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International Sustainability: Natural Resources and Biodiversity - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 4:31 pm on 4th November 2019.

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Photo of Lord Hope of Craighead Lord Hope of Craighead Judge 4:31 pm, 4th November 2019

My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Bruce of Bennachie. Unlike him, I cannot claim to be an expert in these matters but I am an ornithologist in my spare time. I care deeply about natural resources and the benefits of biodiversity, so I greatly welcome this debate. One does not have to travel very far to see and appreciate how much biodiversity matters, and how urgent the need is to preserve it. Although my main interest is in birds, it is no secret that they do not live in a world of their own. They depend on the environment around them for food and shelter, as I can see every day when I am in the hills of east Perthshire at Craighead. Especially, almost all of them depend on trees. Above us is a large forest which was planted about 40 years ago, almost all of it a monoculture of Sitka spruce. It provides shelter for roe and red deer, and foxes; little else seems to live there. But around our cottage the deciduous trees, some old and some new, are full of insects and bird life.

We have a mixture of residents and many visitors that come into our trees from the surrounding grazing land and elsewhere. We have brought new species on to our property by planting trees to increase our biodiversity, which we see when our local crossbills bring their young—with as-yet uncrossed bills—to nibble the buds of our ash trees in early springtime. At home in Edinburgh my wife, who organises these things, decided three years ago that we should stop cutting our grass every two weeks to keep it short and trim, and turn our lawn instead into a meadow. As a result, we now have rich insect life there too, as well as a variety of flowers that attract them. What she has done is part of a very welcome appreciation of the value of meadows up and down the country here in the UK.

What we do here is far from perfect but what a contrast it is to what is happening in far too many countries overseas. I have two images that stick in my mind and two points to raise with the Minister. One concerns Malaysia. A few years ago, I was taken by car from Kuala Lumpur to the international airport some 20 miles away. For much of the journey on either side were plantation upon plantation of palms, which had been planted for the production of palm oil. It was a depressing sight. They were laid out in vast, orderly, regimented rows stretching as far as the eye could see into the distance. I thought of what had been cleared away to make room for them and the huge loss of wildlife that must have resulted. It was the relentless industrial scale of what had been done that was so appalling. If there is a lesson here for all of us, it is that monoculture plantations cannot ever be a substitute for the mature, biodiverse forests that they replace. Protection of what remains of those forests around the world must be a priority.

The other image is from Malawi, one of the poorest countries in sub-Saharan Africa. Many of its people live in and around villages where they grow the crops they need to sustain themselves. The maize they produce needs to be cooked, and they need a source of heat to do this. For too many, that is provided by charcoal, which they obtain by cutting down trees. So the country is gradually being denuded of the trees that are needed to sustain wildlife. There is another problem too. Hillsides denuded of trees are being eroded, and the silt this produces is finding its way into Lake Malawi. As a result, the quality of the water in that huge lake is being diminished and this in turn means that fish, another important food source, are losing out too. The authorities are doing what they can to discourage this practice, but it is not easy to stop it in a poor country where other sources of heat are hard to find. This experience reminds us that trees are not just an important means of soaking up carbon from the atmosphere. They bring all the benefits of biodiversity, and they stabilise the ground on which they grow.

What can be done about this? There are obvious limits to what our Government can do to prevent the further loss of biodiversity in Malaysia in order to produce palm oil. But producers need markets, and they are vulnerable to international pressures. Our Government can surely add their voice to the many who are protesting at what has been going on there, and they can do more to discourage its use here for products that we use at home. I would be interested to hear from the Minister what is being done about this.

As for Malawi, where DfID has a significant and much-valued presence, as it has in the Sahel and elsewhere in sub-Saharan Africa, there is an urgent need to do what we can to assist the authorities there in combating the cutting down of trees for charcoal. There are at least two prongs to what this might involve. One is investment in alternative sources of energy, especially the provision of solar-generated, carbon-free electricity. One can see that in villages where lighting has now been provided, on a small scale, in halls and birthing centres which were formerly dark after sundown but now have light to enable activity to carry on afterwards. Wider use of carbon-free electricity would assist the effort to stop the cutting down of trees. The other prong is education. Just as the people who live there are now learning about the benefits of access to clean water, so it should be about the benefits of preserving the environment. Life in these villages is rooted in traditions which are hard to break down. But surely we can do something to help there, out of the budget that is available for overseas development. I wonder what the Minister can say about this too. I look forward to her winding up this debate.