A new idealism

13 January 2011 | Article

Governments may have done the right thing in Nagoya but we can only save biodiversity if the world at large connects with nature, says Jeffrey A. McNeely.

Way back in 1981, at IUCN’s General Assembly in Christchurch, New Zealand, the organization’s members instructed their Secretariat to undertake an analysis of the technical, legal, economic and financial matters relating to the conservation, accessibility and use of genetic resources “with a view to providing the basis for an international arrangement and for rules to implement it.”

A dozen years later, following lengthy negotiations among governments, such an international arrangement was agreed. In 1993, the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) entered into force, with its objectives of conserving biological diversity, ensuring sustainable use of biological resources, and equitably sharing the benefits arising from the use of genetic resources. It took another 17 years for this third objective to finally become a central part of the CBD, with the decision by the Conference of Parties at its recent meeting in Japan, to adopt a Protocol on Access and Benefit Sharing.

Reading the press reports might leave the impression that the 7,000 or so people attending the Nagoya meeting were obsessed with negotiating the protocol, and indeed it did consume a disproportionate amount of attention. But of far greater interest to most IUCN Members are the numerous other decisions, on the biodiversity dimensions of protected areas, forests, biofuels, climate change, agriculture, geoengineering, invasive alien species, mountains, traditional knowledge, the involvement of the private sector, inland waters, coastal and marine issues, plant conservation, dry and sub-humid lands, poverty, incentive measures, and so forth.

Does this cornucopia of issues mean that international conventions in support of conservation are so overwhelmed with details that they can no longer function? Or does it indicate that governments finally understand that a sustainable future needs to be based on effective management of biological resources? The answer might fall somewhere between these two extremes.

Certainly those who attended the Nagoya meeting had moments of deep frustration and many sleepless nights. The smaller delegations undoubtedly felt disadvantaged because they lacked the staff to attend the multitude of side events and contact groups.

But the length of the agenda can also be interpreted as a strength, reflecting the insight that biodiversity is essential to any sustainable relationship between people and the rest of nature. Biological resources by
their very nature are renewable when managed appropriately and provide the capacity for nature to adapt to changing conditions. The private sector also showed promising signs of recognizing that it, too, has much to gain from biodiversity, and much to contribute to its conservation. And the multitude of civil society organizations from all over the world, essentially holding a biodiversity fair in parallel to the governmental negotiations, demonstrated that the general public has a deep and abiding interest in nature as an essential element of human well-being.

All of this sounds promising, especially in light of the research findings launched at Nagoya demonstrating that conservation action has helped save more than 60 species that otherwise might have disappeared
forever, and the report of the TEEB (The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity) study that highlighted the enormous value of biodiversity and unacceptable costs of its continuing decline.

But optimism, while a healthy state of mind, is premature in the fi eld of biodiversity. Some countries, such as Brazil, have a public that is very well informed about biodiversity, but people living in temperate countries seem to have only a vague understanding of the topic and its importance. Many of the conservation targets adopted at Nagoya were in the form of slowing the rate of degradation or loss—in other words, hoping that things get worse less quickly, but not actually turning around and starting to replenish the nature that we have destroyed in our rush to perceived wealth.

Nagoya was an encouraging step forward, but now the ideals need to be converted into action that conserves biodiversity, uses biological resources sustainably and equitably shares the benefits arising from the use of genetic resources. We need to redouble our efforts to understand the intricate workings of nature and use these new insights to manage human behaviour in harmony with nature. We need to recognize that biodiversity and climate change are part of the same story, with cause and effect intertwined and biodiversity offering the best opportunity to enable us to adapt to change. We need to enlist all of society in a global effort to conserve biodiversity using approaches appropriate to local conditions and cultures. We need to replace our obsession with economic growth defined in how much material we can consume with a more modest approach that defines economic growth in terms of better quality of life, perhaps building on Bhutan’s concept of ‘gross national happiness’. And finally, as part of such an approach, we need to provide more opportunities for people to unplug themselves from virtual reality and reconnect with nature that is wild in tooth and claw, or at least reflects the great natural and cultural diversity that blesses our planet.

Jeffrey A. McNeely is IUCN’s Senior Science Advisor.