Wildlife: A Global Convention on Biodiversity Opens in Japan, But Can It Make a Difference?

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The Grey-Shanked Douc Langur in Vietnam is one of the most endangered primates on the planet. Credit: Tilo Nadler


The story of non-human life on the planet Earth over the past few decades is a simple one: loss. While there are always a few bright spots—including the recovery of threatened animals like the brown pelican, thanks to the quietly revolutionary Endangered Species Act—on a planetary scale biodiversity is steadily marching backwards, with extinctions rising and habitat destroyed. Species as diverse as the tiger—less than 3,500 live in the wild today—to tiny frogs could be gone forever if the trends keep heading downwards. In a bitterly ironic twist, back in 2002 the United Nations declared that 2010 would be the international year of biodiversity, and countries agreed to” achieve a significant reduction of the current rate of biodiversity loss at the global, regional and national level,” as part of the UN Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD). At this paper in Science shows (download a PDF here), however, the world has utterly failed to reduce the rate of biodiversity loss, and by just about every measurement, things are getting worse all the time. (Read the Global Biodiversity Outlook if you really want to be depressed.)

With that cheery backdrop, representatives from nearly 200 nations are meeting in the Japanese city of Nagoya—home to Toyota and not a whole lot else—for the 10th summit of the CBD, where they will set new goals for reducing species loss and slowing habitat destruction. At the very least, they should know how critical the biodiversity challenge is—as Japanese Environment Minister Ryo Matsumoto said in an opening speech:

All life on Earth exists thanks to the benefits from biodiversity in the forms of fertile soil, clear water and clean air. We are now close to a ‘tipping point’ – that is, we are about to reach a threshold beyond which biodiversity loss will become irreversible, and may cross that threshold in the next 10 years if we do not make proactive efforts for conserving biodiversity.

Ahmed Djoghlaf, the executive secretary of the CBD, struck an even darker note, reminding diplomats that they were on a clock—and time was running out:

Let’s have the courage to look in the eyes of our children and admit that we have failed, individually and collectively, to fulfil the Johannesburg promise made by 110 heads of state to substantially reduce the rate of loss of biodiversity by 2010. Let us look in the eyes of our children and admit that we continue to lose biodiversity at an unprecedented rate, thus mortgaging their future.

But what will actually come out of the Nagoya summit, which will continue until Oct. 29? Most likely there will be another agreement—a new protocol—outlining various global strategies on sustaining biodiversity and goals on slowing the rate of species loss. (You can download a PDF of the discussion draft document that will be picked over at Nagoya.) It won’t be hard for governments to agree on general ambitions for reducing biodiversity loss—who’s against saving pandas?—but the negotiations will be much trickier on the question of who will actually pay for a more biodiverse planet? And much as we’ve seen in international climate change negotiations, the essential divide is between the developed and developing nations—and neither side seems ready to bend.

The reality is that much of the world’s biodiversity—the most fantastic species and the most complete forests—is found in the poorer, less developed parts of the world. That’s in part because the world’s poor have been, well, too poor to develop the land around them in the way rich nations have. (There was once a beautiful, undeveloped island off the East Coast of the U.S., with wetlands and abundant forests. It was called Mannahatta. It’s a little different now.) As a result, the rural poor—especially in tropical nations—are directly dependent on healthy wildlife and plants in a way that inhabitants of developed nations aren’t. So on one hand that makes the poor directly vulnerable when species are lost and forests are chopped down—which often results in migration to thronging urban areas. But on the other, poverty often drives the rural poor to slash-and-burn forests for agriculture, or hunt endangered species to sell for bush meat. Conservation and development have to go hand in hand.

That hasn’t always been the mantra of the conservation movement—as Rebecca Tuhus-Dubrow writes in Slate, conservation projects in the past sometimes displaced the human inhabitants over a reserve or park, privileging nature over people. But that’s changed in recent decades—environmental groups like Conservation International or the Nature Conservancy now spend as much of their time working on development as they do in protecting nature. “Save the people, save the wildlife”—that’s the new mantra.

The missing ingredient is money—and that’s what will be up for debate at Nagoya. As climate change has risen on the international agenda, funding for biodiversity has lagged—the 33 member nations of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) donated $8.5 billion for climate change mitigation projects in 2008, but just $3 billion annually for biodiversity. One way to change that could be through “payment for ecosystem services.” A biodiverse landscape, intact forests, clean water and air—all of these ebbing qualities of a healthy world are vital for our economies as well. (The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity, a UN-funded study, estimates that nature degradation costs the world $2 trillion to $5 trillion a year, with the poorest nations bearing the brunt of the loss.) Rich countries could pay more biodiverse developing nations to keep nature running—allowing poorer countries to capitalize on their natural resources without slashing and burning.

Will that work? I’m skeptical—the experience of climate change negotiations have shown that the nations of the world are great at high ideals and fuzzy goals, but not so hot at actually dividing up the pie in a more sustainable fashion. That doesn’t mean there aren’t smaller solutions—like Costa Rica’s just-announced debt-for-nature deal—but a big bang from Japan this month doesn’t seem too likely. The problem is as simple as it is unsolvable, at least so far—there’s no clear path to national development so far that doesn’t take from the natural world. That worked for rich nations, but we’re rapidly running out of planet, as a report last week from the World Wildlife Fund showed. And there’s something greater at stake as well, as the naturalist E.O. Wilson once put it:

The one process now going on that will take millions of years to correct is the loss of genetic and species diversity by the destruction of natural habitats-this is the folly our descendants are least likely to forgive us.

We’re losing nature. And that loss really is forever.

For more TIME articles on biodiversity:

The New Age of Extinction — Saving the World’s Endangered Species

Code Blue — Saving Our Oceans

Doomed — Why the Regal Tiger Is on the Brink of Extinction

And TIME photo essays:

10 Species on the Brink of Extinction

Primates on the Danger List

And this, from my own trip to Madagascar: