9th Greek Australian Legal and Medical Conference
Rhodes, Greece 2003

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BIODIVERSITY

A life support system

Mrs Niki Goulandris

I am very sorry indeed that because of acute back pain my doctor does not allow me to travel and I cannot be with you today. All the more so because I feel especially close to Australia, a country I have visited and grown to love.

Allow me to express some very personal feelings, as they arose during my travels.

Upon my first visit to Australia, I was immediately made to feel at home when I landed near Botany Bay. I realised then that this beautiful country so rich in indigenous fauna and beautiful flora, respected and honoured the importance of its natural wealth.

As a matter of fact, from the late 1700s the rivalry between France and Britain was such that many "voyages of exploration" were in fact covers for strategic positioning. However those "voyages of exploration" were at the same time purely scientific ventures, the opposing powers granting one another passports for expedition vessels. In history military supremacy is always temporary. Scientific exploration and endeavours have prevailed.

In April 1800, the French organised an expedition of 22 scientists, including 4 botanists, 4 zoologists, 3 gardeners and 2 artists in order to collect "vegetable productions" of New Holland.

In October 1800 the British Admiralty set about selecting a scientific team. Sir Joseph Banks, in inviting the Scottish Botanist Robert Brown, wrote:

"Sir, a ship in this day ordered to be fitted out for the purpose of exploring the natural history (and many other things) of New Holland and it is resolved that a naturalist and a Botanic Painter shall be sent in her".

Until then, there had never been such a concerted effort at scientific collecting and recording of the plants of Australia. The expedition arrived at the floristically richest part of the whole continent, the south-west botanical province of present-day Western Australia with a huge, rich flora of perhaps 8,000 species with perhaps 20% of them still undescribed today. This expedition provided the world with the best botanical paintings ever produced. (Mrs. Goulandris is herself a botanical painter).

As I mentioned earlier, my travels to Australia were for me a unique experience that follows me in the search for conservation action.

This speech is made in appreciation of the honour you have given me to address this distinguished audience and share my thoughts with you.

Ever since my childhood, the Greek natural world has been the determining factor in shaping the attitudes and purpose of my life. I had the good fortune to approach it with the fascination which the years of childhood provide, first through myth and poetry, then with a scientific approach and later with aesthetic appreciation. Specifically, it was my relationship with the wealth, diversity and unparalleled beauty of the Greek plant world that moulded my attitudes and beliefs.

The painting of plants, to which I devoted much of my time, was for me a means of communication, an understanding of their ontological existence, their classification, hierarchy and their ecological position according to their genetic code. Above all, it was their beauty and their aesthetic and geometric reference to life and form that inspired me.

I had the good fortune to live in the same space and speak the same language as those ancient pioneer rhizotomists and herb-gatherers who approached native plants with awe and wonder and tapped their benevolent powers for the benefit of man. They gave them names and connected them to myths and beliefs, to real or imaginary examples of therapeutic healings. These few hundred herbs of the ancient world became the basis of Botany and Medicine on a global scale, and their Greek names in Latin transliteration prevailed throughout the world.

The inventive power of the Greek language gave each plant its functional and conceptual name. About six hundred Greek plants - known from the Homeric epics, the works of Hippocrates, Theophrastus and Discourides - were included in the work of Carl Linnaeus' "Species Plantarum", which is used internationally.

During most of my long career in botany, I lived in the luminous presence of my husband, Angelos Goulandris. It was he who supported me and gave priority to botany among the research activities of the Museum. In this way he broadened the horizons and gave impetus to new and advanced approaches.

We both believed that from the total of the natural world nothing could be subtracted without destroying the harmony and the balance that unifies the whole, and that the loss of either one would lead to the annihilation of all living species including man.

We took the view that we had had the good fortune to be born and raised in a country which is one of the most favoured on earth. We saw Greece as a microcosm of the planet through which we would resist its degradation. We would fight to arouse the public's awareness of environmental issues in a well informed and responsible way.

