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North-South Divide Again Clouds Biodiversity Talks

Cross-posted from IPS

Protesters in Nagoya demand a fair and equitable access and benefit-sharing protocol. Credit:Stephen Leahy/IPS

By Stephen Leahy

NAGOYA, Japan, Oct 19, 2010 (IPS) – The accelerating destruction of natural habitats will take millions of years to recover from, scientists have warned. This may be the last chance to apply the brakes, Achim Steiner, executive director of the U.N. Environment Programme, reminded delegates representing the 193 member countries of the U.N. Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD).

“This meeting is being held to address a very simple fact: we are destroying life on this Earth,” Steiner said at the opening plenary meeting Monday. “It is absolutely essential that nations work together here.”

Ryu Matsumoto, Japan’s environment minister, warned that the world was about to reach a threshold where the loss of biodiversity would become irreversible.

“We’re now close to a tipping point on biodiversity,” he said. “We may cross that in the next 10 years.”

With 16,000 participants, the Oct. 18-29 gathering is by far the biggest international meeting on biodiversity. The term biodiversity refers to the variety of plants, animals and other species that provide a wide range of services to humanity.

Insect pollinators, including bees, provide services worth an estimated $211 billion annually, representing close to 10 percent of the world’s agricultural output for human food. A new estimate puts the cost of the loss of biodiversity and ecosystems to the human race at $2 trillion to $5 trillion a year.

Despite the trillions of dollars of natural services at risk, countries failed to meet their 2010 target of substantially reversing the rate of loss of species. “Let us have the courage to look in the eyes of our children and admit that we have failed, individually and collectively,” said Ahmed Djoghlaf, executive secretary of the CBD.

“If we allow the current trends to continue we shall soon reach a tipping point with irreversible and irreparable damage to the capacity of the planet to continue sustaining life on Earth,” Djoghlaf told delegates.

“This is indeed a defining moment in the history of mankind,” he concluded.

Despite the high stakes and passionate words, there is no guarantee that countries will agree to a strong agreement to curb the loss of biodiversity by 2020.

Without a fair and equitable access and benefit-sharing protocol (ABS), there will be no agreement, said Gurdial Singh Nijar, the Malaysian delegate representing the Like- Minded Asia-Pacific group.

Many drugs, cosmetics and other valuable biochemicals used in the industrial world have been derived from plants and animals, very often from countries in the developing world. Everyone agrees countries and communities where these originated should be compensated. The devil is in the details, and those have been under negotiation for more than six years and remain contentious and complex.

“We cannot leave out derivative products including biochemicals,” Nijar said. In addition to the materials, the knowledge of the use of such plants and animals in many cases originates with indigenous people and that must be part of a new agreement.

“If you use traditional knowledge instead of looking for a needle in the haystack you get the needle put on a pin cushion,” said Christine von Weizsacker in reference to benefiting from indigenous peoples’ knowledge.

Thorny issues remain regarding how far down the deriviate chain ought to be compensated, patent issues, and figuring out a workable system for compliance including customs checkpoints, von Weizsacker, a spokesperson for the CBD Alliance, an umbrella of international non-governmental organisations, said in a press conference.

“Poor people need legal protections,” she said.

Without an ABS agreement, countries have shut down access to their genetic resources, says U.N. Environment Programme spokesperson Nick Nuttall. A fly that is decimating the Kenyan mango has a natural predator in Asia but researchers can’t obtain it until there is new protocol, he told IPS.

“This is the golden chance to get an ABS agreement,” Nuttall said.

But to reach agreement participants need to rise above the complex details and set basic ground rules. Afterwards adjustments or changes can be made as problems or issues arise, as has been done under other U.N. agreements.

“Are the risks so high that we can’t agree? We’re worse off without an agreement, in my view,” Nuttall said.

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Biodiversity at the Cliff’s Edge

Cross-posted from IPS

Roseate spoonbills (Platalea ajaja), coastal birds in Sonora, Mexico. Credit:Mauricio Ramos/IPS

By Stephen Leahy*

NAGOYA, Japan, Oct 18, 2010 (Tierramérica) – What nature gives us is often taken for granted, but if its basic elements disappear, human life on Earth would not be possible. The mission of the biodiversity summit under way in Nagoya is to reverse the headlong rush towards the precipice.

The 10th Conference of Parties (COP 10) to the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), Oct. 18-29 in this southern Japanese city, seeks to create a new set of international agreements to halve the rate of loss of natural habitat, end overfishing, achieve zero net deforestation, eliminate harmful subsidies, and ensure that agriculture is sustainable by 2020, among other goals.

Without a successful meeting in Nagoya, achieving the United Nations Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) will be impossible, Janez Potočnik, of the European Union’s Commission for the Environment, told a high-level UN meeting last month in New York.

