Arid Lands Newsletter--link to home page No. 37, Spring/Summer 1995
Conserving Biodiversity

Reversing the loss of biodiversity: An overview of international measures

by Walter V. Reid


Our generation has the singular misfortune of living during--and helping to create--a period of biological simplification. Generations from now it will be hard for people to appreciate what has been lost, but we have ringside seats for the event. It is happening during our watch, a fact that will not soon be forgotten by our descendants.

There is virtually no place on Earth where biodiversity is not under siege from the combined pressures of human population growth, excessive resource demands, exotic species introductions, and atmospheric pollutants. Although we often dwell on biodiversity loss in the tropics, major problems exist in the temperate, arid, and semiarid zones as well. Worldwide, an estimated 2 to 5 percent of species will be committed to extinction per decade in the near future and habitats and genetic resources are disappearing at at least as rapid a rate. With growing populations and growing demands on resources, the magnitude of the problem is overwhelming.

Even the United States, which has the resources to tackle the problem and the benefit of a declining rural population, is at best only slowing the rate of loss of biodiversity; more likely, we are only slowing the rate of increase in the loss of biodiversity. If the resource-rich United States is losing the battle, how are countries without abundant resources and with growing rural populations to meet the challenge?

Even if we stopped cutting forests, filling wetlands, and damming rivers worldwide today, species extinctions caused by historic habitat destruction would continue for centuries. Yet it is unrealistic, given a global human population that is growing by nearly a billion people every ten years, to think of halting habitat loss anytime in the near future. If we were to halt the loss of biodiversity at a level somewhere near today's, we would need not only to stop habitat loss immediately but also to restore a substantial fraction of the habitat that already has been lost.

So, what will it take to stop biodiversity loss? Although population growth and resource consumption are the proximate threats to biodiversity today, over the long run biodiversity's fate will in fact lie with social and economic progress around the world. The steps countries take to improve literacy, empower women, invest in health and child survival, and stimulate sustainable economic development will in the end determine the level where human populations stabilize and what demands those populations place on natural resources. And that is what ultimately will define the amount of the planet's biodiversity that survives to pass through the bottleneck we are entering.

Categories of international action for biodiversity

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We can influence both the rate of loss of biodiversity and the final levels of diversity that survive through actions we take today to protect species, genetic resources, and critical habitats and to use them sustainably to meet social and economic needs. International action can help the conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity to the extent that it helps nations (1) anticipate and prevent threats to biodiversity, and (2) align the goals of biodiversity conservation with local and national development goals.

The four major types of international action that influence biodiversity conservation today are:

1. International Resource Management Coordination. A long history of treaties and agreements seeks to promote coordinated and complementary actions among countries that share resource management goals or concerns. For example, Mexico's efforts to maintain its shorebird populations would fail if the U.S. and Canada did not protect habitats for the birds during migration. Similarly, U.S. efforts to protect sea turtle populations would fail if other countries did not ban the import of turtle shells. Thus, nations have reached such agreements as the Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), the Convention on the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR), and the International Undertaking on Plant Genetic Resources, and have established numerous regional and species-specific councils and agreements addressing transboundary resources or migratory species, such as UNEP Regional Seas programs.

2. "Bargains" Among Nations. Another set of international mechanisms seeks not only the coordination of action, but also the establishment of reciprocity among nations. In a sense, these treaties or agreements strike "bargains" among countries with different needs and different resource pressures. For example, the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands of International Importance obliges countries to take steps to conserve their wetland resources and provides funding from relatively wealthy countries to support the conservation activities in poorer nations. The pilot phase of the Global Environmental Facility provided financial support for conservation in developing countries; in return, those countries took steps to protect their biodiversity, actions that result in both national and global benefits. The recently negotiated Convention on Biological Diversity establishes obligations for parties to undertake conservation activities and ensures that wealthy countries will support conservation with financial and technical resources in return for maintaining their access to these resources. And a number of bilateral development assistance programs provide financial resources to countries to assist their conservation efforts.

3. International Financial and Trade Agreements. Although we don't typically think of their influence on biodiversity, international agreements that influence economic development and trade policies can have important conservation consequences, both positive and negative. Such agreements include structural adjustment programs, regional and global trade agreements, and commodity agreements such as the International Tropical Timber Agreement (ITTA). It is already standard for such agreements to address economic issues related to resource use, but increasingly the argument is being made to address conservation concerns as well. Because of their major influence on patterns of development, these agreements may offer a far more valuable opportunity to promote the conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity than more narrowly focused conservation agreements.

