Technology

Cataloging the Planet's Boundless Biodiversity


It's hard to imagine the scope of diversity among organisms inhabiting our planet and even more incredible to know that each living species is in the process of getting identified and cataloged.

The official body carrying out this valuable scientific and environmental project was created on Dec. 3, 2000, and is called the Global Biodiversity Information Facility, or GBIF. The task, of course, isn't easy, and it will take roughly 10 years to set up the necessary infrastructure and databases that will eventually be accessible from any computer, anywhere -- from Berkeley to Bogota.

As the project takes shape, its list of 12 members is sure to grow. And it looks as if that's happening sooner than later. In fact, Philippe Busquin, commissioner in charge of research at the European Commission in Brussels, announced on Mar. 5 that Europe would become an "associate" member of the GBIF by creating an affiliate called the European Network of Biodiversity Information. Europe will share its own data with the GBIF and create human and technology resources that function according to GBIF standards.

The need for an international tool capable of identifying, managing, protecting, and safely using natural resources has nearly become a necessity. However, it took five years of negotiations and meetings among different countries for an international biodiversity network, initially launched by a work group at the Organization for Economic Cooperation & Development (OECD), could actually come into being.

EXTINCTION RISK. What motivated such a project was the obvious fact that the collection and management of information regarding the number of living species was insufficient. Indeed, it is estimated that there are between 5 million and 100 million species living on this planet, but today only 1.75 million of those are actually indexed. Of those, at least 26,000 plants and 5,400 animal species already risk extinction -- and these numbers are most likely underestimated.

Of course, a project such as the one GBIF has set out to develop depends on large amounts of financial backing. The GBIF secretariat needs $3 million per year in order to pay for employee salaries, trips, and consultants, and to develop technologies such as search engines. An additional $4 million is necessary to conduct field research.

To meet these needs, governments of each member country play an active role by providing both financial and political support. Thanks to this support, each country can create national teams devoted to providing information they have collected on biodiversity for the GBIF database. When completed, the information from each country will then become a kind of portal destined to guide users toward the information source they are seeking out.

SLIDING-SCALE CONTRIBUTIONS. In terms of meeting GBIF's financial demands, the governments of member countries must submit a contribution according to their gross national product. This ranges from $700,000 annually for countries whose GNP is more than $3 trillion to just $500 for those whose GNP is less than $25 billion. Whatever the amount, however, each member country is guaranteed one vote.

Although the four associate members, of which the European Union is one, will contribute both to the GBIF database and to its functionality, they, nonetheless, are not expected to pay contribution fees and are not granted voting rights.

What's essential, though, is that countries, whether official or associate GBIF members, contribute to the cataloging of vital information regarding our planet's biodiversity and help make that information available to anyone, anywhere. Now that's global thinking at its finest. By Catherine Tastemain

Translated by Inka Resch


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