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September-October 2010
Vol. 35, No. 5

Ecology: International Year of Biodiversity

One of the monumental achievements of the United Nations is the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), completed 18 years ago during the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janiero. This Convention provides a cooperative forum to ensure that native plants and animals, as well as the interests of indigenous peoples, are fully considered as part of the sustainable development of resources.

Unfortunately, as the 2010 report Global Diversity Outlook 3 points out, in spite of the CBD, the present is marked by unprecedented widespread species endangerment and growing species extinction. Extinction rates may be as high as 1,000 times the historical background rate. Habitats such as tropical forests and coral reefs are badly degraded. Climate change and overharvesting are devastating wildlife around the globe. This is due primarily to human activity, particularly unsustainable economic activity. As a result of the complexity of these issues, there are alarming new diseases to contend with as well as rapidly multiplying invasive species.

In mountainous northern Philippines, by the late 1980s, it was often remarked that the fresh smell of pine could no longer be detected. Over-logging emaciated the forest. The water supply dwindled and many birds and flowers were no longer seen. But the rats multiplied and invaded the rice fields.

The UN has declared 2010 as the International Year of Biodiversity in order to draw the attention of the general public to situations like this, and, in order to call the explicit attention of heads of state, will dedicate one day of the opening session of the 2010 General Assembly in September to this essential topic. This will be an opportunity to draw the attention of world leaders to the main goals of the International Year of Biodiversity.

These goals are:

  • Enhance public awareness of the importance of conserving biodiversity and of the underlying threats to biodiversity.
  • Raise awareness of the accomplishments to save biodiversity that have already been realized by communities and governments.
  • Promote innovative solutions to reduce the threats to biodiversity.
  • Encourage individuals, organizations and governments to take immediate steps to halt biodiversity loss.
  • Start dialogue between stakeholders for the steps to be taken in the post-2010 period.

Back in the period leading up to the 1992 Earth Summit, the United States provided vital leadership in negotiating the CBD, which was later signed by President Bill Clinton in 1993. However, the Senate never ratified the Convention, making the U.S. one of only two countries failing to do so. In a 2009 letter to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Senators John Kerry and Richard Lugar (chair and ranking minority member of the Senate’s Foreign Relations committee), 13 nongovernmental organizations including Defenders of Wildlife, World Wildlife Fund and Friends of the Earth pointed out that the United States stands starkly isolated as a non-party to the Convention.

The letter goes on to say: “… [T]he goals of the CBD directly support U.S. efforts to alleviate global poverty. About 70 percent of the world’s poor live in rural areas and depend on biodiversity for their well being. More than three billion people depend on marine and coastal resources and 1.6 billion people rely on forests and non-timber forest products for their livelihoods. Ensuring healthy ecosystems is crucial to poverty alleviation and sustainable development.”

Paradoxically, although it has not ratified the Convention, the U.S. has done a great deal to preserve biodiversity over the last decades. If it were to ratify the Convention, it would be better positioned to share its expertise and assume international leadership in preserving diversity on a global scale. The U.S., a richly diverse country on all levels, ought to assume the role of rallying world leaders to fulfill the demands of the Convention.

Because the Convention covers all ecosystems, species, and genetic resources, its implementation requires engaging in the management of complex systems, often having to weigh one good against another. Clearly, the work of preserving the diversity of life is challenging. It demands familiarity with moral and ethical principles that correspond to it in depth and scope. The Convention itself contains guidance regarding biosafety, technological transfer, traditional knowledge, and the Precautionary Principle.

Finally, around the world, billions of people depend on a rich and diverse array of wildlife to survive. By supporting the Convention on Biological Diversity, we are in solidarity with them.

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