For example, Bob Repetto at World Resources Institute (WRI) has proposed a mechanism for making commodity agreements such as ITTA instruments for promoting the sustainable use of resources. For decades, Southern producers have sought to improve their commodity terms of trade through commodity agreements designed to "stabilize" (i.e., reduce) supply, efforts that have been resisted by consuming Northern countries such as the U.S. However, producers could improve export prices and revenues if they jointly agreed to adopt more sustainable production practices and to internalize the full environmental costs of production in their pricing structure. Northern countries could not complain about agreements among producers to reduce logging to sustainable levels or to protect biodiversity, and Southern producers could pass on the costs of these measures to Northern importers.

4. International Science. Finally, much of the basis for both the concern over the loss of biodiversity and for knowledge of what steps need to be taken to protect biodiversity stems from the results of the international scientific community's research in systematics, ecology, and conservation biology. Although we often don't think of this as an international "measure," international scientific cooperation provides a model for the type of cooperation needed in such areas as technology and capacity building.

The Biodiversity Convention

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Although economic and trade agreements provide significant opportunities to imbed concerns for sustainability in development plans and despite the potential for other treaties to help coordinate resource management among nations, all attention is now focused on The Convention on Biological Diversity, one of the notable achievements of the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) held in Rio de Janeiro in June 1992. The 157 countries signing the Convention believed that it struck a balance among the interests of nations differing widely in development needs, biodiversity endowments, and environmental threats.

The Convention is a framework agreement, meaning that it establishes an international legal structure for a coordinated response to the loss of biological diversity. It establishes general obligations for the parties to the Convention rather than legally binding targets for specific actions.

But even as a framework agreement, its impact will be significant. The Convention increases the economic incentives for conservation, a key element of the long-term strategy to slow the loss of biodiversity. It also establishes short-term obligations to meet pressing conservation needs. Signatories have already begun to develop the required biodiversity action plans, which detail how they will meet obligations to identify, monitor, and conserve biodiversity and identify their priorities for training, education, and capacity-building. The Convention establishes a multilateral mechanism to provide financial support for these conservation needs in developing countries and sets up a scientific panel to help governments guide limited resources to the highest priorities.

The Convention marks a basic change in the international status of genetic resources. Before it, these resources were considered to be the "common heritage of mankind." This principle is a central tenet of the International Undertaking on Plant Genetic Resources and the FAO Commission on Plant Genetic Resources, both of which were established in the 1980s and together involve some 135 countries. Under this regime, countries that violated the common heritage principle and restricted access to unimproved germplasm (such as Ethiopia, which placed an embargo on the export of its coffee germplasm in 1977) were soundly criticized.

Though the intent of the open access regime was to ensure the widespread availability of genetic resources for agriculture and industry, it had one major flaw: by allowing free exchange of genetic resources, the source country received no direct benefit from their use. As a result, commercial use of these resources provided no additional economic incentive for conservation.

The Convention on Biological Diversity corrects this policy failure by establishing that states have sovereign rights over their genetic resources, although it affirms that the conservation of biodiversity is a "common concern of humankind." It thus enables market incentives to be used to complement the various multilateral mechanisms that might directly fund biodiversity conservation. The Convention adopted the principle that a portion of the benefits stemming from the productive use of genetic resources should flow back to the nations that act to conserve and provide access to these resources.

Not surprisingly, the negotiators envisioned that the flow of benefits would include both financial resources (i.e., royalties) and technologies. Given the central role of new technologies in addressing many environmental concerns, the inclusion of technology transfer articles is now commonplace in international agreements--including, for example, the Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer, Agenda 21 (another product of UNCED), and the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. Such provisions aid biodiversity conservation in two ways: (1) technologies like seedbanks, tissue culture, and data management systems help meet conservation objectives directly, and (2) technologies enabling countries to make greater use of biodiversity in agriculture and industry add even greater economic incentives for conservation.

The technology transfer envisioned under the Convention is not a hand-out to poor countries but a recognition that simple cash payments for access to resources are rarely the most effective mechanism to support their conservation. Indeed, the first country to take action to ensure technology transfer consistent with the convention was not even a developing country. After the U.S. National Cancer Institute extracted a chemical showing promise against HIV from an Australian shrub, Western Australia aggressively pursued its right to benefit from the resource. Australian scientists will now be involved in the research and Australia will receive a share of any potential commercial benefits.

There is no dispute that countries that obtain genetic resources from other countries assume the obligation under the Convention to compensate those countries, both financially and by facilitating technology transfer. Because developed countries successfully negotiated for language in the agreement to ensure that compulsory licensing is not authorized to meet these objectives, the burden falls squarely on the developed countries to take the actions needed to facilitate technology transfer. An array of policy tools, including tax incentives and cooperative research programs, can meet the Convention's objectives without infringing on property rights. Rather than continuing to stress what actions developing countries can't take to meet the Convention's objectives, it is essential that developed countries quickly demonstrate what actions developed countries will take.

