Convention on Biodiversity: Concerns

18 October, 2012, Hyderabad, Andhra Pradesh, India


The Global Political Economy of Biodiversity

Rick Worthington

In my last post I promised to next address concerns that the UN Convention on Biodiversity, whose Eleventh Council of Parties is now concluding its deliberations in Hyderabad, is weak, compromised, or both.  If so, CBD stands little chance of achieving its estimable goals of halting the worldwide loss in biodiversity and restoring a balance between people and nature.

I regret to report that concerns about CBD’s prospects were altogether too easy to identify.  I had scarcely posted my first reflection before attending a session at the convention on CBD’s status in international law.  While the first several presentations were reassuring accounts to the effect that CBD’s rules to protect nature areas, provide equal access to ecosystem services and the like are binding on its Parties and can be enforced in court, one disquieting note was the observation that no test case of violations has yet been filed.

More significant, however, was the next presentation by an indigenous activist from the Philippines, who argued that most of the discussion and debate at CBD asks the wrong questions.  She acknowledged the importance of “mainstreaming” biodiversity through binding laws, but identified the centralized decision-making of states as the main obstacle to a more effective CBD.

This prompted my recollection of comments by Arizona State University Professor Clark Miller at the Arizona WWViews event on September 15.  Addressing the participants at the beginning of the day, Professor Miller noted that when “environmental diplomacy” got its start around the time of the Stockholm Conference in 1972, it was handled through traditional diplomatic means, and often conducted in secret.  Over time, this conventional (and elitist) diplomatic approach slowly changed, first as scientists were incorporated into observer roles at international conventions, and later when civil society organizations established a presence.  WWViews, he noted, continues this trajectory by bringing ordinary citizens into the process.

Clearly, the decision-making structure of CBD is more decentralized than it was at the outset of global environmental governance. So how is the centralized state a problem?  Important insights on this question were provided by the next speaker, Chee Yoke Ling from the Third World Network.  She first noted that CBD in substance is a development rather than an environmental treaty, because it deals with issues central to the cultural and economic trajectories of entire societies. Since it is typically viewed as an environmental treaty, however, most states engage it through weak environment ministries that lack the clout to gain political and financial support at home for measures that integrate economy and ecology rather than treating them as separate, and competing, priorities.

This subordination, Chee noted, is even more obvious when viewed in the general context of global governance.  CBD came into existence along with the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change and the UN Convention to Combat Desertification at the original Rio conference in 1992, at about the same time that regional and global economic treaties were forged, e.g., the North American Free Trade Agreement of 1993, and the Uruguay Round of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade in 1995 that produced the World Trade Organization.  The economic treaties essentially created a framework for the globalization of production, which has proceeded with astonishing speed and scope.  What is centralized, then, is the power to determine basic development pathways.  In the world of global governance, CBD is at the margins, generally powerless to limit ecological devastation and unable to mobilize the resources that would be required to build sustainable economies in contexts ranging from rural indigenous communities to the world’s cities.

A telling example emerged in an interview I later conducted with a WWViews project manager in the south of India, who reported criticism of one of the questions in the deliberation that concerned “overfishing.”  The critics, it turns out, were traditional fisherfolk who have seen stocks plummet with the advent of industrial fishing vessels, many operating under foreign flags.  Prior to this development, the boats of the indigenous fishers, which carry 3-4 people, use small nets, and have a range of just 1-2 nautical miles from shore, existed in balance with the ocean ecosystem.  Having lost their livelihoods to the globalization of fisheries, these participants were understandably critical of a discussion about overfishing that failed to distinguish who, using what technology, and connected to what markets, was responsible for the depletion.

The globalization that was constructed by the economic treaties can be seen in numerous other biodiversity cases.  In one panel, a researcher noted three biodiversity-reducing developments in agricultural practices in recent decades that are associated with globalization:  the shift from rice farming to banana plantations aimed at export crops; converson of shade grown to sun grown coffee production to increase output for global markets; and the abandonment of home gardens by families too beset by time compression (24X7 production, “always on” tele-communication) to tend them.

The global agenda is clear:  maximize output, and draw on the particular assemblage of scientific and technological resources commanded by the rich countries to accomplish that end.  Both the national state (with few exceptions) and the global governance system are effectively organized to pursue this agenda.  As long as that is the case, biodiversity is likely to continue declining.


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