of their policies on native vegetation with a view to including criteria relating to biological diversity for the assessment of proposals to clear land. Increasingly, State, Territory and local governments are adopting more integrated approaches to planning and management on a biogeographic basis or for individual species.

Universities, scientific and other research organisations are playing an essential role in enhancing our knowledge and understanding of biological diversity and thus our ability to conserve it more effectively.

Individuals and community groups have an increasingly important role in conserving biological diversity through such activities as tree planting, weed eradication, surveying and monitoring. Some 1600 landcare and similar community-based groups now exist in Australia; they are proving extremely effective in disseminating information and in the adoption of ecologically sustainable natural resource management in the rural sector. Community groups also contribute to the debate on such issues as institutional change. Examples of such groups are the World Wide Fund for Nature, the National Parks Associations, the Society for Growing Australian Plants, and Greening Australia.

The private sector, too, is contributing to the conservation of biological diversity, not only through land ownership and management but also through research, databases, technical expertise, donations, promotion and public awareness. Increasing numbers of resource managers are seeking and adopting new management methods that integrate ecological and economic considerations. These improved approaches and techniques are contributing to viable long-term economic returns for producers while at the same time allowing for the conservation of biological diversity.

Although these programs and activities all contribute to the conservation of biological diversity, by themselves they are not sufficient. Conservation efforts are under-resourced, in places uncoordinated, and sometimes inappropriate. There are still many ecosystems, species and communities that are important for biological diversity conservation but that are not represented in protected areas or adequately conserved elsewhere. Large parts of Australia are not managed sustainably. In many cases past economic, social, policy or institutional factors have prevented the adoption of appropriate management practices.

Of fundamental importance to the successful conservation of biological diversity is incorporation of the concept in all relevant decision making and management processes. Objectives for the conservation of biological diversity must be integrated into resource allocation and management, into development assessments and decisions, into intersectoral policies, and into conservation and rehabilitation.

The loss of biological diversity cannot be slowed effectively unless its underlying causes are directly confronted. These underlying causes are extremely complex; they include the size and distribution of the human population, the level of resource consumption, market factors and policies that provide incentives for biological diversity depletion, undervaluation of environmental resources, inappropriate institutions and laws, ignorance about the importance and role of biological diversity, underinvestment in biological diversity conservation, and inadequate knowledge of our biological diversity and the rate at which it is being lost.

It is necessary to ensure an integrated approach across State and Territory and local government boundaries and to approach national problems with nationwide strategies and standards. At the international level there is a need to strengthen or add to existing arrangements, and there remain a number of areas where our international obligations could be better met.

Australia needs a comprehensive approach to bridge the gap between current efforts and the effective identification, conservation and management of Australia's biological diversity. Governments have come together to provide a framework for cooperative protection of Australia's biological diversity, within a context of change and continuing development. This Strategy covers all of Australia's biological diversity – terrestrial, marine and other aquatic biological systems, including those of the external territories, and focuses on the conservation of indigenous biological diversity. It recognises that many existing programs and efforts warrant increased application, resources and community involvement, but that by themselves they are only part of the solution to conserving Australia's biological diversity.

An important result of developing this Strategy will be the removal of uncertainty for industry by providing clear guidelines for biological diversity conservation, within which investment decisions can be made.

Implementation of the Strategy will require cooperation and coordination from all levels of government, industry, community groups and individual land managers: each has some responsibility for the management of biological diversity. In addition, public awareness, education and community involvement are critical to the conservation of biological diversity. The knowledge and experience of local communities must be drawn upon and fully used, and awareness must be extended to engender a sense of community involvement and action.

Formal protocols for interaction between Commonwealth, State and Territory and local governments in environmental management have been established through the InterGovernmental Agreement on the Environment. Further intergovernmental arrangements will be necessary to facilitate the cooperation and coordination required to implement this Strategy, including the development of national policies, bioregional approaches, and State and Territory and local government strategies.

All sectors of the community will share the costs and benefits of conserving biological diversity. Among the costs are the costs of establishing and managing conservation programs and the cost of opportunities foregone. But there are significant economic benefits to be gained from acting now to conserve biological diversity, among them future opportunities for resource use and substantial future savings in the cost of rehabilitating species and ecosystems. The relative economic costs and benefits are very difficult to quantify.

Part of the cost of implementing the Strategy will be met through some reallocation of existing appropriations for programs concerned with biological diversity. The extent to which objectives are achieved will also depend on the availability of additional funds at all levels of government and from the private sector. Private sector investment in biological diversity conservation would be encouraged by a carefully planned range of economic instruments.

Governments accept responsibility for protecting Australia's biological diversity for the benefit of the community now and in the future. Not all the objectives listed in the Strategy can be achieved within the term of office of a single government. Actions will be implemented within budgetary and economic constraints and by regularly reviewing and altering the objectives and their priorities, where appropriate, in changing circumstances and with increasing knowledge.

Of particular importance is the recognition of a need to change the way we think, act and make decisions, so as to ensure that economic development is ecologically sustainable. Now, as never before, human activities are having a significant impact on the fundamental ecological processes of the planet. If we are to achieve a sustainable future in which food, shelter, health and other basic needs of a growing global population are met, we must act now to change so that we live within the earth's carrying capacity. Implementation of the National Strategy for the Conservation of Australia's Biological Diversity is part of this necessary process of change.

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