“Biodiversity” is term used to describe the wide variety of the living things that comprise the planet’s biological infrastructure and provide us with health, wealth, food, water, fuel and other vital services.

Many people fail to understand how dependent humanity is on the many natural services provided by nature, says Hal Mooney, an environmental biologist at Stanford University, in California.

“Those services are considered ‘free’ and not valued under the current economic structures,” Mooney told Tierramérica.

A forest that sequesters carbon, cleans the air, prevents floods, provides food and fuel has no economic value except when it is cut for timber. That has to change and that will be “one of the strongest messages coming out of Nagoya,” said Mooney, who just won the 200,000-dollar Volvo Environment Prize for science.

“We need to get the Ministers of Finance and Trade around the world to understand this,” he said.

That understanding didn’t happen eight years ago when the Convention member nations pledged to cut species loss “significantly” by 2010, International Year of Biodiversity. With minor exceptions, the rates of species loss increased instead of decreasing.

Nearly a quarter of plant species are threatened with extinction, corals and amphibians are in sharp decline, the abundance of all vertebrates has fallen by one-third in the past 30 years, according to the Global Biodiversity Outlook 3 (GBO 3), the most current assessment of the state of the planet’s biodiversity.

The trends are almost all negative, the declines exponential and potential tipping points loom, warned Lovejoy, chief biodiversity advisor to the president of the World Bank, and head of the global scientific review.

“Now’s the time to get serious… We have to take the GBO3 as a huge wake up call,” he said in a Tierramérica interview when the report was released in May.

In Lovejoy’s view, we are experiencing the sixth great extinction event of all life on Earth.

The Nagoya COP 10 meetings will be high-pressure, “all or nothing” negotiations on extremely complex issues, but there is wide consensus on the goals for 2020, said a source at the CBD secretariat.

However, there is much less agreement on the details. A major obstacle is financing for conservation, which needs to increase 10- or even 100-fold to be able to reach the 2020 goals, said the source.

It takes money to protect, conserve and enhance biodiversity. Currently, about three billion dollars annually in overseas development aid goes to help developing countries that are rich in plants and animals but poor in financial and technical resources.

To reach the new 2020 goals, that assistance from developed nations will have to jump to at least 30 billion, and up to 300 billion dollars a year, but “it is a significant challenge for governments to provide that level of financing,” the spokesperson said.

A preparatory CBD meeting in Nairobi last May ended in a North vs. South deadlock on the issue of finance. Delegates in Nairobi left it up to the world leaders attending the Nagoya summit to make the final financing decision.

Many countries are hoping the corporate sector and private donors will become major players in providing financing through programs that pay for ecosystem services or the creation of carbon and biodiversity offset markets, like the proposed REDD+, which adds biodiversity to the Reduced Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation plan.

“We cannot have the conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity without the full engagement of the business community,” Ahmed Djoghlaf, CBD executive secretary, told Tierramérica in an email.

“The idea that only governments and NGOs (non-governmental organisations) can succeed in protecting biodiversity has demonstrated its limit,” Djoghlaf wrote.

During the Nagoya conference there will be a high-level dialogue between corporate leaders and the 150 environment ministers expected to attend. More than 500 business representatives confirmed their participation, and a business and biodiversity initiative will be adopted, according to Djoghlaf.

However, civil society is deeply suspicious of the involvement of business.

The CBD Alliance, a loose coalition of NGOs and civil society organisations, states in a briefing paper that these “innovative” financing approaches are a “distraction from the financial obligations of the North” and largely unproven, carrying risks to local people and the environment.

The industrialised countries can afford to increase their public financial commitment 10-fold, since they spend more than 500 billion dollars a year subsidising the fossil fuel industry, says the CBD Alliance. Moreover, during the 2008 economic crisis, some 6.9 trillion dollars was mobilised to bail out banks and other private financial institutions.

Without new and additional financial resources it will be impossible to implement the CBD’s plans or achieve its 2020 goals, states the coalition.

(*This story was originally published by Latin American newspapers that are part of the Tierramérica network. Tierramérica is a specialised news service produced by IPS with the backing of the United Nations Development Programme, United Nations Environment Programme and the World Bank.)

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UN CBD COP 10: Business and Biodiversity, Hand in Hand

–Anne Petermann, Global Justice Ecology Project Executive Director and North American Focal Point for the Global Forest Coalition

Nagoya, Japan–Today was the opening day of the UN Convention on Biological Diversity’s tenth Conference of the Parties (COP-10).  2010 is the International Year of Biodiversity.  It is also the year by which the UN CBD had tasked itself with achieving a set of “Millenium Development Goal” (MDG) targets with regard to staving off biodiversity loss.

As you can probably imagine, these goals came nowhere close to reality.

