A partial success

But escape clauses weaken radical decisions taken at the recent convention on biodiversity

By Ashish Kothari
Published: Thursday 15 April 2004

A partial success

-- The industrial mode of 'development' has allowed a small percentage of humanity to over-exploit natural resources. Consequently, the very framework that sustains all life is in danger of collapsing. But governments and corporations hardly seem to be listening to the shrill alarm bells ringing all around us, including the mass extinction of species.

This was eloquently brought out by American geneticist and ecological activist David Suzuki in an address to the opening plenary, of the 7th Conference of Parties (cop) of the Convention on Biological Diversity (cbd), held in Kuala Lampur, Malaysia, last month. The speech was moving. But was it moving enough to get delegates to take appropriate decisions?

The answer would have to be "yes and no." On a number of counts, cop7 made impressive progress. A bold Programme of Work (pow) on protected areas was initiated, mandating countries to conserve representative ecosystems and species populations and also tackle key threats to biodiversity. The pow accords a central role to indigenous and local communities and tries to ensure that they get priority in the benefits of conservation. The pow moves beyond the "island" view of protected areas towards more conservation-oriented management of entire landscapes and seascapes.

There were other gains as well: existing programmes on forests, drylands, freshwater areas, marine and coastal areas and mountains were strengthened. Great importance was accorded to finding systems -- other than current regimes of patents and intellectual property rights -- to protect traditional knowledge and practices.

Equally heartening was the atmosphere of openness and democratic participation at the cop. Notwithstanding some significant exceptions, participation of indigenous and local communities, non-governmental organisations (ngos) and independent observers was facilitated. At some drafting sessions, non-official participants were able to make text inputs like official delegates. For the first time, fisherfolk from some parts of the world were represented, as were small farmers belonging to the powerful international network, Via Campesina.

But there was also a dark side to the convention. Discussions on a possible international regime for access and benefit-sharing (abs) proceeded without paying any heed to repeated requests, from indigenous community members, to not permit easy access to their resources and knowledge. They and many ngos pointed out that abs regimes have become -- and could further become -- instruments for obtaining such access, without the prior informed consent of communities.

Also, the cbd guidelines on tourism were adopted, disregarding the voices of indigenous peoples, local communities and ngos. Tourism policies, programmes and companies almost universally do not recognise the rights of indigenous communities And the cbd guidelines on tourism do not adequately address such concerns. The guidelines were developed without any consultation with indigenous and local communities whose lands are being affected by tourism. In one of the few displays of intolerance at cop7, some ngos who had requested to make a joint statement to the delegates were not allowed to do so.

Equally discomforting was the spectacle of some countries repeatedly trying to make the cbd process subservient to the World Trade Organization. "Free" trade seemed to creep into many of the discussions and some decisions. Moreover, countries such as Malaysia got their way in introducing escape clauses which made many decisions of the convention "subject to national laws" or national conditions. These clauses could be misused by countries to avoid implementing the more radical suggestions, such as those dealing with threats to protected areas, or those stressing community involvement at all stages of protected area planning and management. The next few years will tell whether such misuse takes place or if people can effectively use the tools offered by cbd to stem the tide of destruction.

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