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U.N. Biodiversity Convention a 'Failure'
Despite all its best intentions, the Convention on biodiversity is hindered by self-interest
Marcel Herbke (mherbcat)     Print Article 
Published 2006-04-04 15:27 (KST)   
"What we are doing now to biodiversity is like burning Renaissance masterpieces to cook dinner."

This statement by Harvard Professor EO Wilson comes close to summing up the imperative need the world has to protect its living.

What he forgot to mention was that we are throwing all our means of production into the fire as well.

Personally, I think a more appropriate analogy would be something involving a starving man who eats his last chicken when the eggs from that chicken could have sustained him and his family for the rest of their lives.

One way or another, the central idea is fairly well recognized and accepted around the world; we need to address the way we treat the environment and everything in it for our own survival and for our quality of life. For those with somewhat stronger moral fiber, there is also the selfless general concern for all the other species we share the planet with.

The United Nations Convention on Biodiversity (CBD) is an international agreement intended to do just that. It is a way in which we manage earth셲 resources to maintain biodiversity and also maintain our way of life. It is a way in which we can sustain our economies and our ecosystems.

Signed in 1992 to put the Agenda 21 principles into realty, it is now regarded as the most authoritative international charter for sustainable resource use. As with the Kyoto Agreement, which is concerned with controlling emissions, pollution and greenhouse gases, the world's largest economy, the U.S., has refused to be party to the CBD.

Economies impact the environment in such a way that the CBD has actually become more of a business agreement than an environmental one. The reason for this is that certain resources such as timber and aspects of the environment such as oceans, are so crucial to economies that businesses around the world want a way to ensure that their core industries are safe. You wouldn't want to invest in a new fleet of fishing vessels if you knew that in three years' time there will no longer be fish in the sea, it simply wouldn't be a wise investment.

The environment, the economy, society, and our future are not all separate things, but instead one big complex organism, with something of a self destructive personality. It is in this current background of "need for a united direction" that the city of Curitiba in Brazil held the 8th bi-annual Conference of Parties (COP8).

Also called the "Summit for Life on Earth," it was held in the last two weeks of March and was aimed at finalizing decisions pertaining to the implementation of the CBD. The key focuses of COP8 were managing the world's forests, oceans and genetically modified crops. There was also concern about biopiracy and how to regulate it.

Of the 188 parties to the convention, this year just over 100 ministers attended, a big improvement from last year's 60 minister meeting. The COP8 was also the largest in history with scientists, civil society activists, policy makers and journalists bringing the attendee list up to over 4,000. So what was the outcome? According to Greenpeace it was "a major failure."

There are numerous people to point the finger at, but the real underlying problem is the persistent mindset that the environment and the economy are separate issues. This is clearly illustrated by the hypocritical stance taken by environmentally friendly countries such as New Zealand, Australia and Canada. These are countries who ardently oppose such practices as whaling and nuclear power. They have some of the highest contributions per capita to environmental NGOs; they tie themselves to old trees and use natural deodorant, all in the name of environmentalism.

When it comes to economics, however, they seem to be speaking a different language. At the CBD, Australia, Canada and New Zealand, along with the U.S. (not a party to the CBD) and a number of biotech companies, spearheaded attempts to initiate field testing of new genetically modified "terminator seeds". This was going directly against the wishes of thousands of peasant farmers who see this seed as a threat to their livelihood as it has the potential to knock out existing crops and establish corporate control on their food supply. Thankfully for the farmers, the voting at COP8 went against New Zealand, Australia, Canada and the U.S. and the moratorium will remain in place over this controversial terminator seed.

However, biopiracy did not fare so well. Biopiracy is when a company controls biological resources from outside the country, which has pre-existing knowledge or access to it. For example, if a company goes into a Brazilian tribe and discovers a new medicine, it can then take a sample back home, isolate the active compound within the remedy and then patent it. The indigenous community no longer owns the medicine and may even have to pay for further use if it. Not content with land and factories, corporations are now trying to colonize life itself, knowledge, plants, micro-organisms, animals, and even human organs, cells, and genes.

Brazil's environment minister Marina Silva, opened the conference calling for legislation against biopiracy, but Australia, New Zealand and Canada argued against it and blocked strict deadlines for the negotiations. "This simply buys time for pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies to secure patents on life under the regime of the World Trade Organisation," said Martin Kaiser, Greenpeace Political Advisor on Forests.

It leads to the question of how advanced human beings really are. Maybe we are the ones with the somewhat self-destructive personality. We are allowing nature to be privatized and commercialized and somehow expect that the moneymen will choose the best direction for it.

The goal of a corporation is to make money, and grow. Success of this model is, therefore, logically the point where every single resource has been bought and sold. The aim of this year셲 conference was to highlight this obvious flaw in the WTO dogma, unify the goals of economics and environmentalism and map a more suitable path.

However, as Kaiser observes, "The Convention on Biological Diversity is like a ship drifting without a captain to steer it. The negotiations have failed to chart a course to stop biopiracy, provide additional financing for protected areas, establish marine reserves on the high seas and to ban illegal logging and trade."

Parties pushing for change in a certain industry were often railroaded by nations with a direct interest in that industry.

For example:

  • Greenpeace political advisor Karen Slack explains, "The need for a moratorium on high seas bottom trawling, the most destructive form of fishing, is now being blocked by a few key countries, who are prioritizing their industry interests over the protection of marine biodiversity."

  • Or in the world's forests -- despite the exploitation of the Amazon by illegal and destructive logging to provide timber products to internal and external markets, the Brazilian government has blocked any meaningful collaboration at a regional and international level. It would simply lose too much income.

  • The developed nations obviously don't really believe their own requests anyway; we're telling countries to stop cutting down trees and selling them to China, while at the same time we are buying wooden furniture and building materials from China at a rate unrivalled in history.

    Governments are prepared to go to summits and talk about plans and programs, but actually fronting up the money or making a change in one's own territory is simply not happening. At the last meeting, CBD member states agreed to establish a global network of protected areas, both forest and ocean, but none of the funding promises have been met and the network is far from becoming a reality.

    Although the U.S. is not party to the CBD, it has been the largest contributor to a biodiversity fund, however, this year it announced it will halve its contribution.

    At the beginning of the conference, Greenpeace presented a roadmap to recovery, a global map of the last intact forests, and a network of marine reserves on the high seas, calling governments to take action. This challenge was ignored.

    So, should we conclude this year's conference was a failure? Are we still throwing Renaissance art into the fire?

    According to CBD secretary and conference organizer Ahmed Djoghlaf, the responsibility is on the citizens as well as governments -- "You know, all these environmental movements are the result of mobilization by civil society, and the CBD is also the result of that. The civil society and NGOs (non government organizations) have made a tremendous contribution in pushing the governments to adopt the legally binding biodiversity measures."

    He believes they are needed even more so now in the next step as we strive to implement so many well intended strategies. "Of course the government has a role, but (now) this is the responsibility of each and every citizen of the world to protect biodiversity."

    Maybe we just need to change our culinary tastes from fried chicken to eggs?
  • ©2006 OhmyNews
    Other articles by reporter Marcel Herbke

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