We regarded the preservation of ancient memory, the Greek measure of things, the clarity of light and the language as a vehicle in human relations, in science and in technology, as our ethical resistance to the inhumane conditions of today. This was the motivating force and direction our lives would take. Having perceived the message that Nature herself was threatened, at a time when there was still little awareness of the dangers, we started out on a long and arduous journey.

In Greece, we still have undisturbed ecosystems that maintain their biological function as well as large areas, which, although degraded, still keep the type and wealth of variety of their flora and fauna. For instance, agricultural land, rivers and wetlands, forests, coastal landscapes, dunes, olive groves and pastures. All of which are areas where man has dwelled for thousands of years.

For Greece in particular, this inventory and cartography shows the survival of Greece's diversity and its resistance to man's use and abuse over thousands of years. It marks the mosaic of complexity and multi-formity of the areas that remained outside man's exploitation and have therefore kept this biological cohesion and function.

Furthermore, this inventory and cartography is at the same time an evaluation of the Greek nature and of the special characteristics of the Greek landscape seen not only from the Greek point of view, but as an example of pan-European interest.

The Goulandris Natural History Museum, (founded in 1964 by Angelos and Niki Goulandris), is a private, non-profit foundation, a workshop for research and a base for action. The project progressed quietly. It was a private investment of resources, time and knowledge for the creation of an institution, hitherto unknown in Greece, which would have as its objective a nation-wide alert for the protection of the country's precious natural wealth and an awareness on the part of young people of a new code of values based on the criterion of a balanced co-existence of man and the natural environment.

Biodiversity as a precious asset of the Greek earth has been a constant concern of the Museum's policy, since the time of its establishment. "In Greece we have a great botanical kaleidoscope, a mighty evolutionary engine generating floristic and vegetational diversity to a degree beyond anywhere else in Europe". (Philip Smith, 2000).

Biodiversity loss is one of the world's most pressing crises. Species are declining to critical population levels, important habitats are being destroyed, and ecosystems are being destabilised through climate change, pollution, invasive species, and direct human impacts.

In order to prevent this crisis, we must focus on the improvement of knowledge, on the development of conservation strategies, and on the creation of procedures favouring the fair distribution of the advantages sprung from biodiversity. We must ensure that the protection and sustainable use of biodiversity become the elements of economic development. We must ensure that development and preservation of resources are linked, and thus break the prejudices that the protection of biodiversity and the biosphere would necessarily be a hindrance to development, or that development would inevitably dilapidate natural resources and degrade ecological services.

One of the greatest challenges to humanity, perhaps the most serious of all, is finding ways to meet growing human needs while maintaining environmental stability and conserving resources for the future. For the first time in history, man is consciously facing the challenge of whether his actions will diminish or perpetuate the diversity and the evolutionary potential of life on earth.

Life is a phenomenon that lasts approximately 4 billion years. It has never stopped, but has been altered, enriched, adapted, with an inherent capacity of modification, which is the factor of its success: it is the best example of continuous sustainable development. Thus we learn an important lesson, that in a constantly changing world it is differentiation that ensures the continuation of life. It has been estimated that 95-99% of the species that have once existed, are now extinct. In their place, new species have appeared, that have evolved and adapted to the existing environmental conditions. It has been estimated that there are approximately 20 million species on Earth today (estimates vary between 10 and 30 million), but the number of known species that have been described and studied is approximately 1.7 million. Of those, in most cases we do not know their genetic composition, their function, their role in the planetary ecosystem or their potential usefulness to man.

This wealth is the proof of the capacity for adaptation and of the continuous flow of life that is ensured by biodiversity within our constantly changing world. Furthermore, this wealth ensures the future, which is conditioned by natural selection.

Biodiversity can be defined as the passage from the simple, rapturous description of life to the consciousness of a complex dynamic where human societies, the diversity of species and of ecological context are interrelated and interpenetrated.

An enlarged ecological vision allows us to approach the questions that link the needs of preservation of the environment to the goals of a sustainable development of human societies, both in the North and in the South, for our generation and the generations of the future. The concept of biodiversity in its full ecological dimension is therefore decisive.

