6 Signs of Progress at UN Biodiversity Conference

My good friend and Conservation International (CI) board member Pavan Sukhdev recently blogged about the main outcome of the recent U.N. Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) meeting in Hyderabad, India: a commitment to double funding for biodiversity from current levels by 2014 and to maintain that funding through the remainder of the decade to meet the all-important 2020 Aichi Biodiversity Targets.

While we are pleased that a decision was made to increase support for biodiversity -- thanks in large part to the excellent leadership of Brazil's Braulio Dias, the executive secretary of the CBD, and that of the government of India -- the baseline amount which we would be doubling remains unclear.

However, several other important developments occurred at this meeting. At recent U.N. conferences, side events carried out by civil society organizations have come to be at least as important as the governmen- level activities themselves, particularly with regard to raising awareness and political or private sector will for innovative solutions. Today I would like to focus on the outcomes of several side events in which I participated or observed.

1. Protected Areas

The first of these was an event organized by the World Commission on Protected Areas in collaboration with the CBD's LifeWeb initiative. This day-long event featured a number of presentations on the global importance of protected areas, reflecting an increasing realization that these areas are fundamental to long-term sustainable development, even within cities.

2. Indigenous and Community Conservation Areas (ICCAs)

Hand in hand with the protected areas event, and perhaps the most important development of the entire conference, was a day-long event focused on ICCAs.

As indigenous peoples and other local communities become more empowered -- a positive trend that began with the Johannesburg Summit in 2002 -- they are taking on the task of protecting their traditional lands in many different ways.

Where there were only a handful of examples of this a decade ago, there are now many excellent examples, including the 600,000-hectare (1.5 million-acre) Konashen Community-Owned Conservation Area in southern Guyana, in the hands of 300 Wai Wai people, and the Virginia-sized 11.5 million-hectare (28.4 million-acre) Kayapó Indigenous Territories in the southern Brazilian Amazon, managed by 6,000 Kayapó people.

Target 11 of the Aichi Biodiversity Targets focuses on protected areas and aims to increase terrestrial coverage from the current 13 percent to 17 percent by 2020. However, the discussions at the ICCA workshop in Hyderabad and a publication launched at that event indicate that ICCAs may be as large as the existing traditional protected area network.

This needs more formal recognition, but if it turns out to be the case it will be excellent news indeed. However, it will also force us to revisit the 17 percent target at the next major CBD meeting in Korea in 2014 because it is clearly not ambitious enough, and we will need much more if we are to have any hope for a sustainable planet in the future.

3. Islands

Island Conservation organized a side event focused on the global importance of islands. Although islands make up less than 5 percent of the planet's land area, they are home to around 20 percent of reptile, bird and plant species. What is more, an even higher percentage of the world's most threatened biodiversity exists on these fragments of Earth's land surface, where continental problems are magnified many times over.

The CBD has a special program dedicated to islands, and this event highlighted the importance of these systems in the global picture.

4. Alliance for Global Extinction (AZE) and Aichi Biodiversity Target 12

Closely tied to this event was another focused on the AZE. This multi-partner network was globally launched in 2005 and targets those sites that are the only homes for species listed as Critically Endangered and Endangered on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species.

Many of these sites are tiny and often located on islands; if any one of these sites is lost, anywhere from one to several dozen species found nowhere else will go extinct. In essence, these AZE sites are the tip of the iceberg in terms of the CBD's Target 12 (preventing the extinction of known threatened species by 2020), and a lot is happening is spite of the partnership's microscopic budget.

What is more, Target 12 was considered to be so important that a group of participants in the meeting decided to create a special "Friends of Target 12" partnership to make sure it received adequate attention -- an effort to be led by IUCN's Species Programme.

5. Primates

Three events at the CBD targeted primate species at risk and helped put a face on the discussions of biodiversity. Two of these were hosted by the U.N. Environment Programme's Great Ape Survival Partnership (GRASP), created a decade ago to focus on the conservation of our closest living relatives and to emphasize their economic importance to the African and southeast Asian countries where they live.

The third was a press event launching the latest iteration of the Top 25 Most Endangered Primates list, a joint effort of the International Primatological Society, IUCN and CI. This list comes out once every two years, and attracts widespread media attention to the plight of the world's 680 different kinds of primates, half of which are now threatened and several of which are down to just a few dozen or a few hundred individuals. This release was picked up by almost 400 media outlets worldwide and, together with the GRASP events, put a face onto what the CBD is trying to accomplish.

6. Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund (CEPF)

Last but not least, I would mention an event hosted by CI and CEPF, a funding mechanism created to support the conservation efforts of civil society organizations in the high priority biodiversity hotspots.

Created in 2000, the program has worked remarkably well; CEPF's six partners -- CI, the World Bank, the government of Japan, the French Development Agency, the Global Environment Facility and the MacArthur Foundation -- have supported more than 1,700 organizations in 23 hotspots, and more than 12 million hectares (almost 30 million acres) of land have been protected through this program.

At the event in Hyderabad, CEPF welcomed a seventh partner, the European Commission, which committed 18 million Euros (US$23.5 million) over five years. At a conference where a global agreement on funding was reached but few financial commitments were made by individual countries, this was the second-largest amount committed after the government of India's pledge to spend US$50 million on biodiversity over the next two years.

These are just a few of many examples, but it does make us see these U.N. conventions in a different light. In recent years, many people have viewed these events with cynicism -- often with good reason -- but let's not overlook the many good things that happen at them outside the main hall where governments move forward only in small increments. The quantum leaps that we need to protect our planet may be happening nonetheless.

Dr. Russell Mittermeier is the president of Conservation International. He is also an author, primatologist, herpetologist and chairman of the IUCN/Species Survival Commission Primate Specialist Group.

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