So maybe the old stories were wrong. Maybe the emperor Nero didn't set the fire that burned down half of ancient Rome. But if Nero played his fiddle while Rome burned, was he guilty nonetheless?
It's a question that the officials in charge of the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity might do well to ponder.
The convention was born in the wake of the UN's Earth Summit,
held in Rio de Janeiro in 1992, and for the past four years its
Secretariat has been based in Montreal not that most Canadians or anybody else are aware of the fact.
The 177 nations that ratified the convention met in Nairobi recently to map out a program
of work for the next two years. Like so many
international gatherings, this one saw its fair share of disputes between
activists and politicians, and between scientists and bureaucrats.
But in this case, activists and scientists are often the same people.
For the biological diversity of the world the very quality that the
convention is supposed to protect and champion is under terrible
Biologists agree that biodiversity is disappearing faster than at any
time since the death of the dinosaurs about 65 million years ago.
Canadian tallgrass prairie, African rain forests, Caribbean coral reefs
and other whole ecosystems are facing ruin because of pollution,
All of the great apes (gorillas, orangutans, chimpanzees, bonobos
and gibbons) are now in danger of extinction.
The greatest diversity of living species can be found in tropical
areas that have remained free of logging, road construction or other
human activities. Few of these areas now exist, and tens of thousands
of species are imperiled.
According to some predictions, Earth will lose a fifth of all its living species in the next 20 years.
The nearly 60 people who work at the Secretariat are fully aware of
the multitude of threats facing the global environment. The question
is, what are they doing about it?
"We are a bit frustrated that no one seems to be paying much
attention," said Olivier Jalbert, a Canadian who serves as principal
officer within the Secretariat. Human beings, he added, "are cutting
nature into pieces, turning nature into a museum, and that's wrong."
But Jalbert and other professionals who work in the Secretariat are
normally forbidden from speaking to the press. All access has to be
approved by Hamdallah Zedan, an Egyptian bureaucrat who moved
over from the UN Environment Program to become the convention's
executive secretary in 1998. Since then, he has kept a very low profile.
So far, the Secretariat has done little to inform and educate the public
about the biodiversity crisis. But that's not the only problem. It's also
that with limited money and resources, and an executive secretary who
is unwilling to make waves, the organization has shown few signs of
offering any political leadership.
Russia, Indonesia, China, Cameroon and many other countries have
policies that encourage the erasing of biodiversity, even if their
governments pay lip service to preserving it. But you won't find the
Secretariat breathing a word of criticism.
"People are starting to realize that biodiversity is the foundation
for so much," Zedan said. "I myself lived in Nairobi for 13 or 14 years, and I
know there is lots of support for the conservation and sustainable use
of biodiversity. I see this in many developing countries."
That phrase "sustainable use," virtually a mantra at the U.N. over the
past decade, is key. For the convention aims to do more than simply
protect nature; it also wants to ensure that people use the great gift of
biological diversity in ways that enrich poor nations as well as wealthy
In the end, the convention justifies biodiversity in terms of its
usefulness to human beings. On a lot of issues, the meetings in
Nairobi revealed a split between North and South, the
developed and less developed fragments of the world.
"Some provide the money and others use it," said Jo Mulongoy, a botanist
from the Congo who heads the scientific and technical division of the
Secretariat. "Some provide the genetic resources, and others use them.
But this is normal!"
North-South divisions aside, a question lingers: In its seven years of
life, should the Convention on Biological Diversity have achieved a
"It's a very busy convention and it's had an impressive work program,"
said Don McAllister, an Ottawa environmentalist who specializes in fish
and marine mammals. "But in the end, a lot depends on how much money
countries are willing to put down on the table. And that has been limited.
"Rather than weaknesses in the convention, it's the weaknesses of governments
that need to be looked at."
The convention asks governments to come up with national plans for
preserving their biodiversity. One task of the Secretariat has been to
coordinate those plans. You can see Canada's controversial, long-
delayed law to protect endangered species as a response to its international
commitments as well as to public indignation. But as Jalbert admitted, "If
governments don't take their commitments seriously, nothing will happen."
Such sentiments are echoed by Claude Gascon, a biologist from
Montreal, who (after extensive work along the Amazon) is now a vice-
president of the Washington-based group Conservation International.
"The Convention is extremely important," Gascon said, "but it's not as
effective as it could be. And the main problems remain ones of
international politics. There's a tremendous amount of bureaucracy that
impedes it from moving ahead.
"The scientific mechanism does good work, but its recommendations
then have to go into the political arena. And that can be a problem."
There's a limit to how much Gascon will say on the record; his job
involves working with governments. Gary Gallon, a longtime
environmentalist who now heads the Canadian Institute for Business and
the Environment, can be more expansive.