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Professor Han Olff: ‘Balkenende should take the International Year of Biodiversity very seriously’

12 January 2010

2010 is the year in which the decline of biodiversity will end. So say the agreements reached by European leaders in Gothenburg in 2001 and by world leaders at the UN summit in Johannesburg in 2002. However, the loss of species has continued at an alarming rate. The UN has now declared 2010 to be the International Year of Biodiversity – a good decision, according to University of Groningen ecologist Professor Han Olff. ‘It is now time to remind world leaders of their solemn promises. This definitely includes Prime Minister Balkenende, who is trying to avoid fulfilling certain agreements’.

More and more people are becoming aware of the importance of biodiversity. According to Professor Olff, ‘People who care about the environment are no longer seen as nutcases who enjoy cuddling seals and dolphins and sniffing orchids. The general public is now aware that we depend on biodiversity for food, clean drinking water, medicine and clean air. That’s the good news. The bad news is that we still don’t tend to change our actions accordingly’.

Loss of species

Biodiversity is the umbrella term for the diversity of microorganisms, animal species and plant species, the genetic variation within these species, and the diversity of ecosystems. The 2001 and 2002 international agreements that aimed to stop the reduction of biodiversity have not led to adequate results. Findings by the United Nations’ Millennium Ecosystem Assessment show that 70% of all ecosystem services worldwide are declining and that species are becoming extinct at an increasingly high rate. Dutch biodiversity faces similar problems – the 2009 Natuurbalans assessment indicates that the Netherlands is still unable to adequately curb the decline in the diversity of species.

Power play between the US and China

The global economic crisis is both a blessing and a curse for biodiversity. Olff: ‘The reduction in economic activity leads to a reduction in carbon emissions. Many species, from inhabitants of tropical coral reefs to polar bears, benefit from the resulting slower rate of global warming. But the crisis also leads to less willingness to invest in biodiversity’. This became painfully evident at the Copenhagen summit in late 2009, where the US and China both refused to make concrete agreements on carbon emissions. Olff: ‘A prominent influence in this power struggle is the fact that the consensus on the dangers of carbon emissions is still very recent. It was less than four years ago that the IPCC (the UN’s climate panel) produced hard evidence that carbon emissions influence the global temperature. This meant that climate change sceptics were still able to disrupt progress in Copenhagen’.

AIDS and biodiversity

In order to reduce carbon emissions and protect biodiversity, rich nations must provide support for developing nations. By encouraging social stability and through the development of sustainable economies, the exploitation of nature can be curbed. Olff: ‘Everything influences everything else. If, for example, we wish to preserve biodiversity in southern Africa, we must help combat AIDS. The poverty caused by the disease drives people to poaching and illegal logging’. The fact that European leaders acknowledge such far-reaching connections and established agreements with developing nations at the summit in Copenhagen makes Olff optimistic.

Nature preservation is a government responsibility

Closer to home we must also take biodiversity seriously. Olff: ‘The most important thing is to ensure that we complete our Dutch Ecological Main Structure on time. If our government continues to ignore this issue we will not be able to create a coherent network of nature reserves quickly enough to be able to stop the current loss of biodiversity’. The national government must take on the responsibility for the realization of the EHS, which is currently in the hands of provincial governments, and not continue to wait around until farmers and landowners start to take nature conservation seriously. Olff: ‘We must be willing to admit that that experiment has failed. Nature conservation is a job for the national government and cannot be left in the hands of the free market’.


The Dutch cabinet’s official policy is that the EHS must be ready by 2018. However, behind the backs of the rest of the cabinet, Prime Minister Balkenende and Minister of Agriculture Verburg, both members of the Christian Democrat party (CDA), have been lobbying Barroso for a relaxation of the European nature conservation policy. The Volkskrant newspaper reported on this on 9 and 11 January. Olff: ‘It appears that Balkenende sees little importance in nature conservation. Following his interference in the Hedwigepolder, this is the second time that he has tried to go against cabinet policy and international agreements on the environment.In this area of policy he is conducting party politics instead of acting like a Prime Minister. I find this highly questionable’.

Curriculum Vitae

Han Olff (1962) graduated in Biology from the University of Groningen in 1988. In 1992 he received his PhD in Ecology from the same university. He then worked at Wageningen University and in the United States as a researcher. In 2002 he was appointed Professor of Community and Conservation Ecology at the University of Groningen, where he researches biodiversity and nature management, both in the Netherlands and in tropical savannas and rainforests.

Contact details

Prof. H. Olff

Last modified:31 January 2017 11.13 p.m.
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