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CBD Secretary: African countries should access economic benefits of biodiversity
Cancun, Mexico

CBD Secretary: African countries should access economic benefits of biodiversity

The 13th Conference of Parties (COP 13) to the UN Convention on Biodiversity (CBD) was held recently in Cancun, Mexico. It also featured two sub-conferences aimed at protecting the world's natural habitat and maximising its economic benefits. Executive Secretary of the CBD, Braulio F. de Souza Dias in this exclusive interview explains what African countries must do better to preserve its rich biodiversity.

Q: What is your assessment of the convention so far?

Souza Dias: This conference is particularly important because it includes three concurrent COPs, COP 13 of the convention, COP 8 of the Cartagena Proposal and COP 2 of the Nagoya Protocol. All these negotiations have been going on concurrently during these two weeks, and I can highlight some of the main decisions that we are adopting. Most of the decisions will be adopted tomorrow, we have already adopted seven of them at the plenary last Friday and lad Tuesday, some of the main important one is on mainstreaming biodiversity in agriculture, forestry, fisheries and tourism, that was a very important decisions and very long decisions, and we counted on support from FAO and the world tourism organisation, to help us on that. We had a high level segment ministers, we had ministers for agriculture, forestry, fisheries and agriculture from different countries’ here, together with the ministries of environment and we have the Cancun declaration from that ministerial segment.

Apart from that, we have the first decision, which is based on the first nature assessment from the Inter governmental Science Policy Platform for Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (ISPPBES), it is a body similar to the IPCC, which is well known for climate change, this one is a similar panel, but dedicated to biodiversity and ecosystem services. The first major assessment was dedicated to pollinators, pollination and food systems, at this COP; we are welcoming that assessment, and then providing for several agreed decisions on how to move forward with the policy and the management to make better use of pollination services. We have also a decision on the inter marriage between biodiversity and human health, which is also very important, since some parts of the problems with the human health, is directly linked to biodiversity and ecosystems, so we degrade the biodiversity system, as are degrading also human health.

There is another decisions regarding the oceans, sub-marine biodiversity has received increasing attention in the past five years, in this COP there are several of those decisions dealing with the issue of debris, for example, ocean and certification, the issue of overfishing and all those things. We have some good decisions regarding ecosystem restoration, there is action plan, we have decisions on evasive species, decisions regarding forests in general and the linkage between biodiversity and the SDG’s and the Paris Agreement. We are also working on decisions regarding protocols; we have some ongoing discussions here, which we are finalising in this COP on synthetic biology that is related to the Cartagena protocol and some important decisions regarding the Nagoya protocol. The Nagoya protocol made good progress in recent years, now we have 93 parties to the protocol, and there are some 40 more countries that are in the final stages of ratification and we are looking forward to that. So, overall, we are quite happy about the result, as usual there are some difficult issues which we are still discussing, a lot of issues on capacity building, on promoting synergies among the biodiversity related conventions, the list is very long.

Q: The theme of COP 13 is , 'Mainstreaming Biodiversity for Well-being', do you think mainstreaming can make a difference in the fight against biodiversity loss?

Souza Dias: Sure, most of the loss of biodiversity is associated with economic growth, expansion of agriculture, expansion of land mining activities, expansion of the infrastructures and all of these, so all these activities causes negative impacts to biodiversity, so we need government and the private sector to be more care careful as they promote these activities, so that we can minimise these impacts on biodiversity and reduce the so called ecological footprint.

On the other hand, biodiversity is very important for world system and development, we cannot do anything in agriculture without biodiversity, we cannot do anything to develop new vaccines and medicines in the health sector without biodiversity, and the issue of food security is closely related to biodiversity. To protect the world and enhance availability of a clean world, you need ecosystems that features the water etc, these intellectuals are very important in the fight against poverty, it is not just about job creation and enhancing the income of the poor, it is guaranteeing access to service and access to nature because also the poor will survive because they can catch a fish, they can go to the forest harvest some fruits and tubers, so it essential for the survival of the poor.

Q: What is the role of precautionary principle?

Souza Dias: This is a principle that was agreed at the Rio Summit in 1992, it is a principle that even if you look at all the scientific information whereby evidence that some activities might lead to some important damage to biodiversity and also possess threat to human health, you should also take some preventive actions to avoid the damage and that is the basis for the Cartagena protocol, so that as biotechnology is growing, developing new progress, some of these problems can portend harm for the environment and for human health.

