Global discussions on biodiversity are all very well, but most good conservation is done locally
SINCE the birth of the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) at the Rio Earth Summit in 1992, there has been a welcome transformation in the language of global conservation. Policymakers and even some businesses have started to express a view of nature as a store of wealth—or “natural capital”. Talk of “ecosystem services” now draws attention to the helpful things that nature does unbidden, such as providing fresh soil and clean water.
This approach not only has the advantage of moving conservation from the domain of lofty morality down to earth, reflecting a pragmatism more likely to support and sustain action. It also serves to highlight the interests of the people who have most to gain from the recognition of natural capital's value, and the most to lose by its squandering: poor people living close to nature in the developing world.
Another welcome development is that there have been conservation successes. Political enlightenment and an economic boom have led to great progress in the Amazon rainforest, with Brazil's deforestation plummeting. Indonesia's rate has also dropped. The possibility of halting global deforestation has become a plausible and thus worthwhile goal.
All this good stuff, however, has little to do with the CBD. The changed language of conservation owes little to the well-intentioned work of the CBD. Progress on forestry has come about largely through national efforts, helped by lower demand for commodities and reinforced by bilateral agreements to do with climate change.
And the global perspective that the CBD has some claim to representing can be overblown. The ecosystem services that matter at a global level are, for the most part, those to do with climate, and are covered in deals on deforestation. Most of the time ecosystem services and natural capital are specific to a particular area, country or region, and that is the level where they ought to be supported. Donor countries, banks and consortia promoting new financial models for conservation can provide ever more such support. The CBD is in a position to encourage experiment, but not much more.
The convention's achievements, such as they are, are much more marginal. The only protocol drawn up under its remit, in Cartagena in 2003, seeks to avert damage by genetically modified organisms; not a front-rank threat. The convention's strategy for plant conservation has yet to deliver the first of its aims (a list of the world's plants). It is now working on a way for developing countries to share in profits made from organisms and genes that originate in their territories, and this could conceivably tidy up a messy area in which negotiators at the World Trade Organisation and the Food and Agriculture Organisation are also active. But any protocol that can be agreed upon is unlikely to alter current practice in the area much.
Should the CBD be scrapped? It is tempting to say yes when it comes up with overblown, unobtainable targets, such as stopping all extinctions anywhere, or when it entertains foolish proposals, like the current Luddite idea to restrict all forms of research exploring the possibility of “geoengineering” the climate. But when it sticks to achievable, measurable targets, such as increasing the area of nature reserves in the ocean, it can provide a useful focus. And an occasional talking shop is useful for donors to compare projects and see which work best. As conservationists like to say, every niche is valuable. But back local pragmatism, not Utopian dreams.