Next steps

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A scaffolding for international action to support the conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity now exists. But what are the greatest needs for further international institutional evolution to support biodiversity conservation?

1. Build Capacity in Developing Countries. International institutional development in the area of biodiversity conservation has far outpaced the growth of local and national expertise and institutions in many countries. Faced with new obligations under the Convention to survey and protect species, new awareness of the need to control the transboundary flow of genetic resources, a clear need for legal and technical expertise related to intellectual property rights and technology transfer, and new opportunities to benefit from biodiversity as more information about biodiversity is obtained, most countries--with the exception of a handful of industrialized countries--confront a major shortage of expertise and capacity.

So long as many developing countries lack the expertise needed to deal with these issues, not only will progress toward goals of conservation and sustainable use suffer, but so too will these countries be placed at a disadvantage in the further elaboration of international institutional mechanisms. If we are not careful, our scaffolding of international measures will turn into a house of cards. We need to screen every protocol, every project, and every new agreement to ensure that first priority is given to building local expertise and capacity in such areas as resource management, technology transfer, biological inventory, data management, environmental policy research, legal expertise, conservation biology, participatory methods, and biotechnology.

2. Control Genetic and Biochemical Transfers. Although the economic value associated with the transfer of genetic and biochemical materials often is exaggerated, effective mechanisms for dealing with these transfers and for ensuring equity in the distribution of benefits should nevertheless be a priority. Equity in the distribution of the benefits from these resources will be the standard against which international measures are judged.

Several problems confront any such mechanism. First, the pharmaceutical industry, which receives the most attention today in relation to the Biodiversity Convention, is involved increasingly in the transfer of chemical extracts rather than of samples of plants or animals. Because these are not strictly "genetic resources," they are not governed by the requirement in Article 15 for the prior informed consent of the donor country. On the other hand, Article 8 of the Convention enables countries to establish policies for the regulation and management of their biological "resources." Thus it is within the rights of countries to require collectors to obtain a permit before exporting chemical extracts.

Second, mechanisms that make sense for the use of chemicals in the pharmaceutical industry may not make sense for the use of genetic resources in agriculture and medicine. There is no particular difficulty associated with tracking the development of a drug from a plant or animal extract. Countries could readily establish access regulations requiring contracts that stipulate royalties, technology transfer, and conservation requirements whenever chemical extracts are exported. Although it is possible for companies to evade the terms of such contracts, most would not consider it worth the risk, given the relatively low royalty rates typical for such agreements.

On the other hand, gene transfers present major monitoring problems. A soil sample sold to a pharmaceutical company might hold hundreds or thousands of microorganisms that could easily be cultured. The supplier would have no means of knowing whether a microorganism that produced a valuable chemical came from a particular sample and would not know if the organisms were transferred to another user. Similarly, a supplier would have no way of knowing whether a particular gene from a plant sample provided to a seedbank or to a seed company eventually was patented. Thus, in the case of agriculture, the only "winner" from a scheme that would require the return of royalties to countries of origin of genetic material is likely to be the legal profession. Modern crop varieties are built from genes derived from dozens of countries. The cost associated with parceling out royalties among those countries and litigating the identify of various genes could quickly exceed the profits of the seed industry, which makes most of its profits from agrochemicals, not seeds, to begin with.

Third, the Biodiversity Convention grandfathers seed collections that already exist when the Convention comes into force. Thus, we face the prospects of an extraordinarily burdensome two-tiered system of gene regulation and monitoring that would keep track not only of country of origin but also of whether the material was collected before or after 1994.

There is a possible solution to these problems. An international fund could be established that obtained its resources from a small tax on the seed, pharmaceutical, and biotechnology industries. Such a mechanism was specified in the International Undertaking on Plant Genetic Resources, but contributions were voluntary and companies never contributed. Faced with the specter of a Byzantine regulatory system, companies may now look more kindly on such a fund.

3. Extend Rights Under the Biodiversity Convention to Local Communities. The Convention is premised on the notion that unless countries receive benefits from the use of their resources they will have insufficient incentive to conserve them. Governments were quick to accept this principle; shouldn't they then be equally quick to accept the notion that local communities within the country also should receive benefits from the use of their resources if they are to have an incentive to conserve them? If the convention is to achieve its goals, the key elements of the Convention (informed consent prior to collecting material and sharing of benefits on mutually agreed terms) should apply to private landowners, local communities, and indigenous groups with territorial claims.

A case in point may be taxol, a chemical derived from the Pacific yew in the United States. If we want to maintain our public forests for such values as biodiversity rather than for timber alone, shouldn't we ensure that benefits from the use of biodiversity flow back to the region where it was found? Even though we now accept internationally that both equity and the need for incentives for resource conservation require far more than traditional spot payments and sourcing contracts, we fail to apply this standard domestically. We will not shift regional economies from exploitative uses of biological resources if those are the only economically viable uses.

