Global Policy Forum

Biodiversity Conference Hijacked

Biodiversity loss poses a significant threat to the planet unless immediate action is taken. COP-10 discussions have been captured by powerful corporate interests who have resolved that market-based solutions are best to fix the problem. But, market mechanisms fail to eliminate the profit motive, which is the primary driver of biodiversity loss. In order to turn the tide on this issue, an alternate economic system is required.


By Anne Peterman

Z Magazine
December 2010

Corporate influence continues to prevent action


The UN Convention on Biological Diversity's (CBD) tenth Conference of the Parties (COP-10) took place from October 5-29. This, the International Year of Biodiversity, was the year by which the UN CBD had tasked itself with achieving a set of "Millennium Development Goal" (MDG) targets to stave off biodiversity loss. These targets were wildly missed.

According to Ahmed Djoghlaf, the pro-business executive secretary of the CBD, "The three big outcomes of the COP-10 meeting in Nagoya" were to be "a global agreement on a new [strategic plan to halt biodiversity loss], the mobilisation of the finance needed to make it happen and a new legally-binding protocol on access and benefit sharing (ABS)." He concluded, "The decisions we take now will affect biodiversity for the coming millennium."

Months before the launch of these talks, the Guardian (UK) wrote, "[COP-10 is] on course to make the farcical climate talks in Copenhagen look like a roaring success. The big international meeting in October, which is meant to protect the world's biodiversity, is destined to be an even greater failure than last year's attempt to protect the world's atmosphere. Already the UN has conceded that the targets for safeguarding wild species and wild places in 2010 have been missed: comprehensively and tragically."

The Guardian continued, "In a few weeks, the same countries [as in Copenhagen] will meet in Nagoya, Japan and make a similarly meaningless set of promises. Rather than taking immediate action to address their failures, they will concentrate on producing a revised target [to reduce biodiversity loss] for 2020 and a 'vision' for 2050, as well as creating further delays by expressing the need for better biodiversity indicators. It's not biodiversity indicators that are in short supply; but any kind of indicator that the member states are willing to act. All the international meetings have done is to diffuse responsibility for the crisis, allowing member states to hide behind each other's failures."

Jessica Dempsey, of the CBD Alliance, a group of environmental NGOs that watchdog the CBD process, explained that the failures of the CBD to reach its goals are being used to promote new market-based approaches to deal with biodiversity loss that mimic those used by the climate convention. "As we ingloriously celebrate the International Year of Biodiversity, civil society is hearing carefully negotiated intergovernmental reasoning and rationales for the failed 2010 target. Much emphasis is being placed on the lack of understanding about why biodiversity matters. This kind of thinking has spurred a massive re-framing of biodiversity in terms of ecosystem services. This re-framing is part of a widespread movement to 'value' biodiversity, but these are not your grandmother's values. As the executive director of the CBD, Ahmed Djoghlaf, stated in a meeting with civil society just prior to the ninth meeting of the Conference of the Parties (COP-9) in Bonn (May 2008), 'The largest corporation in the world is not Ford or Walmart. The largest corporation in the world is nature.'"

David Kubiak, writing for, explained why the corporate takeover of the biodiversity negotiations was bound to lead to failure to protect biodiversity: "Like the Copenhagen-jubilant corporate climate lobby before them, the big corporate bodies that dominate the drug, energy, agro-business and natural resource extraction arenas are aggressively organizing to keep any Nagoya agreement toothless.... The planet's Big corporate bodies clearly recognize the bottom line implications of COP-10 and have rushed in to dominate its organization, framing and regulatory intent.... In the COP-10 organizers' ideal world we would see 7,000 technocrats, bureaucrats and corporate flacks deciding how we shall characterize, evaluate and 'most productively manage' the entirety of life on the planet for the next 20 years with as little input as possible from civil society, indigenous consciousness, or groups who led the biodiversity fight before anyone knew the word. What could possibly go wrong?"

Faris Ahmed, from the Unitarian Service Committee of Canada, wrote about the negotiations, "As the first week of the CBD winds down, the mood in civil society is one of alarm. This morning someone said 'this could be the Copenhagen of Biodiversity'.... [T]he CBD is being rapidly infected with the same ailments that afflict the other UN instruments, particularly the UN climate convention: no political will, refusal to abide by legally binding principles, no commitment to financial responsibility (some call it 'ecological debt'), dubious and unambitious targets, and excessive reliance on 'markets' to meet the challenges of biodiversity a time when the stakes couldn't be higher-75% of biodiversity lost, and 2% disappearing every year."

He continued, "[T]here are huge financial incentives available for corporate activities linked to biodiversity conservation through market mechanisms. Many of these schemes are unclear and full of loopholes-such as the much vaunted but still not well understood REDD scheme [Reduced Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation].... These can easily turn good intentions into bad outcomes, especially for local communities and ecosystems."


