Comment: Underutilized Convention on Biodiversity



Posted on 26 January 1999  | 
Gland, Switzerland: As conservationists, we can say with certainty that more than 31,000 of the world's plant and animal species are currently threatened with extinction. What we cannot be so sure about is the much greater number of species which have either not been scientifically recorded or whose status we simply do not know.

Many of these species are relatively inconspicuous insects or other arthropods, with a restricted distribution range in tropical forests. Their disappearance from the planet is an inevitable consequence of the continued loss of tropical forests  and according to The World Resources Institute one fifth of all such forests was lost between 1960 to 1990. But that, of course, is not the full story of destruction. Other biomes rich in species have been affected badly, with as much as 10 per cent of the world's coral reefs degraded beyond recovery and 50 per cent of the coastal mangroves destroyed during the past 30 years or so.

The gloomy picture I have just painted should not obscure the fact that we have had important successes with many issues and in many places. Between 1990 and 1995, for example, some 1,500 new protected areas, totalling more than 220 million hectares, were created  more than ever before in so short a period. But the trends of biodiversity loss have underlying causes that are unlikely to vanish in the years to come, which in turn makes it unlikely that the pattern of degradation can be halted in less than several decades.

So why does the world community not do something about this sad state of affairs? Most people would probably accept that genetic, species, and ecosystem diversity  the three elements of biodiversity  are crucial to the well-being of human life. In such variety we find our sources of food, our raw materials and fuels, much of our recreation, and the stability of our climate. Should we not be safeguarding that diversity? Does the task not merit a body with the powers of the United Nations Security Council, or something even more effective?

Well, we do have the Convention on Biological Diversity, launched at the UN Conference on Environment and Development in Rio de Janeiro in 1992 and now, with some 172 signatories, one of the important international treaties on the environment. I apologise for omitting to mention it up to this point, but perhaps I may be forgiven. For who among the world's six billion people has ever heard of the Convention on Biological Diversity and, among those few who are aware of it, who knows what it is doing or whether it is achieving anything?

As yet there has been no real assessment of what changes the Convention has brought about. It is true that through its interim financial mechanism, the Global Environment Facility, more than US$600 million went directly into projects for conserving biodiversity in developing countries. That is a significant amount, but it must be said that it is just a tiny proportion of the sums needed to address properly the destructive forces at work. Equally, it is difficult to say what impact the Convention has had on national policies, though it is clear that governments have been pushed into pursuing measures they would otherwise been reluctant to take.

I think that in considering the effectiveness of the Convention, we can say that the jury is still out but it is also fair to note some of its achievements:

*It has begun to fill in the detail on how countries may address the myriad pressures on ecosystems.

*It has taken steps to fill in many of the gaps in scientific knowledge about the range of biodiversity. *It has set up a working group to deal with issues relating to community rights to biodiversity and the sharing of its benefits.

*It is addressing for the first time the importance of biodiversity considerations in Environmental Impact Assessments.

All these are welcome and encouraging steps forward, but WWF believes that more needs to be done in order for the Convention to make a real and lasting difference. It must take a more strategic approach to its work, setting clear targets and adopting realistic timeframes. It should take measures to integrate the proliferation of environmental treaties that exist and to meet the challenge of incorporating real science in its terms of reference.

If we are to see results from the Convention on Biodiversity then we must be prepared to give it muscle and to make that happen takes political will. The roots of political will lie among the people, so it is there that we must begin  by making people more aware of the dangers a continued loss of biodiversity entails and by making the Convention a much better known tool.

(840 words)

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