The outermost regions and the overseas territories have more than 70% of the European Union’s biodiversity. Together, these scattered lands in the world –mostly islands– add up to the largest Exclusive Economic Zone on the planet, an area of 15 million square kilometers of sea that includes 20% of the world’s coral reefs and indispensable fish stocks. in the human diet. The knowledge of this enormous heritage has advanced unevenly. Today we know a lot about the species, but relatively little about the state of the ecosystems and the benefits they bring to a local, national and global scale. With these blind angles, it will be more difficult to plan their conservation and their sustainable use. The European Biodiversity Strategy faces a relative scarcity of information on the state of its ecosystems in these regions. It is one of the main conclusions of an article published in June 2018 in the scientific journal One Ecosystem with the title «Hotspots of biodiversity and ecosystem services: the Outermost Regions and Overseas Countries and Territories of the European Union». Its authors, Ina Maren Sieber (Leibniz University, Hanover), Paulo Av. Borges (University of the Azores) and Benjamin Bukhard (Leibniz Center for Agricultural Landscape Research, Müncheberg) point out that «only a few studies have identified or defined effectively goods and services derived from ecosystems, and only a fraction of these publications have mapped or quantified those benefits of the ecosystems» of the outermost regions and the overseas territories of the European Union.
The article is a meta-analysis of scientific publications in English and preparatory documents for biodiversity policy in the outermost regions and the overseas territories. 1,030 references published between 1991 and 2017 were monitored. Most of them (562) are studies of «landscape structures or processes, taxonomic compilations, descriptions of landscapes or individuals, and often, studies of endemic species». Only 20% (161 references) of the controlled papers «map and evaluate the services and benefits that ecosystems provide».
The (natural) wealth of nations
The focus on the quantification of the benefits of ecosystems is known in the scientific community as «ecosystem services», or ES. The contribution of an ecosystem to development is manifested in different benefits at a local and global scale: provision of food, natural pollination, development of clean energies, tourism. In its Strategy on Biodiversity by 2020, the European Union declares -Objective 2, Action 5- that all Member States «will map and evaluate the state of ecosystems and their services in their national territories by 2014, assess the economic value of these services and will promote the integration of these values in quantifiable and transparent systems at European and national level by 2020. »
With climate change underway, knowledge of ecosystem services is «a suitable tool to promote the protection of coastal habitats» and natural defenses –note the authors of the work published in One Ecosystem. The mapping and evaluation of ecosystem services «can erect early warning systems, reveal imbalances in the supply and demand of goods and services provided by ecosystems and reduce the vulnerability of the overseas areas of the European Union.»
Prior to 2005 –it was observed in the meta analysis– the works focused on identifying and valuing the benefits of the ecosystems «were almost nonexistent». The first impulse of this type of research coincides with the launching of the first Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (MEAS, by its acronym in English) by the UN in 2005. The second impulse of the mapping and the evaluation of the ecosystems of the outermost regions and the overseas territories is given in 2010, «the year in which the European Union begins to invest in overseas programs such as the NetBiome and the EU Best» -the authors of the article point out.
The 161 references to mapping and evaluation of the ecosystem services controlled in the meta-analysis cover 25 of the 34 outermost regions and overseas territories of the European Union. Sixty works are dedicated to the European territories in the Caribbean. Another 39 study the ecosystems of European regions and departments in the Pacific. The archipelagos of La Macaronesia received the attention of 29 studios and the islands of La Réunion and Mayotte in the Indian Ocean were the subject of another 32. The Amazon, with French Guiana as the European territory in the area, is represented in seven mappings and assessments of the economic and social benefits of ecosystems.
Small territories, great treasures
The authors of the article note that they expected «a greater number of studies» on the ecosystems of the outermost regions, «due to their legislative and administrative ties with the Member States of the EU», narrower than those of the overseas territories. They propose an explanation for the paucity of mapping and ecosystem assessment studies based on three factors: first, the fact that efforts in this type of research «generally take place at a local scale, and are at the level of public policies to a greater extent than at the level of scientific studies.» This would explain the paucity of literature peer-reviewed by the scientific community.
Secondly, «the remoteness and small size of most regions imposes the importance that the outermost regions and the overseas territories» have as treasures of the European Union’s biodiversity. Its impact in terms of economic benefits is still considered small, so that the coordination of efforts is still the exception. There are, for example, no databases that compile the available literature on the mapping and evaluation of ecosystem services.
Third, «the available data and research effort are still scarce in the outermost regions and the overseas territories.» While continental Europe provides detailed maps of its ecosystems, «the areas of overseas Europe are much less explored» and data collection at an island scale is still too expensive. «Our results show that only where the universities have been involved in the mapping and evaluation of ecosystem services, field work and data collection» has the effort begun to bear fruits, as in the Azores or in Bonaire and Saint Eustaquio, territories of the Dutch Caribbean.
A greater effort is needed to clarify the blind angles or knowledge gaps in the evaluation of the ecosystem services of overseas Europe, where 70% of the biodiversity of the entire Union is concentrated – the authors of the meta-analysis conclude. In particular, they invite to develop «a more flexible approach for the mapping and valuation of the ecosystem services of the overseas territories, including researchers from multiple disciplines and sectors to provide a panoramic view of the state of biodiversity, ecosystems and the services they provide «to the community. To achieve the objective of the European Biodiversity Strategy, «urgent actions» are required in the outermost and overseas territories, where «the overexploitation of natural resources and the degradation of habitats by invasive species continues unabated».