Access and Benefit Sharing

One of the most contentious debates during the biodiversity negotiations occurred under the obscure title "Access and Benefit Sharing." A press release put out by the CBD Secretariat on September 14 explained that a key goal of the Nagoya conference was to create "a new set of international rules that would provide transparent access to the biological resources of the world while ensuring that countries and communities get a fair share of any benefits that arise from their use-such as when companies develop commercial medicines from plants or other life-forms."

Kubiak explained that the ABS negotiations were basically a "battle over indigenous peoples' and developing nations' rights to a share in Big Pharma's profits from their hijacked lore and traditions.... They are facing off with big drug and bioengineering bodies."

Steve Leahy of Inter-Press Service, further explained the ABS issue: "Many drugs, cosmetics and other valuable biochemicals used in the industrial world have been derived from plants and animals, very often from countries in the developing world. Everyone agrees countries and communities where these originated should be compensated. The devil is in the details, and those have been under negotiation for more than six years and remain contentious and complex."

By the final day of COP-10, the CBD still had not gotten agreement on the ABS regime and, with a typhoon on the way, the pressure was on. Finally, in the early hours of Saturday morning, an agreement-the Nagoya Protocol-was reached. According to the New York Times, the agreement on ABS, while legally binding, remains "vague on details, but established the idea that any exploitation of genetic material-both future and past-must include royalties."


Protocol on Biosafety

Another major outcome came out of the Meeting of the Parties (MOP) of the Cartegeña Protocol on Biosafety, which governs the transboundary movement of so-called "LMOs" or living modified organisms. This meeting emerged with a new treaty, the Nagoya-Kuala Lumpur Supplementary Protocol on Liability and Redress to the Cartegeña Protocol on Biosafety.

According to Mariam Mayet of the African Center for Biosafety, the original intent of this international civil liability regime was to provide "recourse for damage caused by GMOs by establishing rules that would have: identified the persons liable for the damage caused; provided redress for the harm caused; defined the scope of damage provided for strict liability; addressed issues concerning access to justice, jurisdiction of the courts, and so forth." She points out, however, that the final Supplementary Protocol, "merely creates a set of international administrative rules, which places the responsibility on the Parties to take measures to clean up the environment in the case of damage to biodiversity arising, and seek redress from the person causing the damage."

Lim Li Lin of the Third World Network described the reason for such a weak outcome: "The negotiations were difficult and were heavily opposed by those with an interest in the production and export of GMOs-the biotechnology industry, biotechnology scientists, and non-Parties to the Cartegeña Protocol who had also actively worked to water down and block the...negotiations." Meanwhile, she explained, "Most developing countries wanted to have a binding international regime that would set substantive rules on civil liability whereby victims of damage from GMOs can turn to national courts for redress. Much has been left to countries to determine and implement at the national level. The process to truly ensure that there is justice when damage to people and the environment occurs is still a long and winding road."

The one glint of something positive coming out of COP-10 was a landmark decision to pass a de facto moratorium on geoengineering projects and experiments. "Any private or public experimentation or adventurism intended to manipulate the planetary thermostat will be in violation of this carefully crafted UN consensus," stated Silvia Ribeiro, Latin American Director of the ETC (Erosion, Technology and Concentration) Group.

According to the ETC Group, delegates in Nagoya now clearly understand the potential threat to biodiversity posed by deployment-or even field testing-of geoengineering technologies, though they acknowledge the language of the decision could have been stronger. "The decision is not perfect," said Neth Dano of ETC Group Philippines. "Some delegations are understandably concerned that the interim definition of geoengineering is too narrow because it does not include Carbon Capture and Storage technologies. But climate techno-fixes are now firmly on the UN agenda and will lead to important debates as the 20th anniversary of the Earth Summit approaches. A change of course is essential, and geoengineering is clearly not the way forward."

Other outcomes from COP-10 (reported in the CBD Alliance publication ECO) include:

  • On the new 10 year Strategic Plan: "Discussions between biodiversity rich and economically rich countries resembled a game of chicken, with both sides waiting to see who veers off course first, rather than focusing on what will be necessary to halt the loss of biodiversity in this, our 'Decade of Biodiversity.' The current draft is insufficient to accomplish the difficult task at hand. The last remaining questions all concern the level of ambition in relation to the loss of habitats, the cover of protected areas, and perhaps most critically, by how much do we increase funding to implement the plan and the CBD more generally."

