Minister of Water and Environmental Affairs Buyelwa Sonjica on Monday launched the International Year of Biodiversity and urged South Africans not to take for granted the environmental services that sustain their existence.
"The flow of benefits or ecosystem services from biodiversity - or the natural capital - is estimated at R73-billion, contributing 7% of GDP [gross domestic product] per annum," Sonjica noted.
She added that it was a priority to make policymakers and the public more aware of how citizens depended on biodiversity for survival.
Sonjica stated that biodiversity is the basis for human development, adding that ecosystems supply food and fuel, clean the air and water and help regulate the climate. She also noted that biodiversity is being lost at an unprecedented rate owing to climate change as well as urbanisation and development.
Noting that rural development and land redistribution were priorities for the South African government, she highlighted the challenge of ensuring that this was done responsibly and sustainably.
"We understand the need to balance the integrity and protection of ecosystems with sustainable development. This is not an easy task."
Sonjica also noted the importance of science to improve decisionmaking.
"We must empower our communities to join hands with government to deal with unscrupulous people who loot our natural resources to a point of depletion. I would like to call on all communities to jealously guard their natural resources," Sonjica said.
South Africa has the third highest variety of flora and fauna in the world and although it covers only 2% of the land surface of the world, it is home to almost 10% of the world's plants; 5,8% of its mammals; 8% of its bird species; 4,6% of its reptiles; 5,5% of its insects; and about 15% of all known coastal marine species.
The United Nations General Assembly declared 2010 as the International Year of Biodiversity with a view of engaging people to protect life on earth.
"It is only through broad-based partnerships, commitment, cooperation, coordination, communication, capacity and capital that we shall succeed in ensuring that life will continue to flourish on Earth for the benefit of all species, including the human species," Sonjica said.
The Department of Water and Environmental Affairs would have a different focus area for each month during the International Year of Biodiversity.
In January the theme was: biodiversity is life; February: biodiversity is precious; March: biodiversity is fresh water; April: biodiversity is food and energy; May: biodiversity is wealth; June: biodiversity is security; July: biodiversity is clean air; August: biodiversity is health; September: biodiversity is heritage; October: biodiversity is beautiful; November: biodiversity is threatened; and December: biodiversity is our future.
These themes would be linked to various environmental focus days celebrated throughout the year.