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Republic of the Marshall Islands Biodiversity Clearing House Mechanism
RMI Office of Environmental Planning and Policy Coordination (OEPPC)

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Threats to Biodiversity - Introduction

The biodiversity of the Marshall Islands has undergone many changes, essentially from the beginning of these atolls. These changes increased when people became part of the scene, greatly accelerating in recent years.

But there often comes a point when changes to the biodiversity become so severe that the natural "checks and balances" can no longer handle the pressures. Then, the biodiversity stands threatened. Biological resources, species, even whole ecosystems are put at risk, and the possibility of their entire disappearance from the face of the earth becomes all too real.

Fortunately - at least so far - the biodiversity of the Marshall Islands has shown a remarkable resilience against full-fledged extinctions. Not that the biota here has escaped the sad consequences of losing some of its valuable components altogether. The disappearance of the purple-capped fruit-dove from Ebon, the Ratak Micronesian pigeon from Wotje and Majuro, and especially the total extinction of the Wake rail, show that species and subspecies on these atolls can be wiped out.

Losses to the biodiversity are often caused by losses in traditional knowledge. For the dove and pigeon, the change from traditional gathering methods to the use of firearms is often said to be to blame.

Furthermore, the loss of traditional knowledge that leads to the loss of biodiversity and biological resources is a threat which can become a self-propitiating problem. For example, in recent times, changes in human lifestyle have had a dramatic impact on certain shore plants. "Konnat" and "bob" provide extremely valuable ecological services in their ability to prevent coastline erosion. However, in some of the urban areas, these are being replaced by the less effective "pinetrees" (Casuarina equisetifolia) and seawalls. Sea turtles, however, cannot excavate their nests in seawalls, nor in the tangle of "pinetree" roots.

In another instance, many Marshallese people express concern that certain "bob" are disappearing, along with the knowledge of propagating them. The traditional method of growing "bob" is quite a refined horticultural art. Some researchers in the past have done some investigation into the subject, yet the full results of their studies are not readily accessible. While not necessarily full botanical "varieties," but rather horticultural "clones," they do seem to be disappearing. (In the botanical method of classification, under species, there comes variety, then form, and finally clone.) These different clones were bred by the early inhabitants of the Marshalls for a variety of purposes, some for food, others for building qualities and the like. There seems to have been enough variation in the clones of "bob" to have year-round production of food. The loss of even one of these clones would represent a great - and very real - loss to traditional Marshallese horticultural heritage! The RMI Department of Agriculture, however, is working on a project to try to preserve these valuable clones.

When a traditional concept, such as sustainable farming or fishing, is lost, people tend to seek more modern methods. These may seem efficient, at least for the moment. But if more fishes are taken than can reproduce themselves, in the long run, the number of fishes will diminish in one area, causing more stress to the ecosystem. People will either turn to another species, or move their fishing operations to another area, straining its resources as well.

If the concept of "mo" (islands traditionally designated as conservation sites) is lost, the "kanal" forest is at risk of being cut down. If the "kanal" forest is cut down, sea birds cannot come ashore to nest in the trees. The nourishment that the birds bring to the otherwise nutrient poor coral soil is lost, and useful crops cannot grow so well.

Similarly, if the traditional knowledge of medicinally valuable plants is lost, people no longer will view certain species as being of any value, and these may no longer be grown in a certain area.

But often, the treats to biodiversity and the sad consequences, are not all that easy to see. Often, a number of factors work together (as with the breakdown of the concept of "mo"). Or at times, these factors may be at odds with one another. For example, the use of pesticides may be harmful, but which is more harmful, the pesticide or the pest its use is controlling? As with the values of biodiversity, the threats may be difficult to fully separate from one another. And as with values, none should be completely discounted in favor of another, even if one is more spectacular or "popular" than another.


References:
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