Is this Convention a lost cause?

Posted: 5 March 2001

Author: Erie Tamale

Author Info: Erie Tamale is Policy Adviser (Convention on Biological Diversity) at WWF International in Gland, Switzerland.Related links:The Convention on Biological DiversityLiving Planet ReportBiodiversity Hotspots

On December 29, 1993, the Convention on Biological Diversity came into force. It was heralded as the most important step yet on the road to sustainable development. Early in 1998, the fourth meeting of the Parties to the Convention met in Bratislava, Slovakia. Bogged down in complex detail, and deeply divided, the meeting met with little more than a yawn from Press and public. So what has been achieved and what can be hoped for? Erie Tamale, of the World Wide Fund for Nature, makes a personal assessment.

On the face of it the Biodiversity Convention has not produced much of an improvement in the state of the world's biological diversity:

  • Rainforest destruction has continued since 1992 at the rate of one per cent a year.

  • According to IUCN, one in eight of the world's plants are on the point of extinction. Golden PagodaGolden Pagoda (Mimetes chrysanthus). "Vulnerable" species found along the mountain ranges bordering the Little Karoo, Western Cape in South Africa.© Craig Hilton-Taylor/IUCN
  • About half of the world's wetlands have been lost.

  • In the European Union over 314 million tons of pesticide are used annually - almost certainly the chief cause of the sharp decline in many bird and invertebrate species.
One could go on, and on...

And yet, no real assessment of what changes the Convention has brought about has been made. Over the last decade, a total of over US$2.2 billion has been allocated to biological diversity for more than 324 projects in 119 countries, of which over US$960 million has been granted through the Global Environment Facility directly to implement the Convention. Not nearly enough, but not insignificant.

The Convention is a massive undertaking: nothing less than an attempt to conserve all life on earth - not just single species, but everything from soil micro-organisms to the entire ecosystem. It is having to confront at every level everything from the exploitation of genetic resources to the forces of globalisation and international trade.

It is having to be a guardian for indigenous peoples and the poorest communities, many of whom rely heavily on biodiversity for their needs. The scope of the Convention is at once its strength and its weakness. Among its 180 parties it is often seen as a threat to the economic aspirations of countries in the North and South. Its work is, inevitably, highly politicised. Tukano manThe Tukano people have an intimate knowledge of the plants and animals of the north-west Amazon© Brian Moser/Hutchison LibraryTake forests, home to between 50-90 per cent of all land species. Countries with substantial forests or forestry industries have blocked progress in this area, using the parallel discussions over a Forestry Convention under the United Nations Forum on Forests (UNFF) as their excuse for non-action.

Action needed

Or science. Nobody knows just how much biodiversity we can afford to lose before the ecological processes on which all human life depends - clean water, soil fertility, climate regulation and even the pollination of crops - will collapse. More certainty would add impetus to action.

However, it would be a mistake to believe that the Convention has achieved nothing. Though it does not lend itself to media-friendly targets like other international treaties, it forms overall goals and policies which create a mandate for important work to be done, and a lever for activists to press. Its success in requiring countries to put national biodiversity strategies in place is a major step forward.

The fourth and fifth meetings of the Conference of the Parties moved ahead on various fronts, each requiring significant work at a national level. For instance, important programmes on marine and coastal biodiversity, inland water ecosystems, agricultural biodiversity, forests and dryland biodiversity have been developed. Furthermore, a Protocol to ensure safe transfer, handling and use of living modified organisms resulting from modern biotechnology that may have adverse effects on biological diversity (i.e. the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety) was adopted last year.

Nevertheless, there is clearly a need for the Convention to adopt a more strategic approach to its work, with clear time frames, targets and assessments. It also needs more muscle on the international stage. More muscle means more political will. And that requires better public education and awareness - something which its supporters are struggling to secure.