Reconciling conservation and


By the 1990s piecemeal opposition to destructive development by conservationists had been subsumed beneath the over-arching concept of 'sustainable development'. Following the Rio conferences in 1992, this was universally accepted as a way of framing debate about the impacts of development on nature. The term is not, however, as simple as it seems. It has always been a highly political concept. This is one reason for the frustration felt by conservation biologists like John Terborgh, who describes it as the mantra of the conservation movement, attractive like apple pie precisely because most people are unable to enunciate a technically precise definition.145 He is quite right about its vagueness, but misses its importance. Michael Jacobs points out that sustainable development and sustainability were not originally intended as 'economic' terms. He says 'they were, and remain, essentially political objectives, more like 'social justice' and 'democracy' than 'economic growth'. And as such their purpose, or 'use' is mainly to express key ideas about how society — including the economy — should be governed'.146

The evolution of the ideas of sustainability and sustainable development is worthy of a history in itself.147 They were central to the success of the Stockholm Conference on the Human Environment in 1972, in building bridges between industrialized countries responding to environmentalist fears about industrial pollution, and developing countries whose chief concern was poverty, and the lack of industry. The memorable phrase 'the pollution of poverty' was coined at this time to emphasize that industrial development brought benefits as well as problems. The idea of sustainable development was offered as an escape from the idea that development gains inevitably brought environmental costs. It was a statement of faith, not a road map.

Conservation and development was the theme of the 1972 IUCN General Assembly at Banff, Canada, and in 1975 IUCN joined UNEP, UNESCO, and FAO in an 'Ecosystem Conservation Group' to develop a strategy for nature conservation. In 1977 UNEP commissioned IUCN to draft a document to provide a global strategy for conservation. Preliminary drafts were discussed at the IUCN General Assembly in Ashkhabad (USSR) in 1978. At that stage the strategy was effectively still a textbook of wildlife conservation, concentrating on the conservation of species and protected areas. Between then and 1980, when the World Conservation Strategy was published by IUCN, UNEP and the World Wildlife Fund,148 the focus broadened substantially to include questions of population, resources and development.

The World Conservation Strategy (WCS) argued explicitly that development could be 'a major means of achieving conservation, rather than an obstruction to it'. It tried to show the relevance of conservation to development, and to offer both 'an intellectual framework and practical guidance'.149 The WCS identified three objectives for conservation: first, the maintenance of 'essential ecological processes and life-support systems' (food production, health, and other aspects of human survival and sustainable development) and the ecosystems on which they depended; second, the preservation of genetic diversity, both in domestic and wild species; third the sustainable utilization of species and ecosystems, particularly fisheries, wild species which are cropped, forests and timber resources and grazing land.

Mainstream ideas of sustainable development were further developed through the report of the World Commission on Environment and Development Our Common Future and the follow-up to the WCS, Caring for the Earth, before its appearance in Agenda 21 at the Rio Conference in 1992.150 Agenda 21 became a vast and sprawling compendium of developmental and environmental ideas, running to more than 600 pages, although it was conceived by the Conference Chairman Maurice Strong as a relatively simple document setting out a strategy to make the planet sustainable by the start of the 21st Century.151 The whole of the second section of Agenda 21 (14 of the 40 chapters) concerns the 'Conservation and Management of Resources for Development'. These are long chapters, comprising almost half the total page-length, addressing everything from deforestation and desertification through toxic waste and the atmosphere to the conservation of biological diversity.

The main focus of wildlife conservationists at the Rio Conference was the Convention on Biological Diversity. In a sense this was unfinished business arising from the World Conservation Strategy in 1980. Its roots went back long before preparations for the Rio Conference began — indeed, in a sense its roots go back to the 1933 Conference and the 1900 Convention for the Preservation of Animals, Birds and Fish in Africa (Chapter 4). IUCN drew up a draft Convention in the mid-1980s, with WWF, UNEP, the World Resources Institute and the World Bank. The idea of a global conservation convention had been suggested in Bali in 1982, at the Second World Congress on National Parks (organized by IUCN's Commission on National Parks and Protected Areas). Between 1988 and 1992 there was intensive debate about the need for international agreement on effective measures to preserve global biodiversity, and specifically on the need for a convention among IUCN, UNEP, FAO, UNESCO, WWF, World Resources Institute, and the World Bank). The Global Biodiversity Strategy, published in 1992, made the case for international agreement.152

Negotiations over a Convention were initiated by UNEP in 1990, and at first the evolving draft reflected conservationist concerns about biodiversity loss. However, at the second Preparatory Committee meeting in Geneva, the 'G77' countries (the group of 128 less-developed and less-industrialized countries set up as a counter lobby to the developed 'G7' countries) demanded the inclusion of the issues of bioprospecting and the exploitation of genetic resources through biotechnology. This was a novel (and controversial) broadening of the conservation agenda, although in principle it extended earlier ideas about the sustainable use of species and ecosystems for human benefit. By 1992 rapid development in genetics had opened up vast new areas of potential exploitation at the molecular level, including the creation of novel organisms (which might perhaps be patented by the corporations that created them) and products such as drugs or cosmetics derived from wild species. This technology had the potential to generate vast wealth, however biotechnological capacity was almost uniquely held by industrialized countries (because of the high costs of research laboratories, research infrastructure and training), and moreover by private corporations within those countries and not by governments. Third World countries feared 'biopiracy', stripping of their genetic resources by bioprospectors, and loss of access to economic benefits derived by First World corporations.153 On the other hand, First World countries (particularly the United States, which dominated in this area of science) feared restriction of economic opportunity if trade in biotechnology were restricted by a benefit-sharing agreement. The Convention was drafted to reflect the balance of these opposite fears, containing, among other things, provision for sharing benefits from the commercial exploitation of genetic resources.

