World hails historic deal to tackle extinction crisis

Posted: 30 October 2010

After over 18 years of discussion, nearly 200 governments  today agreed on a new treaty to manage more fairly the world’s genetic resources and adopted a strategic  plan to tackle the crisis of mass extinction.

The approval came on the last day of the convention on biological diversity meeting at Nagoya, Japan.

It was agreed to increase the extent of land-based protected areas and national parks to 17 per cent of the Earth’s surface up from around 12.5 per cent now, and to extend marine protected areas to 10 per cent, up from under one per cent currently. Targets will be set for lifting the extinction risk from known threatened species by 2020.

While some environmental campaigners criticised this as a timid reponse to an overhelming problem, with inadequate funding to back it up, there was huge relief that  agreement was reached - after the relativr failure of last year's Copenhagen gathering on climate change..

Plants and animals

The new treaty, a Protocol to the main convention, lays down  ground rules on how nations cooperate in obtaining genetic resources from animals to plants and fungi.

St Helena Redwood (<i>Trochetiopsis erythroxylon</i>) is a tree endemic to St. Helena and is Extinct in the Wild. © Rebecca Cairns-Wicks
St Helena Redwood (Trochetiopsis erythroxylon) is a tree endemic to St. Helena and is Extinct in the Wild. After settlers arrived on the island, the species was heavily exploited for its excellent timber and bark which was used for tanning hides. By 1718, the species was already extremely rare. Further losses occurred when flax plantations began in the late 1800s. By the mid 20th century, only one redwood survived and this single tree is the source of all the Redwoods known in cultivation today.
© Rebecca Cairns-Wicks

 It also outlines how the benefits, arising for example when a plant’s genetics are turned into a commercial product such as a pharmaceutical, are shared with the countries and communities who have conserved and managed that resource often for millennia.

The new Nagoya Protocol lays out rules on how derivatives — substances and compounds derived from genetic resources - will be dealt with under a new global regime.

It also deals with the tricky issue of traditional knowledge and pathogens — for example how developed countries may in emergency situations obtain a flu virus in order to develop a vaccine to counter a possible epidemic.

The Protocol also says governments should begin considering ways of recompensing developing countries for genetic material that may have been collected years, decades even centuries ago - if in future they become used to produce say a new pharmaceutical or crop variety.

One option may be to put a proportion of any profits arising into a special fund to be used by developing countries in order, for example, to build conservation or scientific capacity.

Strategic plan

As part of the Strategic Plan, governments agreed to study how funds can best be mobilized to help developing countries to meet the new targets.

They also agreed to take a ‘precautionary approach’ in  emerging areas such as geo-engineering in order to combat climate change and the development of synthetic biofuels.

Achim Steiner, Executive Director of the UN Environment Programme (UNEP), was enthusiastic about the outcome of the meeting. “This is a day to celebrate in terms of a new and innovative response to the alarming loss of biodiversity and ecosystems. And a day to celebrate in terms of opportunities for lives and livelihoods in terms of overcoming poverty and delivering sustainable development”.

“It is also an important moment for the United Nations and the ability of countries to put aside the narrow differences."

He said the two-week meeting, building on 10 months of the UN’s International Year of Biodiversity, had also delivered a sea change in the global understanding of the multi-trillion dollar importance of biodiversity and forests, freshwaters and other ecosystems to the global economy and to national economies, and in particular for the “GDP of the poor”.

UNEP said the case for this had been built via The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity (TEEB), with support from developed governments including Germany, Norway and the United Kingdom. Other countries, including Brazil and India, announced they would be launching their own national TEEB studies.

A supporting partnership was also announced by the World Bank to‘green’ national accounts and place ‘natural capital’ within national economic and development plans. The project will start in six to 10 countries including Colombia and Mexico.

Jim Leape, Director General of WWF International, said WWF welcomed the adoption of the new 10 year biodiversity rescue plan.

“This agreement reaffirms the fundamental need to conserve nature as the very foundation of our economy and our society. Governments have sent a strong message that protecting the health of the planet has a place in international politics and countries are ready to join forces to save life on Earth.”

However, new money was vital to urgently tackle the rapid loss in the world’s biodiversity.“While significant progress has been made on many fronts, there is still work to do to mobilize the resources that will be required to help the developing world reach their targets.”

“We were disappointed that most rich countries came to Nagoya with empty pockets – unable or unwilling to provide the resources that will make it possible for the developing world to implement their ambitious targets.” said Leape.