Europe and Central Asia
8 Jun 2015

All you have to do…is listen to the birds

White-tailed Eagle © Yathin S Krishnappa, Wikimedia
By Patricia Zurita

My name is Patricia Zurita, CEO of BirdLife International. I am an economist (a green one), originally from Ecuador and currently living in Cambridge. Let me quell immediately the anguish of those amongst you wondering what on earth a Latin American economist who lives in the UK, has to say about European Biodiversity. Well hopefully… a thing or two.

The first reason has a beard. Henry Sidgwick, philosopher and early economist. He did some pioneering work on externalities in mid-1800…That’s what economists called these “undesired consequences of economic activity”. His work was then developed by the far more famous Arthur Cecil Pigou. They were among the first who tried to understand the value, to pin a number, on something that was not being taken into account: the destruction of natural resources and its impact to human lives (health).

A lot of studies have been done since then, and with time the words have changed. The latest most common expression is “ecosystem services”. But the truth is that despite tons of investment in trying to pin a number we are still spinning our wheels on giving a dollar/Euro/pound value to nature’s destruction. When you drain, and plow that wetland, or divert and pave over that stream… when species go extinct… we just cannot take into proper account what we lose.

But this is no longer the next generation’s problem. IT’S OUR PROBLEM, not Tomorrow, NOW.

At a public debate, a few days ago, we heard Vice president Timmermans saying: ”I don’t think that every time we have a problem we should make a law. We should use other instruments. However, when the audience asked: ”Which ones Mr. Timmermans? What will stop nature destruction instead of good laws?”…few answers were offered.

Europe has extraordinary nature laws. At its heart are the Birds and Habitats Directives, high quality and visionary legislation that has had a huge impact on the ground. The Nature Directives have also led to the creation of Natura 2000, the world’s biggest network of protected areas covering almost a fifth of the EU’s territory. And with extraordinary results not only for nature but for people, for development, SOUND development.

The second reason why a BirdLife Cambridge based economist is “fit for purpose” today is… the bird’s perspective:

Birds have amazing vision. Unfortunately, they cannot speak. But if they could… a bird would tell you that EU laws are not applied evenly across the continent, and EU law is systematically breached with impunity in some regions and by some economic sectors. THAT bird would ask for better tools to ensure a real European level playing field. Another bird would tell you about coming back to his breeding ground and not finding a hedgerow, a tree, a pond, a grassland, a place to nest. All plowed… and covered in biocides.

At a time of doubts and angst in Europe, a time when many question the role or even existence of the EU, we must say LOUDER that EU nature protection laws are a success story to be proud of. It started with the Birds Directive. Almost 40 years later, many challenges remain, but bird conservation has been transformed. Cranes, White-tailed Eagles, Great Bustards, Spanish Imperial Eagles, White-headed Ducks and many more are making a comeback. The Habitats Directive, have had a similar impact as testified by the return of wolves, beavers, seals and many other charismatic animals. Eurobarometer data shows consistently that in every EU country a majority of citizens want a strong EU role on the environment and on conservation. Our own consultation has produced almost 200,000 signatures in favour of nature in barely 3 weeks. Your people are speaking.

But now we are at a crossroads. Science is telling us we must speed up conservation efforts to avert disaster, both on biodiversity and on climate change. The ongoing Fitness Check of the Birds and Habitats Directive is the moment of truth. Reopening the directives means destroying decades of hard work. It means putting conservation efforts on hold, precipitating social conflicts and undermining the security and stability of the investment of responsible businesses.

The alternative road, is to get serious about implementation and address the real issues. THAT will save nature, our wealth and our health.

And all you have to do… is listen to the birds. 


Taken from Patricia Zurita's speech during the opening session of Brussels Green Week, 3 June (download the full speech)

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