The natural loss of some species has been part of nature's way of ensuring balance and should not be confused with human-driven damage to biodiversity. Today, the rate and scale of modification is intensifying and escalating as a result of human population growth, heightened economic pressures and unwise use of new technologies. Overexploitation of economically important species of terrestrial and aquatic habitats remains the leading threat in many regions of the world.

Every species is a treasure that we have to preserve with all our means. The natural evolution of all species on the planet over the past millions of years provided a harmony that, if disturbed, will lead to serious changes to life on earth. In addition to providing food and shelter, Nature also offers man a stunning collection of materials and medicines, clues for future pharmaceutical discoveries. Nature's chemical diversity remains still for the most part unknown to us and we must not lose potentially inestimable scientific opportunities with loss of species due to our unwise and short-term policies.

In the past decade, two new concepts have been used, both of which are scientific neologisms. They were introduced at the International Conference in Rio de Janeiro (1992) and are being used constantly since then. The first is the concept of biodiversity, which expresses the wealth of life on our planet, both in its global dimension and in its everlasting evolution. The second is the concept of sustainable development, which is determinant of growth. Biodiversity reflects life's capacity to preserve and renew the ever-changing spectrum of environments on the planet from arctic ice spaces to dense tropical rainforests, from the sun-bleached desert to sunless caverns, from mountain summit to ocean depth. No specific value can be placed on biodiversity, for this is the very meaning of life on earth. It is our life-support system.

In the face of this dynamic biodiversity, man today is asked to face his responsibilities as one who can consciously shape the future, through cultural and moral values. Man must undertake the responsibility of preserving the natural resources he has disturbed, and of managing them in a sustainable way for the benefit of this and of future generations. It is a challenge dictated by our culture, based on man's ethical responsibility. Man, who is himself the result of this evolutionary movement, is interdependent with millions of species. At the same time, as carrier of culture, man is the principal manager of life and of the future.

From ancient times man has realised that life is expressed in various ways. While drawing bisons, lions, deer, and antelopes in caves, man was already expressing his knowledge of the world's multiformity. Since then, naturalists, palaeontologists, and more recently ecologists and geneticists inform us about life's multiformity, about the wealth of species, existing and extinct, about genetic variations of species' populations and about the variety of ecological functions and ecosystems.

The first threats to the planet arose during the industrial revolution, while the last decades of the 20th century are actually causing dangers of survival. One of the first philosophical questions, the relationship between man and nature, has taken a different meaning. The question is no longer the object of philosophical quest, but the realisation of a crisis, which we have the obligation to face.

Today, for the first time in history, our generation is facing the paradox that its great scientific and technological conquests are threatening the very foundations of the natural world, life itself. By the irresponsible use of technological and economical progress, the human species is leading the way towards the sixth mass extinction. The previous five were the results of natural disasters, such as volcano eruptions or falls of meteorites that caused climatic changes and ecological disasters. Today's crisis differs in that it is caused by man, we'll have unprecedented planetary consequences and is happening within a span of a few decades. The major causes of this crisis are the demographic pressures and the excessive economical and technological use of the natural resources that cause the modification, reversal or dismemberment of ecosystems, the increasing import of foreign products and the depletion of ecosystems that may lead to their extinction.

Sixty-five million years ago, the fall of an asteroid in Yucatan, Mexico, whose traces are still visible, caused the extinction of dinosaurs, those amazing creatures we are currently getting to know through their fossils. Undoubtedly it was a great loss; as such a majestic species has never since been created. Life went on in different guises throughout the ages. The extinction of the dinosaurs was favourable to mammals that showed a huge explosion of variety in shapes as well as in adaptability. Man was the last to arrive on Earth.

The ecological balance of the planet is not a static but a dynamic state. Climatic changes and species' extinctions are normal. However, they happen over very long periods of thousands or millions of years, thus ensuring the adaptation of the species to the new conditions, or the replacement of species with others more developed and better adapted to the new conditions. As I have already mentioned, 95-99% of the species that have existed on the planet are already extinct. And yet today biodiversity is very large.