4. Bury the Concept of Global Incremental Costs. Are there benefits that accrue globally from the conservation of biodiversity that exceed the national benefits from conservation? Of course. Should we then premise international financial support only on international benefits? Of course not. In the abstract this might make sense, but in reality we are so far away from protecting even that biodiversity which is in the long-term interest of the nation itself that it is meaningless to define a conservation "increment" of this nature. (The incremental cost defined in the Convention is something different; it refers to the added costs to developing countries of implementing the Convention.)

Owing to inclusion of the concept of incremental costs in the Global Environmental Facility, countries are approaching biodiversity conservation not as something that is in their self interest, but rather as something to be bought with international funds.

5. Deal With Biosafety. A protocol on biosafety is likely to be one of the first protocols negotiated under the Convention on Biological Diversity. The continued opposition of the U.S. to the need for such a protocol is misguided, but the protocol currently being discussed is equally off-target.

There is substantial concern in developing countries about the risks of release of genetically modified organisms. This concern is justified. Developing countries do not have the regulatory mechanisms in place to monitor or enforce testing guidelines, and there already is documented evidence that scientists have taken advantage of the lax rules in developing countries to test organisms that could not be tested in the U.S. Given this legitimate concern, it is hard to justify the U.S. position in opposition to a biosafety protocol. However, this position is remarkably parallel to the longstanding efforts of the U.S. nuclear industry and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to ignore public fears and doubts about the risks of nuclear power. As historians are quick to note, we seem fated to repeat the mistakes of history. Because the concern exists, we should accept it as legitimate and deal with it through a protocol.

The more pressing problem from the standpoint of biodiversity and biosafety, however, is not genetically modified organisms but common, garden variety, genetically unmodified "weeds." The most rapidly growing threat to biodiversity is the introduction of exotic species. Already, for example, the U.S. has some 4,500 introduced species--accounting for some 2 to 8 percent of such groups as insects, vertebrates, and mollusks--and more frequent and rapid international travel is resulting in ever more frequent introductions. Not only are exotic species often serious threats to native biodiversity and extremely difficult to control, they can have substantial negative economic impacts. Between 1906 and 1991, 79 introduced species caused a documented $97 billion in losses in the U.S. It is estimated that a recently introduced species, the zebra mussel, will cause more than US$3 billion in losses in the coming years.

If we do negotiate a biosafety protocol, therefore, it should not be restricted to genetically modified organisms but also should address the broader issue of introduction of exotic species and their social and ecological impacts.


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Fundamental changes in society are needed if we are to significantly slow the loss of biodiversity. We can invest in parks and protected areas today, but these will prove to be only stop-gap measures if broader changes are not made. The current framework of international measures provides hope because it is premised on the need to integrate the concern for biodiversity conservation with development needs. But an urgent need exists for further international action to give flesh to that skeleton. The greatest current obstacle to surer progress toward the intertwined goals of biodiversity conservation and sustainable use is the shortage of capacity in developing countries. We must ensure that in our haste to elaborate the international framework we do not outpace the growth of this capacity.


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Fowler, Cary and Pat Mooney. 1990. Shattering: Food, Politics, and the Loss of Genetic Diversity. Tucson: The University of Arizona Press.

Reid, W.V., S.A. Laird, C.A. Meyer, R. Gamez, A. Sittenfeld, D.H. Janzen, M.A. Gollin, C . Juma (eds.). 1993 . Biodiversity Prospecting: Using Genetic Resources for Sustainable Development. Washington: World Resources Institute.

Reid, W. and K. Miller. 1989. Keeping Options Alive: The Scientific Basis for Conserving Biodiversity. Washington: World Resources Institute.

U.S. Congress, Office of Technology Assessment. 1993. Harmful Non-lndigenous Species in the United States. OTA-F-565. Washington: U.S. Government Printing Office.

World Conservation Monitoring Centre. 1992. Global Biodiversity: Status of the Earth's Living Resources. London: Chapman and Hall.

World Resources Institute. 1992. Global Biodiversity Strategy: Guidelines for Actions to Save, Study, and Use Earth's Biotic Wealth Sustainably and Equitably. Washington: World Resources Institute (WRI), World Conservation Union (IUCN), and United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP).

World Resources Institute, United Nations Environment Programme, United Nations Development Programme. In press. World Resources 1994-1995. Washington: World Resources Institute.

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Author information

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Walter V. Reid is Vice President for Program, World Resources Institute, 1709 New York Avenue NW, Washington DC 20006 USA. His article is adapted from a paper he delivered at the international conference Biological Diversity: Exploring the Complexities , held March 25-27, 1994, at Tucson, Arizona.

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