The Convention on Biological Diversity was agreed and signed by 156 countries at the Rio Conference. The United States refused to sign at that time, although it did so subsequently (although it had still not ratified by 2003). The Convention is a slightly awkward marriage between conventional conservation concerns and novel issues of biotechnology, held together by the fragile term 'biodiversity'. The Convention seeks to conserve biological diversity, promote the sustainable use of species and ecosystems, and the equitable sharing of the economic benefits of genetic resources. Signatory nations committed themselves to the development of strategies for conserving biological diversity, and for making its use sustainable. The convention notes that biodiversity conservation can be achieved in situ (that is through conventional methods such as the designation of systems of protected areas, see Chapters 4 and 5) or ex situ (for example through captive breeding, see Chapter 6), although the Convention also requires cross-cutting measures (for example relating to forestry or fishing). All these elements of the Convention are qualified by a get-out clause (all is to be done 'as far as possible and appropriate'). This programme is a logical development of the traditional conservationist concern for sustainable ecosystems use, and draws directly on the thinking in the World Conservation Strategy and Caring for the Earth.

The Convention on Biological Diversity came into force on 29 December 1993, and by 1997 it had been ratified by 162 countries. This rapid progress reflected the level of concern about biodiversity loss, but more particularly the explosion of commercial interest in biotechnology in the 1990s, and the potential commercial value of genetic material in both its raw (wild) state, and as patentable 'improved' forms. Debate over the issues embraced by the Convention has continued to be fierce, addressing among other things how the Convention on Biological Diversity should be integrated with other biodiversity conventions (notably the Convention on Trade in Endangered Species, CITES, see Chapter 8), and on relations with the World Trade Organisation, and its agreement on Trade Related Intellectual Property Rights.154 The 6th meeting of the Conference of the Parties in April 2002 adopted a strategic plan which commits Parties to achieve, by 2010, a significant reduction in the current rate of biodiversity loss at the global, regional and national level.

Following Rio, the United Nations Commission on Sustainable Development (CSD) was created as a commission of the UN Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) to monitor and report on implementation of the Earth Summit agreements at the local, national, regional and international levels.155 Progress was reviewed at a special session of the UN General Assembly in June 1997 (the so-called Earth Summit + 5) and more completely in the autumn of 2002 at the World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg. There were four Preparatory Committee meetings, the last of which, at Ministerial level, was held in Bali, Indonesia.

Meanwhile, sustainability had been selected as one of the eight Millennium Development Goals agreed at the United Nations Millennium Summit in September 2000.156 These are intended to be yardsticks for measuring improvements in people's lives, and are associated with 18 targets and 48 indicators. Goal 7, to 'ensure environmental sustainability' involves three targets: first, the integration of the principles of sustainable development into country policies and programmes and reverse the loss of environmental resources; second, the halving of the proportion of people without sustainable access to safe drinking water by 2015; third, the achievement of a significant improvement in the lives of at least 100 million slum dwellers by 2020.157 There are seven indicators relevant to these goals. Some have an obvious and direct development focus (for example the proportion of people with sustained access to an improved water source). Two have some relevance to biodiversity, the proportion of land area covered by forest (although the kind of forest is not specified) and the area of land protected to maintain biodiversity.

Over 22,000 people attended the Johannesburg Summit, including 100 heads of State and government. The meeting confirmed government endorsement of the Rio agreements, and issued the Johannesburg Plan of Implementation.158 Signatories committed themselves to achieving poverty-related targets and goals, including those contained in Agenda 21, the relevant outcomes of other United Nations conferences and the United Nations Millennium Declaration. The Plan addressed poverty eradication, changing unsustainable patterns of consumption and production, protecting and managing the natural resource base of economic and social development, the issue of sustainable development in a globalizing world, and the links between health and sustainable development. It also addressed sustainable development of small island developing states, Africa and other regions, and the institutional framework required to achieve sustainable development.

The shift in debates about development and environment has been a fundamental (and rather astonishing) feature of the last decades of the 20th century. The rhetoric of sustainability is now ubiquitous, with all its rampant vigour and its infuriating vagueness. Conservatives and radicals both march beneath its banner, some preaching a mild green reform of profitable global business, others calling for a fundamental restructuring of social and economic systems, and a profound re-assessment of the relations between humans and biosphere.159 For conservationists, there are whole new institutional ecosystems to explore, hunting the captains of industry in their boardrooms and coming back with funds for cherished projects or strategies to enhance corporate environmental performance. These are deep bureaucratic jungles, where the latter-day successors of Buxton and Hornaday struggle to turn their profound feelings about the need to conserve nature into coherent plans of action that governmental and intergovernmental organizations will sign up to, such as the need to integrate the UN's Millennium Development Goals and the Convention of Biological Diversity's '2010 Global Biodiversity Challenge'.160

By the end of the 1990s, wildlife conservation had become an inextricable part of debates about development. The question of the extinction of species was rightly seen to be part and parcel of wider questions about the sustainability of the biosphere in the face of human demands upon it. The state of Spaceship Earth and the fate of its burgeoning crew were seen to be different parts of the same question.

All well and good, but the most interesting issue in the whole rambling sustainability debate for conservation continues to be whether people can actually use species and ecosystems sustainably. This was the issue that led IUCN into debates about development, and it continues to be a vexed one within conservation. Put simply, can species be harvested sustainably, and can those harvests be made the foundation for the improvement in the human condition? That is the subject of the next chapter.

Chapter 8

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