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World Governments Reach Biodiversity Agreement

Nagoya conference adopts sweeping new conservation plan and deal to fight biopiracy

Just past 1:30 this morning, a Nagoya meeting hall packed with representatives of 179 countries heaved a collective sigh of relief and burst into a standing ovation. After two weeks of tense negotiations, some deft diplomacy by Japan, and a final meeting that balanced for 8 hours on a razor's edge between failure and success, delegates to the UN biodiversity conference adopted an agreement on access and benefit sharing for genetic resources - and gave the world desperately-needed proof that governments can indeed work together to solve environmental problems. Within minutes, the delegates also adopted a strategic plan for conservation and a deal to secure financing for that plan by 2012.

"We've overcome the curse of Copenhagen," said The Nature Conservancy's Andrew Deutz immediately after the decision was reached.            

The negotiations had once again pitched developing countries against developed on questions of financial assistance and targets, mirroring the splits that brought down climate talks a year ago. But this time, as environment ministers streamed from the meeting that marked the end of the conference, those from both rich and poor nations were smiling.            

"Where's the champagne? This is a great day for Japan and a great day for the environment and a great day for the UN," enthused Karl Falkenberg, the European Commission's director general for the environment.  A few minutes later he returned, beer in hand, and added, "Even in these enormous groups we can reach agreement. Cheers!"  

New agreement prevents biopiracy, but may slight indigenous rights              

Netumbo Nandi-Ndaitwah, Namibia's environment minister, was positive but subdued in her reaction to the outcome, which was the result of compromise on all three of the key points under discussion: conservation targets, financing for poor countries to reach those targets, and a new system to make sure genetic resources are fairly accessed, and the profits from them equitably shared.            

"We are happy a consensus was reached. The [Access and Benefit Sharing] Protocol is a compromise document. None can say they are 100% happy, but if implemented it will be able to assist the poor in Africa who are the custodians of biodiversity," said Nandi-Ndaitwah.

The newly-minted Nagoya Protocol on Access and Benefit Sharing applies not only to genetic resources (such as medicinal compounds found in wild plants), but also to the traditional knowledge associated with them. For that reason, the agreement will impact indigenous communities most heavily. Scientists and corporations who wish to access resources held by indigenous peoples must now get prior informed consent from them, and share the benefits as well.

But while some indigenous representatives were satisfied with the agreement, others said it stripped them of their rights. Paul Joffe, a lawyer representing central Canada's Grand Council of the Crees at COP 10, explained that the protocol requires potential users to deal directly with indigenous peoples only where domestic law acknowledges their rights over resources. Where indigenous groups have not yet gained those rights within their own national legal system, users would deal instead with the state.  

"Our inherent rights are not dependent on state recognition," said Joffe. "Taking genetic resources around the world from indigenous people is worth billions of dollars a year. It doesn't make sense that these people are left dispossessed and impoverished."

Nevertheless, most participants welcomed the agreement as the best possible result after 18 long years of discord over access and benefit sharing, which is a central element of the Convention on Biological Diversity.  

Conservation Plan             

Once an agreement on access and benefit sharing fell into place around three in the afternoon on Friday, delegates frantically worked out a back-room deal on financing and the strategic plan for conservation. According to the so-called Aichi Targets adopted, countries agree by 2020 to halt biodiversity loss, set aside 17% of land and 10% of the sea in protected areas, halve the loss of natural habitats, and manage farms, forests, and fishery stocks sustainably, among other goals. The targets for protected areas in particular were hotly debated, and ended up lower than most NGOs had hoped.            

"We're very relieved not to go home empty-handed, but I'd like to have seen more ambitious targets, especially on marine protected areas," said Nathalie Rey, head of the Greenpeace delegation. Currently less than 1% of the high seas are protected, but with fish stocks crashing and global warming threatening the very basis of sea life, scientists say closer to 20% will need to be set aside. Nevertheless, the 10% target was welcomed by many, after a nail-biting two weeks during which China lobbied for even lower numbers.  

