Geoparks: Conserving Geodiversity and Biodiversity

IndawGyi Lake is one of the wetlands of Myanmar. Photo: Htay Aung
IndawGyi Lake is one of the wetlands of Myanmar. Photo: Htay Aung

The Earth history with all the variability and richness of different abiotic and biotic processes is recorded in geological formations. By studying these processes we are able not only to understand them, but also predict the future environmental changes according to the phrase: “the past is the key to the future”. The evidence for the history of the Earth is one of the most important features of geodiversity (Eberhard, 1997).

Geopark, a kind of unique natural area, has the geoheritage landscapes of special geological scientific significance, rare natural attributes, high ornamental value and a certain scale and distribution scope as the body and integrates other natural landscapes and human landscapes. It provides people not only with the places of high scientific taste for tourism, leisure vacation, healthcare and rehabilitation and cultural entertainment, but also is the key protection zone of geoheritage landscapes and biological environment and the base for the research and popularisation of earth sciences. Main objectives of building geopark include the following three aspects; protection of geoheritage, popularisation of geoscience knowledge, expansion of tourism and promotion of local economic development.
Imagine, if you can, the earth is very uniform planet which composed of a single monomineralic rock such as a pure quartzite. A planet that is a perfect sphere with no topography and where there is no such thing as plate tectonics. Although it has weather, this is very similar everywhere with a solid cloud cover, light rains and no winds, so that there is little variation in surface processes or weathering. Consequently, the soil is also very uniform. The absence of gradients and surface processes means that there is little erosion, transportation and deposition of sediments. This planet has been few changes in its 4.6 thousand million year history and there is, in any case, no sedimentary record of these changes. To say the least, our planet earth is not a diverse or dynamic planet.
Thankfully our world is not like this. It is highly diverse in almost all senses – physical, biological and cultural – and although this produces problems for society and even conflicts and war, would we really want a less diverse and interesting home? The diversity of the physical world is huge and humans have put this diversity to good use. We have found that the diversity of physical resources on the planet is valuable to us in an enormous number of ways, even if we often fail to fully appreciate this fact. Diversity also brings with it flexibility of technologies and a greater ability to adapt to change. (M. Gray, 2004)

There are two aspects of lithosphere conservation:
1. The economical aspect encompasses mineral deposits, surface and ground waters, soils and atmosphere (mainly troposphere) making up a source of abiotic natural resources. These elements constitute a basis for sustainable development.
2. The natural aspect includes geodiversity which is an integral part of ecosystems influencing both biodiversity and landscape. The relationship between geodiversity and landscape is visible especially in desert and semi desert areas covered with scarce vegetation.
Geodiversity (geological diversity) may be defined as a natural diversification of Earth’s surface including geological, geomorphological, soil, and surface water features, and systems formed by natural (endogenic and/or exogenic) processes, in places with a different anthropogenic imprint. Based on this definition, geosite may be determined as an outer manifestation of these processes. Most of the geosites can be used as geoindicators for monitoring physical and chemical changes in the environment. However, the term mentioned last includes also other abiotic elements that do not exhibit outer features, i.e. changes of water table, variations in chemistry of waters, sediments, soils, etc..

Biodiversity is defined as “the variability among living organisms from all sources including, inter alia, terrestrial, marine and other aquatic ecosystems and the ecological complexes of which they are part; this includes diversity within species, between species and of ecosystems.” The importance of this definition is that it draws attention to the many dimensions of biodiversity. It explicitly recognizes that every biota can be characterized by its taxonomic, ecological, and genetic diversity and that the way these dimensions of diversity vary over space and time is a key feature of biodiversity. Thus only a multidimensional assessment of biodiversity can provide insights into the relationship between changes in biodiversity and changes in ecosystem functioning and ecosystem services. Biodiversity includes all ecosystems—managed or unmanaged. Sometimes biodiversity is presumed to be a relevant feature of only unmanaged ecosystems, such as wildlands, nature preserves, or national parks. This is incorrect. Managed systems—be they plantations, farms, croplands, aquaculture sites, rangelands, or even urban parks and urban ecosystems—have their own biodiversity. Given that cultivated systems alone now account for more than 24% of Earth’s terrestrial surface, it is critical that any decision concerning biodiversity or ecosystem services address the maintenance of biodiversity in these largely anthropogenic systems (MA, 2005).

It is prudent here to highlight the difference between conservation and preservation as applied to the natural environment. Conservation can be taken as meaning the ‘active management of something to ensure its quality is retained’. This places the emphasis on management of something to retain a particular quality, rather than on preservation of the feature, site, process etc. with no change at all. Geoconservation, therefore, usually involves working with natural change to retain a feature of interest, for example, maintaining a clear exposure of a stratigraphical sequence in an eroding cliff, despite the erosion. It is not about stopping the erosion and freezing the exposure in time.
Preservation on the other hand, can be taken as ‘keeping something in the same state, stopping it from changing’, i.e. mothballing it and allowing no physical change. In simple terms geoconservation can be defined as action taken with the intent of conserving and enhancing geological and geomorphological features, processes, sites and specimens. As successful conservation often depends on understanding and valuing the feature, process, site, or specimens to be conserved, the actions taken often also include promotional and awareness raising activities.

Why does society need geoconservation?
The implementation of effective geoconservation strategies brings great advantages to society. Firstly, it raises awareness of the need to understand natural systems and the geological component of ecosystem services. Moreover, well-managed geological sites can support different types of sustainable use with clear benefits for the society, such as scientific, educational and economic use. This is already happening in many territories around the world such as with Global Geoparks which have been recently fully recognized by UNESCO.
IUCN – the International Union for Conservation of Nature – is the global authority on the status of the natural world and the measures needed to safeguard it. The interest of IUCN for geoconservation has increased in the last decade as revealed by the approval of three geoheritage focused resolutions in 2008, 2012 and 2016, the creation in 2014 of the Geoheritage Specialist Group under the IUCN World Commission on Protected Areas, and the integration of a geoconservation chapter in the “Protected Area Governance and Management” handbook published in 2015. IUCN is also responsible for the assessment of the “Outstanding Universal Value” of geoheritage included in new UNESCO World Heritage applications, together with a strong cooperation regarding UNESCO Global Geoparks.
There are several organisations that are involved especially in geodiversity conservation, e.g. IUGS (International Union of Geologic Sciences), ProGeo and UNESCO. Both ProGeo and IUGS have developed a program which objective is to create a network of geosites. By contrast, the UNESCO initiative is focused on geoparks aiming at geological heritage promotion and economical development.
Studying geodiversity enables us to understand the history of our planet and how life has evolved. This information helps us not only to manage the environment but also to better understand global changes and natural hazards, i.e. flash floods, landslides, earthquakes, volcano eruptions etc. Geoconservation should be driven by the need to conserve geodiversity, given its value and the real and potential threats to it. Without geodiversity there would be little biodiversity, and an integrated approach to nature conservation and sustainable land management ought to be obvious.

1. Murray Gray, 2004. Geodiversity valuing and conserving abiotic nature.
2. Murray Gray, 2005. Geodiversity and geoconservation
3. MA, 2005. Biodiversity and Human Well-being

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