The Last Extinction

The Convention on Biological Diversity, signed in 1992, promised an international regime on access and benefit sharing of the world's genetic resources. But those resources have been dwindling at an alarming rate ever since, because the world has failed to translate international agreements into legislation and action at the national and regional levels.

BONN – Farmers across Africa are currently engaged in an unequal struggle against a pestilent fruit fly whose natural home is in Asia. The fly, first detected in 2004 in Mombasa on the Kenyan coast, has since swept across the continent, decimating mangoes and other crops and devastating livelihoods.

In a bid to counter the fly, a team from the world-renowned ICIPE institute in East Africa recently went to Sri Lanka looking for a natural predator. Researchers have now pinpointed one, which, after careful screening, has been deemed safe to release into Africa’s environment and appears likely to defeat the unwelcome invader.

But the pioneering work is now on hold, as are the hopes of millions of farmers for an effective, environmentally friendly answer to the crisis. Countries in Asia – indeed, countries throughout the developing world – are simply not exporting their abundant and economically important genetic resources.

The Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), signed in 1992, promised an international regime on Access and Benefit Sharing (ABS) of genetic resources. This would allow researchers and companies access to the developing world’s genetic treasure trove in return for a share of the profits from the products that are then developed.

But brokering the ABS regime has proven elusive, and, in the absence of an international deal, there has been diminishing access and thus declining benefit-sharing over the past five or so years. This implies potentially huge economic, environmental, and social losses to both the developed and developing world.

These losses include missed opportunities for breakthroughs in pharmaceuticals, foods, biologically-based materials and processes, and biological pest controllers like the promising one isolated by ICIPE. The losses also include failure to conserve the world’s dwindling wildlife and rapidly degrading ecosystems, which are worth trillions of dollars in terms of life-supporting services.

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An intelligently designed ABS regime offers the chance for poorer countries, which possess the lion’s share of the globe’s remaining genetic resources, to begin to be paid properly for maintaining them. It could also play an important part in meeting the United Nation’s Millennium Development Goals, which include halving poverty by 2015.

From May 20-30, governments from more than 190 countries and an estimated 6,000 delegates will meet in Bonn, Germany for the Ninth Meeting of the Parties to the CBD. Governments have set their sights on securing an ABS regime by 2010, which is also the deadline, agreed at the World Summit on Sustainable Development in 2002, to reduce substantially the rate of loss of biodiversity.

But accelerated action on many other broad biodiversity-related fronts is urgently needed. Indeed, according to the UN Environment Program’s Global Environment Outlook-4 , the world is currently experiencing a sixth wave of extinctions, triggered in large part by our failure to manage natural assets.

  • Thirty percent of global fish stocks have collapsed, up from roughly 15% in 1987, and the proportion of fish stocks classified as over-exploited has doubled, to around 40%.
  • Populations of freshwater vertebrates have declined on average by nearly 50% since 1987, while populations of terrestrial and marine species have fallen by around 30%.
  • In the Caribbean, more than 60% of coral reefs are threatened by sediment, pollution, and over-fishing.
  • Since the end of the Second World War, more land has been converted to agricultural use than in the previous two centuries.
  • Every year, 13 million hectares of tropical forests, which contain up to 80% of the planet’s biodiversity, are destroyed.
  • Roughly 35% of mangroves have been destroyed in the last 20 years.

But, alongside these sobering facts, the world is also full of shining and intelligent management. Indeed, protected areas now cover over 12% of the Earth’s surface, although the creation of marine reserves remains woefully low.

For example, Paraguay, which until 2004 had one of the world’s highest rates of deforestation, has reduced rates in its eastern region by 85%. And in Fiji, no-take zones and better management of marine areas has increased species like mangrove lobsters by 250% per year. Iraq’s marshlands have been restored, and local wheat varieties in Jordan and Syria have been preserved.

Nevertheless, despite these signs of progress, we are failing to confront the magnitude of the challenge, particularly in the translation of global agreements into legislation and action at the national and regional levels.

In Bali six months ago, the world achieved a breakthrough on climate change, and both developed and developing countries have embarked on a Road Map towards a new climate regime for 2012. We must become equally committed to reversing the rate of biodiversity loss.

The Bonn Biodiversity Conference represents an ideal opportunity to achieve a breakthrough, including on ABS. All of us, not just Africa’s fruit farmers, ultimately depend on nature’s bounty for our prosperity – indeed, for our very survival.