Green light to save world's endangered species

Posted: 27 February 2004

An ambitious plan to stem the loss of species and expand protected areas around the world was given the green light by 161 countries at a UN meeting on biodiversity in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

After 12 days of often tense negotiations, government representatives agreed to establish a global network of protected areas by 2010 on land and by 2012 in the world's oceans.

Yellow-breasted Capuchin. © Russell Mittermeier
Yellow-breasted Capuchin. © Russell Mittermeier
Yellow-breasted Capuchin (Cebusxanthosternos) is a CriticallyEndangered Neotropical monkeyfound in Brazil's Atlantic Forestregion. It has a very restrictedand highly fragmented range. Thespecies is also heavily hunted asbushmeat and for use as pets.© Russell Mittermeier

The 2010 target for significantly reducing the current rate of biodiversity loss was endorsed in 2002 by ministers at the previous Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) conference and by the World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg.

The new measures agreed in Malaysia include conserving at least 10 per cent of each of the world's ecosystems, be it marine, mountain or rainforest. In addition, parties to the conference pledged to protect biodiversity-rich areas, stabilise populations of certain species in decline and ensure that any species of wild animals or plants are not endangered by global trade. It is hope that these measures will achieve a sharp reduction in the rate of species loss within six years.

While some 1.75 million species of all kinds have been scientifically described, highly uncertain estimates suggest the real total could be 14 million. Estimates of the global extinction rate for species also vary widely.

To protect the earth's biodiversity and to achieve the 2010 target, representatives at the Malaysia meeting also agreed to expand the world's protected areas such as 'biosphere reserves' and 'wildlife parks'.

Funding dilemma

While the ambitious programme was welcomed by conservationists, many fear that governments will not provide the financial support to cover the 14 billion global annual shortfall needed to protect biodiversity.

"The plan to establish a global network of protected areas is commendable and provides governments with a strong set of tools to stop the deaths of many species and the destruction of the forests and depletion of our oceans," said Martin Kaiser of Greenpeace. "But unless national governments take this seriously at home and provide the financial support needed to make all this work, it's like being given the toolbox and refusing to open it."

Currently, only 12 per cent of the earth's land surface has been designated as protected. While this exceeds the 10 per cent target set at the Earth Summit in Rio in 1992, many so-called protected areas in developing countries are known as 'paper parks' because governments lack the financial and technical ability - and sometimes political will - to protect them.

Signatory governments agreed to support developing countries by helping them improve their institutional and technical capacity to protect biodiversity in their territories. In addition, it was agreed that rich countries must now redirect their overseas developing aid to the conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity.

Indigenous peoples

Officials also acknowledged the role of indigenous and local communities in the conserving biodiversity by agreeing that these groups be involved in all decisions on the management of protected zones.

On the downside, supporters of the rights of indigenous peoples were disappointed that no agreement had been reached to protect their traditional knowledge from bio-piracy.

However, local communities would benefit from new global rules designed to share the benefits of biodiversity. Agreement was reached to develop an international regime that will benefit scientists and corporations who want access to the genetic resources of developing countries, while rewarding these countries at the same time.

The idea is that by granting an international company or other organisation access to its genetic resources (such as plants that can be used to produce new pharmaceuticals or fragrances), a country or local community will in return receive a fair share of the profits or other benefits. A working group has been established to develop these rules.

"By giving biodiversity-rich countries a greater stake in protecting their valuable biological resources, this future regime could make an enormous contribution to the goals of the Convention on Biological Diversity," said Hamdallah Zedan, Executive Secretary of the Convention.

Voluntary guidelines on biodiversity and tourism development were also adopted. Environmentally-sustainable tourism, or ecotourism, was recognised as a positive economic development for many countries for its capacity to generate jobs and revenues, providing an incentive for preserving natural areas.

Ocean blues

Short-beaked Common Dolphin (<em>Delphinus delphis</em>). © Giovanni Bearzi
Short-beaked Common Dolphin (Delphinus delphis). © Giovanni Bearzi
Short-beaked Common Dolphin (Delphinus delphis). The Mediterranean subpopulation of Delphinus delphis has declined by more than 50 per cent over the last 30-45 years and is assessed as Endangered. There has been a reduction in the availability of dolphin prey in the Mediterranean through a combination of environmental changes, overfishing and habitat degradation. Competition with fisheries and bycatch directly threaten the subpopulation, while high levels of polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) in Mediterranean dolphins, compared to levels in dolphins from other areas, may cause immune suppression and reproductive impairment.© Giovanni Bearzi.

However, the conservation agency, WWF, criticised the failure of delegates to agree on clear measures to preserve rich marine and coastal areas, calling it a missed opportunity. Only 0.5 per cent of the oceans are currently protected, compared to 12 per cent for terrestrial areas.

Targets and timetables to halt the current loss of marine biodiversity and restore the health and productivity of the world's oceans and coasts will now be deferred to the next CBD Conference of the Parties in 2006 in Brazil.

However, delegates did agree to establish link-protected areas at sea in the next eight years, but no actual plan of action was agreed.

'Assassin of life'

Meanwhile, Greenpeace took the opportunity at the meeting to announce the winners of its 2004 Champion Assassin of Life on Earth Award. According to the organisation, this disreputable honour is given to a country who has done the most to weaken the outcome of the UN Summit for Life on Earth and bring an end to biodiversity on earth.

"Malaysia and Australia did so much to undermine the effectiveness of the CBD, that Greenpeace could only give the award to both," said Martin Kaiser of Greenpeace.

According to Kaiser, Malaysia was nominated for providing a draft Ministerial Statement with no substance, and for their refusal to put Protected Areas on the official ministerial agenda, even though it was the one of the priority themes for the Conference.

Australia received the nomination for its insistence on introducing trade issues into the CBD, undermining the precautionary principle of the convention, and questioning agreed targets.

The Seventh Session of the Conference of the Parties (COP 7) to the Convention on Biological Diversity was attended by some 2,000 participants, including 80 ministers. COP 8 will be held in Brazil in 2006.

Related links:

Convention on Biodiversity

WWF International

Indigenous Knowledge Biodiversity (Science and Development Network report, August 2002)

From our website:

Biodiversity countdown to 2010

Revealed: how global warming will cause extinction of a million species

Oblivion threat to 12,000 species

Meeting the biodiversity challenge 2010