Features | Environment | East Asia

Asia’s Biodiversity Challenge

The Diplomat speaks with Ahmed Djoghlaf, executive secretary of the UN Convention on Biological Diversity, about the ongoing COP10 conference.

Asia’s Biodiversity Challenge
Credit: Dean Croshere

In your opening statement for the COP10 biodiversity conference, you described the global situation for biodiversity as, simply, ‘not good.’ You also said species are continuing to disappear ‘at up to 1000 times the natural background rate of extinction.’ Looking at the Asia-Pacific region specifically, what are your particular concerns?

The IPCC predicts that up to 50 percent of biodiversity in Asia is at risk due to climate change, while as much as 88 percent of its reefs may be lost over the next 30 years. Furthermore, as many as 1,522 plant species in China and 2,835 plants in Indo-Burma could become extinct.

Climate change is threatening the rich biodiversity heritage of the region, which sustains 30 percent of the world’s coral reefs and mangroves, produces 40 percent of the world’s fish catch and is considered one of the world’s centres for tropical marine biodiversity.

Moreover, biodiversity is disappearing faster from the Greater Mekong Sub-Region than anywhere else on Earth. The ASEAN region, although covering only 3 percent of the Earth’s surface, serves as the natural habitat of up to 40 percent of the world’s plant and animal species.Deforestation rates here are at least twice as high as other tropical areas. All this means that if present levels of deforestation continue, ASEAN will lose nearly three quarters of its original forest cover—and up to 42 percent of its biodiversity—by the next century.

Are there any positive examples in the Asia-Pacific region you would point to for how to tackle this problem?

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An example that stands out comes from the South Pacific. In the past decade, more than 12,000 square kilometres in the region have been brought under a community-based system of marine resource management known as Locally-Managed Marine Areas.

The initiative involves 500 communities in 15 Pacific Island States and has helped achieve widespread livelihood and conservation objectives based on traditional knowledge, customary tenure and governance, combined with local awareness of the need for action and the likely benefits if something is done. These benefits include the recovery of natural resources, greater food security and improved governance and health.

Looking at Fiji as an example, the results of LMMA implementation since 1997 have included a 20-fold increase in clam density in areas where fishing is banned, an average of 200-300 percent increases in harvest in adjacent areas, a tripling of fish catches and a 35 percent to 45 percent increase in household incomes. Such initiatives need to be widely replicated.

How damaging has it been to efforts to maintain biological diversity that the world’s largest economy, the United States, is one of the only countries not to have ratified the Convention on Biological Diversity? How difficult is it to tackle this problem without it doing so?

While the United States participates as an observer to all major CBD meetings including its Conference of the Parties, the time has come for the US to stop holding observer status and to play its role as a world leader in showing the way ahead in protecting life on Earth.

Having the US as a party is immensely important due to the country’s leadership role in the world and the knowhow and resources it can bring to bear on biodiversity-related issues. The implementation of the international community’s 2011-2020 biodiversity strategy will require the full engagement of all stakeholders and all governments without exception. US accession to the CBD would make an immeasurable contribution to this process.

International meetings are often dismissed as talking shops. What kind of results are you hoping to achieve during the talks in Nagoya?

We have an ambitious agenda that’s geared toward producing results on the ground over the coming decade. In Nagoya, we’re expected to adopt a new biodiversity strategy for 2011-2020, which will incorporate a 2050 biodiversity vision, a 2020 biodiversity target and sub-targets and contain a means of implementation as well as monitoring and evaluation mechanisms. These targets are being established with a clear underlying logic consistent with the available scientific evidence, including the scientific review of biodiversity projections prepared for the Convention’s publication Global Biodiversity Outlook 3. The targets will then serve as guidance for countries who will tailor them to their individual circumstances, which can vary quite a bit from nation to nation.  Countries will be asked to set concrete national targets and to develop appropriate assessment criteria for achieving them.

In addition, COP10 is expected to adopt an international protocol on access and benefit sharing. By operationalizing the third objective of the Convention—the fair and equitable sharing of the benefits arising out of the use of genetic resources. The Aichi-Nagoya Protocol will establish a new North-South relationship through a genuine partnership between the owners and users of genetic resources, thereby making a concrete contribution toward achieving the United Nations Millennium Development Goals.

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You’ve emphasized the importance of action at a local level. Do you believe that such local action could ultimately work to push national governments in a positive direction?

National governments will increasingly need the assistance of local authorities not only to implement national-level programmes but also to supply them with necessary information about the realities, needs and expectations of our increasingly urban population. This means cities will have a growing influence on national and regional biodiversity policy. Indeed, cities are increasingly put in charge of land-use planning, and therefore play a significant role in determining the extent to which biodiversity is protected and sustainably used.

A sizable proportion of the world’s protected areas are under the management of local authorities, particularly in biodiversity hotspots. Cities also determine norms for construction, development, trade and authorize operating licenses for business. As most economic decision-makers are in cities, significant progress in preserving biodiversity can be made through partnerships between local governments and the private sector. Moreover, cities are often responsible for decisions relating to urban infrastructure, energy and transportation, all of which have a large impact on climate change and biodiversity. All of this is why the Conventions started a Cities and Biodiversity initiative in 2007, and why COP10 is expected to adopt a plan of action on cities and biodiversity as well as an urban biodiversity index.

Already at the Nagoya meeting, it’s been said that it’s necessary to promote the long-term economic value of healthy ecosystems and nature, which are largely undervalued in developing nations. What would you say should be the first steps toward making this happen?

Initiatives such as ‘The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity’ have now given us the tools to start asking development planners to directly take into account the economic value of biodiversity and ecosystem services. Both developed and developing countries have to start incorporating the value of biodiversity into their economic models and mainstream biodiversity into all sectors of governmental decision-making. And I’d add just as importantly, environmental departments need to start integrating their objectives into policies and programmes for economic development and poverty eradication.