The climatic changes, the degradation of the soil and of ecosystems are serious human interventions that will be followed by even more serious future interventions, unless opposing forces can be mobilised. Today, man's interventions are reaching the level of the five mass extinctions and may sweep along the universal ecosystem including the human species.

Biodiversity concerns four levels: The first is genetic biodiversity, as expressed by the number of genes in a specific species. The greater the number of inherited traits, the greater the capacity of survival and the resistance of a species against artificial or genetically improved species, as well as against outside pressures such as epidemics, climatic changes etc.

The second level of biodiversity is the biodiversity of species, as expressed in the great number of species (flora and fauna) found in a specific region. The more species exist in a particular ecosystem, the more its stability and the interrelationship of the species can be guaranteed. Because of this interrelationship, the extinction of one species may cause the extinction of a wide network, symbiotically. The preservation of the biodiversity is closely related to sustainable development.

The third level of biodiversity is the biodiversity of ecosystems or habitats, characterised by a great number of combinations of species (flora or fauna) that coexist and create the image of a specific landscape.

The fourth level of biodiversity is the biodiversity of landscapes, as expressed in the alternation of various types of landscapes within a wider area, consisting of both natural and artificial ecosystems, such as agricultural areas, settlements, technical works etc. that have been created throughout the years and that have kept their characteristics according to the land, the climate and the biological processes of thousands or even millions of species. Despite the separation of biodiversity in various levels, its protection must be unified as the protection of each level depends on the protection of the levels preceding or following it.

The main causes of the reduction of biodiversity are: 1) The loss and degradation of ecosystems. Two thirds of the planet's forests have already been destroyed or degraded and this destruction is still going on at a fast rate. It is estimated that 4.6 million hectares of tropical rainforests are being deforested every year. Tropical forests have the greatest biodiversity. 2) The over-exploitation of species and the extortionate exploitation of wetlands and other habitats are still the main threats in many areas of the world. 3) Exotic species. All species of flora and fauna are adapted not only to the a-biotic environment (climate-soil), but also to the biotic environment, i.e. to the presence or absence of other species and especially pathogenic organisms or antagonistic species. The introduction of a species that is foreign to the natural ecosystem of the region may actually cause the extinction of certain species. Particularly vulnerable are those species that were developed in isolated regions such as islands.

Besides local modifications, global modifications also play a major role in the conservation of biodiversity. We have reached a point, where in order to save the biodiversity, we have to save the biosphere (Norman Mayer 1995).

Today scientists approach the problem in new ways. Ecology and economy are called upon to play a key role in sustainable development. Furthermore, we must understand the ecological function of biodiversity, which is the essence of life. Life cannot exist without biodiversity: biodiversity is the only security of adaptation and survival in a changing world, the only guarantee of a future through natural selection. Genetic diversification is the security against the unpredictable (natural or caused by man), against man's interference for his current or future needs.

In order to face those needs, to check them and manage them in a sustainable way, with responsibility towards those biological systems on which we depend, we must use nature's variety of ecological capacities: the genes, groups of genes, species, groups of species, ecosystems and landscapes.

Man is called to face the responsibility of programming and shaping his future, through knowledge of the dynamic of the planetary biodiversity: as carrier of sciences and of moral values, man is called to face the challenge of protecting and managing biodiversity in order to bring about a sustainable development that will benefit this and future generations. In spite of the Treaty of Rio on Biological Diversity, which has been ratified by 182 countries, including those of the European Union, in spite of programmes and regulations, the threat to the global ecosystem is continuing.

For the first time in human history, a generation of human beings is consciously facing the question of whether its actions will diminish or perpetuate the diversity and evolutionary potential of life on earth. We have to wonder if the institutions that we trust are powerful enough to anticipate and respond to this unprecedented ecological crisis, which will have serious repercussions to us, to our society and to future generations. Science, as an expression of the human capacity to reason and to conjecture, has not only increased our knowledge of the natural world, but has also drawn the boundaries of our freedom and our responsibility.

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Copyright 2003. Greek/Australian International Legal and Medical Conference.
For more information contact Jenny Crofts at jennycrofts@ozemail.com.au