So to ensure that that doesn’t take place, the Cartagena protocol require risk assessment conduct before any new biotechnology product us released into the market, that is a major part of the work in the protocol, to enhance capacity problems, to establish a legal framework for governance system, train people to conduct risk assessment and to make sure that no new product is introduced into the country or into the market or cultivated in the field without prior risk assessment, and this will apply also to the broader field of agriculture and synthetic biology.

Q: I am aware of the intense debate on synthetic biology, it is so important, yet the convention has no decision on it, why?

Souza Dias: It is a new issue, synthetic biology is a new development, when the convention was negotiated, they didn’t have that, the only new technology at the time was Genetically Modified Organism (GMOs) that is to introduce a gene into another gene and provide another characteristics or species you’re interested in, but in terms synthetic biology, you can do many more things, you can manipulate the genes in the species and remove genes, change the genes, enhance the power genes and completely design a new gene in the lab, so it is much more powerful. But it is a very new field, most countries still don’t have the necessary precautionary principles for ensuring biosafety in place.

Q: What about the gene drive?

Souza Dias: This is also one of the new technology, one of the big fields of synthetic biology, through this technology, you can ensure that the frequency into the new gene introduced will necessarily increase from generation to generation in the population and eventually it will spread to all of the individuals in the population. It is very powerful, and it means that if you want to introduce a gene for example into sterilised mosquitoes, to control population of mosquito to avoid diseases like Zika virus or many other diseases out there, through the technology of gene drive, you could accelerate the rate of incorporation of this new features into the population of the mosquitoes. The problem of gene drive is that once it is introduced into the population, there is no chance to revert, so, if you then discover that there was a mistake, no, it is not possible, so you have to be very careful before you introduce the use of this technology.

Q: You did mention at the last press conference that there will be a new guideline for the 6th national report, what is the significance of this new guideline?

Souza Dias: The convention is a legally binding international instrument, every country that ratifies it through the national congress are obliged to implement the convention, and one of the commitments of the convention is to report at least every four years to the convention, informing all the actions taken in the country to comply with the convention.

Q: What is different about the new guideline?

Souza Dias: Every new report is updated because we want to incorporate some new issues, so it is a continuation of the process of national reporting, the differences is that there will be more attention to incorporate issues related to other biodiversity conventions to the protocol and trying to bring together the convention and the protocols to incorporate informations from sub national government and state level, province level or cities, to incorporate information from the private sector, so, it is trying to be more comprehensive in all encompassing. Another difference is to introduce a new tool which provides for the possibility of online reporting, so a country doesn’t need to wait for four years, if the country makes progress in one area, it can upload the information on the electronic online reporting and they can do that every time they have a new information and thereafter every four year, they can bring all these together and form a single report, it is one of the decisions to be adopted tomorrow.

Q: What is your assessment of efforts by African countries in meeting the Aichi target?

Souza Dias: African countries in general are very committed with the convention; an example is the high rate of ratification of the Nagoya protocol in Africa. That is the indication, Africa, for example, the African Union with the help of other specialised orientation at a regional ministerial meeting adopted a regional background for Africa to implement the Nagoya protocol, so that gives an idea of how Africa in committed.

Also there is a high rate of reporting from Africa, which is very good, however, if you look at the information that we receive in the report, its comparable that the rate if implementation of the Aichi target is general comparable to other regions, but most countries are implementing their contributions to the Aichi target in an insufficient way, so the countries themselves in the report accessed that what they are doing is still not sufficient, so there is a need to increase the efforts, because with the blueprint presentation, most probably in four years’ time, by 2020, we will find out that most of these countries have not fully implemented their commitment. However, we see a lot of good initiatives in Africa, and African countries, in terms of putting in place new policies, new programme training people, etc. but these are process, it has not yet result to results on the ground, but there is a good indication that these measures, in the next few years will put results on the ground and we are looking forward to that.

Q: In what areas do you think African countries should have improved?

Souza Dias: African countries, like many other developing countries have been making good progress in traditional areas, like protected areas, there is a lot progress in these area, there is progress in terms of protecting threatened species, there is good progress in many countries in facing the challenge of evasive species, however, on many of the new issues, African countries still need to enhance their capacity. For example, one of the key issues for countries is to access the economic value of biodiversity, but because of the natural factor, we are still not seeing much progress in African countries, even though, two years ago, in Gabon, there was a declaration signed by presidents from 10 African countries with commitment to make progress in this area.