  • On biofuels and biodiversity: "In the two years since COP-9 [in Bonn, Germany], many of the problems that were predicted for biofuels have become a reality, yet COP-10 produced a text that is weaker than the SBSTTA [the Subsidiary Body On Scientific, Technical And Technological Advice] recommendations and which came close to losing all reference to the precautionary approach. In addition, it almost became confined to agriculture alone without reference to wider biodiversity, including forests. It still promotes biofuels. What we needed was a clear warning of the impacts of biofuel production and an insistence on applying the precautionary approach. Parties failed to achieve this."

  • On synthetic biology: "At COP-10, Parties needed to strengthen a moratorium suspending commercial releases. We also needed countries to understand the risk of dramatically increasing the use of biomass-and thus land and water-that synthetic biology will lead to. Instead, thanks to the pressure of countries that have industrial interests in synthetic biology (like Brazil and the U.S.) and the EU, the proposal from SBSTTA was weakened, now only calling to apply the precautionary approach."


Domination of the Markets at COP-10

The most important outcome of COP-10 was the dominance of a new agenda for "biodiversity conservation" using market-based approaches and offsets. From the Business and Biodiversity Offsets Program (BBOP) pushed by Conservation International, to TEEB (The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity) being promoted by the UN Environment Programme and the "Green Development Mechanism," you could hardly turn around without bumping into a side event or a display pushing the logic of using the market to protect biodiversity. An example of this was a display table heaped with pink books titled The Little Biodiversity Finance Book.

The opening of this book quotes Oscar Wilde in an attempt to defend the logic of putting a price on nature in order to protect it: "The English playwright Oscar Wilde once commented that the cynic knows the price of everything, but the value of nothing. Today's cynics are those who claim that biodiversity is priceless, yet are not prepared to pay for it.... In the UN year of Biodiversity a quiet revolution is occurring. Whilst the Millennium Development Goals for stemming biodiversity loss may be missed, the financial crisis is forcing a re-think of how products and services are valued. Investors are thinking, 'if we got it so wrong with one property, what else out there is incorrectly valued?' There is a growing realization that wealth creation cannot continue based on financial and social capital alone, but must recognize natural capital too-for without this, national accounts, business accounts and consumer accounts-long term, are ultimately built on sand."

The book went on to compare this approach to REDD: "[Biodiversity financing] is a natural follow on from REDD, which is essentially valuing one such service, namely the carbon cycle.... Such a utilitarian view of biodiversity should not be allowed to erode the inestimable value biodiversity has for the human spirit but should secure it for future generations..."

REDD, the scheme to reduce emissions from deforestation by putting them in the carbon market, is heavily opposed by indigenous peoples who recognize that putting forests into the market will lead to the displacement of forest dependent and Indigenous communities when their traditional forested lands are privatized. But at COP-10, the proponents of market-based conservation consistently used REDD as a model and success story for their market-based approach.

During the working group on Biofuels and Biodiversity, I overheard one of the participants say, "REDD is the ultimate intelligence test for humanity." While the speaker meant to imply that using REDD to get forests into the market is the best and only chance to save them and stop climate change, I interpreted it quite differently. It is an intelligence test all right. Will dominant culture change its ways in the face of full-scale ecological crisis, or not? If this COP meeting was any indication, it's not looking too good.

Einstein famously said, "Insanity [is] doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result." One could easily apply that to the attempt to use the market to protect biodiversity. We've seen for centuries how the market has impacted natural resources. We have the climate crisis, the biodiversity crisis, the ocean crisis, the food crisis, the water crisis, etc.

A presentation by the head of TEEB, Pavan Sukhdev, also of the Green Economy Initiative of UNEP, explained the opportunities presented by the upcoming UN climate conference in Cancun to promote their market-based conservation approach. "Within the UNFCCC process, REDD+ should be accelerated for implementation: pilot projects and capacity building in developing countries. We're working toward Cancun where there will be a REDD+ agreement. [Note: REDD is still extremely controversial and has not yet been agreed upon in the UN Climate Convention.] Cancun will be a significant opportunity for TEEB and mainstreaming the economics of nature."

In the theory of TEEB, nature belongs to no one but must be "captured" to save it. The "captor" of that ecosystem can then demand payment for protecting it. If this follows the REDD model, the amount of money demanded for not destroying biodiversity would have to be equal to the profit that could have been made from doing so. Where exactly will all of this money come from? And what if nobody pays? Then the captor would be free to sell that ecosystem to the highest bidder: for logs, for pharmaceuticals, for monocultures, for soy fields, whatever will make the biggest profit.

To quote Sukhdev, "Economics is merely a weapon. The direction you choose to fire is the ethical question." Unfortunately, with regard to nature, there is no way to predict how that weapon will be used. The Precautionary Principle (enshrined in the CBD) should mean we do not put nature in the sights of that weapon to start with.


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