When it comes to biodiversity, South Africa punches way above its weight. Surpassed only by the more expansive Indonesia and Brazil, South Africa is the third most biodiverse country in the world, according to the South African Biodiversity Institute. The country belongs to an exclusive club of “megadiverse” countries, which provide sanctuary to the majority of Earth’s biological treasures.
South Africa owes its rich biodiversity and ecosystems to its unique natural environment which encompasses the interaction of all living species, climate, weather, topography and other natural resources and processes. Apart from the incalculable benefits that we derive from the various biological species, the environment bestows upon us critical resources and services that underpin our development. The complex naturally functioning ecosystems that render invaluable services such as water and climate regulation, soil formation and disaster risk reduction are collectively referred to as the ecological infrastructure. Without a thriving and robust ecological infrastructure, all the country’s social and economic endeavours would fail, if not in the short term, certainly in the long.
Our understanding of the sensitive interplay between environmental sustainability and socio-economic development should manifest in the amount of investment in research and development (R&D) that is related to the environment. In recognition of this, the South African Science, Technology and Innovation Indicators have been measuring “environment-related” R&D expenditure since 2011. The three years of data that have been compiled to-date reveal troubling trends:
If it were not for the seven-fold increase in expenditure by the Business sector, the overall picture would have been grimmer. A country of South Africa’s standing in biodiversity ought to be spending more on R&D related to the environment. A superior understanding of the dynamics of our natural life-support systems is essential for exploring innovations that can translate into sustainable development. Learning how to manage our environment better can unlock opportunities for addressing poverty, unemployment and inequality. There is an urgent need to develop an integrated plan to respond to the need to increase the country’s investment in R&D for the environment.
A key component of this plan should include a pooling of resources towards building and transforming skills for biodiversity and the environment. Owing to the vicissitudes of our complex and troubled history, many of our young people have been disconnected from their natural environment. They lack a strong sense of connection to the flora, fauna and the biophysical inheritance that we all share. Certainly, the vast array of career opportunities in research and other high-level technical occupations in conservation and environmental management remain obscure to the youth in the townships and villages. This has to change if we are serious about transforming the country and bringing about sustainable development.
Author: Dr Sibusiso Manzini, Executive Programme Director, GreenMatter. GreenMatter is a multi-stakeholder programme that implements the National Biodiversity Human Capital Development Strategy.