Then the issue of economic incentives and subsidies, that is target three and the other one is target two, the commitment is to review the existing economic incentives with subsidies to reform or council those that have negative impact on biodiversity, and to use that money to reinforce or create economic centres which are positive to biodiversity, so African countries still need to make progress. They also need to make more progress in terms of monitoring, it is not good enough to set targets, but if you can have a measure to police it, most African countries still have difficulties in this area. The biggest exemption is South Africa, the country has a very good structure for monitoring and a very good database, especially because they count on Sundays, the South African National Biodiversity Institute is very well structured and qualified, that I think in Africa is a major reference.

Q: Does CBD have a monitoring mechanism?

Souza Dias: We depend on information that parties send to us in the first place, we also assess the scientific literature, so when we publish, like the Global Biodiversity Outlook (GBO4) that we published two years, we used scientific information, we also work with partners to do scientific modelling, so we make projections and analysis.

Q: Is funding part of the problem?

Souza Dias: The funding is part of the problem for sure, in almost all the countries, not just Africa, the Environment sector is one of the weakest ministries in government, it is a common practice, not just in Africa. Countries need to increase their access to financial resource, the CBD in our COP12 two years ago in Korea, parties agreed on tariff on resource organisation, the most important one is that by 2015, last year, the international flows of funding from developed countries to developing countries should double, based on the baseline of the average between international flows from 2006 -2010 precedes in that direction in some countries which already provided the information before 2015, we have seen that they are complying with that, but not all countries have made their information available.

However, in Korea, we also added that there should be domestic resource efforts, which means that countries should also do their own efforts. UNDP is doing a great job with biodiversity funding initiative, they are providing expertise, to go to countries that requires help, to discuss with their finance ministries and try to find that what are the sources of wealth in the country, how the fiscal system works etc., and then they identify some potential mechanisms to increase funding for biodiversity.

Q: Would you say there are equal opportunities between the developing countries of Africa, Asia and Latin America and the developed world, in terms of accessing funding, especially from the Global Environment Facility  (GEF) ?

Souza Dias: Yes, I think it is well distributes, from the GEF, for biodiversity projects, they make as their main criteria how rich a country is in terms if biodiversity, so countries that have more biodiversity receive more money, for example, in Africa Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) the richest is Africa in terms, other countries like Madagascar, Kenya, South Africa and several others also receive significant funds, and countries with less biodiversity receive less fund.

Q: What is your view about the plight of indigenous people and local communities who have been agitating for control of resources and traditional preservation of biodiversity?

Souza Dias: This is not a new problem, it has been going on for quite some time, the CBD is one of the major international agreement to protest the rights of indigenous people and local communities, and it is part of the commitment of CBD to protect traditional knowledge, to ensure that the indigenous people and local communities receive benefits sharing whatever use made from technology and genetic resources from their areas, so this is a process that CBD has dedicated one working group to discuss issues on the interest of the indigenous peoples and local communities and this has been producing a number of things, in the last COP for example, the parties adopted an action plan on customary use of biodiversity, in this COP, one of the issues we are discussing is how to repatriate the traditional knowledge that was lost or that were sent to Europe, South America or elsewhere. It is a process, and the Nagoya protocol also has clauses that protect the rights of indigenous peoples and local communities.

The CBD has in target eleven of in 2004 had encouraged countries to recognise different articles that protects the rights of indigenous people and different types of government, not just the national government but other categories which International Union for Nature Conservation (IUCN) recognise. So these different articles can provide more solutions’ for indigenous people and local communities because then, government can recognise protected areas for sustainable use, not just strict reservation. Also target 11 of the Aichi Targets deals with protected areas and it talks about all effective area based conservation measures, that means we are encouraging governments to recognise forests and systems that are managed by the indigenous people and communities so as to recognise their own rights and access to these resources and to establish partnerships with these communities to ensure conservation of biodiversity. So this is a process, it is happening, in some countries it is happening faster, in some other countries, still indigenous people and local communities are protesting and negotiating, but they have to do that.

Q: Does CBD have a monitoring mechanism or supervisory role on the implementation of the 2011 UNEP report on clean-up of contaminated Ogoni Land in Nigeria ?

Souza Dias: You are talking about oil spillage, this spillage didn’t not only impact on the local population but also impacts on the ecosystems, we do have our specific targets, and target 8 is to reduce pollutions and ecosystems, the CBD itself did not have mechanism to deal with issues of pollutions, but we work together with Chemical conventions, there are three chemical conventions that are based in Geneva, and they are dedicated to solving different kinds of pollution issues we are going to work together with them because they are the ones that have better mechanisms to deal with these issues. We are looking an it, because it is an important threat to the source of biodiversity.

This article also appeared in Liberty Times.