At this CBD COP, however, the Parties are pledged to create a new 10 year strategic plan.  Over the course of the next two weeks, the details of this plan will be discussed word by painful word.

The Opening Ceremony of the COP-10 took place this morning.  Part pep rally, part hand wringing, the presentations by the Big Wigs went on ad nauseum.  They went on so long in fact, that the environmental groups present–which had spent a couple of days preparing a 3 minute opening statement to the COP–were not allowed to present it.  No time…

But after all this taking “a hard look at” itself, the CBD has decided NOT to look at the root causes of this failure, but rather to commit itself to buddying up with business in order to devise a win-win that will supposedly protect biodiversity while promoting the interests of industry.

The logic of this green capitalist model is fascinating.  I will share with you a few choice quotes from The Little Biodiversity Finance Book (available in great piles here at COP-10):

“The English playwright Oscar Wilde once commented that the cynic knows the price of everthing but the value of nothing.  Today’s cynics are those who claim biodiversity is priceless, yet are not prepared to pay for it…In the UN year of Biodiversity a quiet revolution is occurring.  Whilst the Millennium Development Goals for stemming biodiversity loss may be missed, the financial crisis is forcing a re-think of how products and services are valued. Investors are thinking, ‘if we got it so wrong with one property, what else out there is incorrectly valued?’  There is a growing realization that wealth creation cannot continue based on financial and social capital alone, but must recognize natural capital too–for without this, national accounts, business accounts and consumer accounts–long term, are ultimately built on sand.”

“[Biodiversity financing] is a natural follow on from REDD, which is essentially valuing one such service, namely the carbon cycle…Such a utilitarian view of biodiversity should not be allowed to erode the inestimable value biodiversity has for the human spirit but should secure it for future generations…This new economy could see the emergence of ‘biodiversity superpowers’ rich in natural capital and able to bargain their ecological muscle for aid or trade.”

Whew.  Where to start with logic like that…

Premise One: Biodiversity is priceless, therefore we should put a price on it.

Premise Two: If you disagree with this oxymoronic-logic, you are a “cynic.”

Premise Three: The lesson from the financial crisis is that “property” was valued incorrectly.  [Wow, that is definitely NOT the lesson I took away from the financial crisis...]

Premise Four: Ongoing wealth creation depends on “natural capital.” Well duh.  Isn’t that kind of the essence of “CAPITALism”–transforming natural “resources” into capital?  But what’s that got to do with protecting biodiversity?

Premise Five: A utilitarian view of nature is a good thing as long as we combine it with a reverential view.  [Again with the oxymoronics.]

Premise Six: Valuing biodiversity appropriately will create “biodiversity superpowers” who can hold their biodiversity hostage for aid or trade.  “Give us your money or the forest gets it.”  And this is a good thing?

Of course, this premise also ignores the reality of things like the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund which have forced so-called “developing” countries into debt for decades by conning them into huge development loans, then using those loans as leverage to force them to sell off their vast natural resources to the lowest bidder–part of the process called “structural adjustment”. Structural adjustment programs are part of what has made the comfortable overconsumptive lifestyles of those of us in the North possible.

But under the premise in this little book, all of a sudden, the rich countries will pay the poor countries in exchange for them protecting their natural wealth.  Hmmm, that sounds familiar.  Debt for nature swaps–oh yeah, that was a smashing success.

Look, let’s face reality, shall we?  One cannot continue to live under a global economy that demands endless growth and simultaneously protect biodiversity.  And one cannot employ the very same economic strategies that have devastated biodiversity to now protect that same biodiversity by merely tweaking them slightly.  Putting a dollar value on nature simply means the rich will be able to control that nature.

And since the author brings up REDD, yes, let’s look at REDD as an example of what to expect from putting a price on biodiversity. Because REDD puts a dollar value on standing forests, it has launched a major global land grab with investors, companies and others buying up forests in the hopes of future profits.  The peoples who live in those forests–and are largely responsible for the fact that they are still standing, I might add–are being displaced.  Kicked out. Here’s your hat, what’s your hurry?

Then there was the World Forestry Congress in October 2009.  The World Bank came to this huge gathering of timber industry executives and Big Greens to tell them about all of the profits to be had from forests under REDD.  By the time they were done, the timber executives were practically drooling.  The World Bank explained there would be around $45 billion in profits to be had under REDD, and that REDD would be very “beneficial for forestry.”  Yes, that’s right, the scheme ostensibly designed to protect forests will mean billions in profits for the very industry that thrives on cutting them down.

In exactly the same way that putting a price on carbon has meant billions in profits for the world’s worst polluters.  And so, commodifying biodiversity will in turn mean vast profit-making for the worst destroyers of biodiversity.

That, my friends, is what COP-10 is all about.

Business and Biodiversity, hand in hand at last…

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