No new money till 2012           

The final - and, for developing countries, most disappointing - piece of the Nagoya biodiversity package was financing. At the outset Brazil and countries had said they would boycott conservation targets unless developed nations promised substantial financial help to reach those targets. But in the end, poor countries are going home with no hard numbers on how much richer countries will give them for biodiversity conservation. Instead, they have a decision promising that these targets will be set at the next biodiversity gathering in 2012, after each country calculates just how much money it will take to achieve the targets they adopted today.            

BirdLife International's Konstantin Kreiser, who had lobbied for a ten-fold increase in biodiversity aid, said he thought the deal would be an effective way to guarantee more funding in two years.            

"Countries have committed to a clearly defined process that won't allow them excuses," said. Developing countries apparently thought so too, and signed on to the deal with little objection in the final meeting tonight. Host country Japan did make a substantial pledge of $2 billion on Wednesday, although the money will come from the existing aid budget rather than represent an overall increase in foreign assistance.               

Beyond the Big Three  

On the sidelines of the dramatic battle over the three main items, countries also adopted more than forty other decisions. These will influence everything from how biodiversity relates to gender and poverty, to the particular dangers facing plants and animals on mountains and in deserts. Here are a few of the most interesting decisions approved today:  

Steps towards safeguarding the sea: Countries agreed to hold regional workshops to identify and make a list of "ecologically or biologically significant areas" of the ocean. This is a key step towards setting up an expanded network of marine protected areas. Reaching this seemingly-benign agreement required more than seven intense debates, because some countries didn't want to hand any decisions related to the currently-unregulated high seas over to the Convention on Biological Diversity.  

Geo-engineering moratorium: Massive mirrors in the sky, man-made clouds over the arctic, and other climate-related geo-engineering projects will be banned until impacts on the environment have been adequately studied. Small-scale scientific studies are allowed, and the ban does not apply to capturing and storing carbon from fossil fuels before it enters the atmosphere (for instance, at a coal-fired electricity plant).  Otherwise, it represents a comprehensive moratorium on the controversial technology.  

Getting to the root of the problem (literally): Countries agreed on a ten-year Global Strategy for Plant Conservation that includes protecting at least 15% of each ecological region and making sure three quarters of all threatened plants are conserved. "As plants are the basis of all life on earth, it is hugely significant that we have a strategy that specifically addresses plant conservation and that this is apparently 'non-controversial'," said Suzanne Sharrock, Director of Global Programs at Botanic Gardens Conservation International. She added that an earlier set of similar targets has already led many countries to do more to conserve their plant communities.      

The United States has not ratified the Convention on Biological Diversity, and therefore is not bound by any of the agreements reached today. 

Winifred Bird
Winifred Bird is a freelance journalist and translator focusing on the environment and architecture. From 2005 to 2014 she lived in rural Japan, where she covered the 2011 tsunami, earthquake, and nuclear disaster for publications including the Japan Times, Environmental Health Perspectives, and Yale Environment 360. When she’s not writing she can usually be found in her vegetable garden. She currently lives in the northern Illinois.

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Way to go, Winnie!  I love the way you are getting right in there and turning out quality work, and getting it published.    BD, which I think basically equates to habitat, and it’s loss to habitat loss, is one of the big inter-related three together with Global Warming and Ocean Acidification and Eutrophication.    The world just doesn’t get it yet about BD, far less than Global Warming.  More power to you, though I know it’s not easy. 

By Brian Williams on Fri, November 05, 2010 at 2:26 pm

Thanks for your detailed coverage of the Nagoya conference. Also, the October 15 result was a landmark decision regarding liability and redress issues for contamination of genetically modified organisms (GMO) and their impact on biodiversity.

This treaty will make it possible for countries to halt approvals of GMO crops that may have a serious impact on the biological diversity in their country, if related species may be affected by the introduction of GMOs. This new treaty is important in addition to the FAO/WHO Codex Alimentarius that deals with safety assessment and risk analysis of GMO foods…

By MF on Sat, October 30, 2010 at 6:08 am

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