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Biodiversity under siege from Titicaca to Timbuktu

Officials are struggling to make priorities of Earth's biological diversity, from coral reefs in the Caribbean, pictured here, to tallgrass prairie in Canada.
Officials are struggling to make priorities of Earth's biological diversity, from coral reefs in the Caribbean, pictured here, to tallgrass prairie in Canada.

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 siege. Consider:

  • 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, overpopulation or economic growth.

  • 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 ones.

    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 lot more?

    "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.

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