The conservation olympics
Oct 13th 2008
On being green when the world has the blues
IS THE Antarctic Treaty System helping to preserve biodiversity? What are the demands on groundwater in Azraq oasis in Jordan? How do the authorities of Parana state in Brazil control invasive species? The answer to all these questions, and many, many more could be found at the World Conservation Congress, which ends on October 14th in Barcelona, Spain.
The WCC is an Olympics of sorts for the world of biodiversity. Once every four years, champions of conservation from around the globe gather to show off their achievements, take stock of their peers and bask in a shared love of all creatures great and small. It is “the world’s largest and most important conservation event”, according to the International Union for the Conservation Nature, the network of conservation groups that organises it.
Eight thousand people attended, and they were busy, if the programme for the Congress is to be believed. There were over 800 official events, not to mention endless side-meetings, press conferences and impromptu encounters. Topics ranged from the obscure (traditional methods of capturing vicunas on the Jujeno high plain) to the all-important (preserving fish stocks) to the other-worldly (the spiritual dimensions of conservation).
The delegates were also a mixed bunch. They came from all over the world, and from many walks of life (though NGOs and governments predominated, naturally). Impenetrable development jargon was rife: every talk seemed to feature at least one multi-stakeholder process or gendered perspective, not to mention that old chestnut, capacity-building. There were more dreadlocks than is the norm at conferences, and lots of ethnic garb: embroidered silk, feathered head-dresses and the like.
Fringe activism abounded. Drummers jumped, banged and whooped in an effort to express nature’s agony. A lone woman demonstrated how sunlight and mirrors could be used to cook casseroles. Native Okinawans (more traditional costumes) handed out pieces of paper folded into the shape of the species of manatee they were campaigning to protect.
A smattering of businessmen roamed the plain. The boss of Royal Dutch Shell, a big oil firm, put in an appearance. Toyota brought along a driving simulator that allowed users to see how fuel-efficient they were. Publishers peddled glossy coffee-table books about the glories of nature. And there was much talk of the value of forests, fishes and biodiversity in general, in hard-headed dollar terms.
But for all the occasion’s excitement and energy, there remained a sense that conservation was becoming something of side-show. For one thing, the world’s financial markets were in turmoil, and there was widespread concern that economic gloom would lead to greater pressure on nature, and smaller budgets for protecting it.
Worse, several participants noted, conservation seems to be slipping down the rankings of the world’s environmental worries. The movement’s high-water mark was the Earth Summit of 1992, in Rio de Janeiro. That event gave rise to the Convention on Biological Diversity, the weightiest international treaty on the subject. Looming extinctions, habitat loss and the adulteration of pristine landscapes finally seemed to be getting the attention they deserved.
But Rio also gave rise to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, which in turn spawned the Kyoto Protocol. Climate change has been stealing the limelight ever since. It cast a long shadow over the congress. Savvy conservationists invoked it in an effort to make their work seem more topical. It was going to lead, participants were told, to faster deforestation, worse pollution, more extinctions and so on.
This is all true, of course. As one UN official pointed out, until sea levels begin to rise more rapidly, climate change will express itself chiefly through its impact on biodiversity, be it falling crop yields, spreading diseases or dwindling wetlands. Nonetheless, too sharp a focus on climate change could skew priorities. What about species that are not at risk from climate change, but from old-fashioned threats such as shrinking ranges or over-exploitation?
Payments for ecosystem services, meaning natural processes useful to man, such as the purification of water in marshes or the prevention of erosion by forests, used to be the next big thing in conservation. But now, the only sort of ecosystem service getting much attention is the sequestration of carbon in soil and forests. As an exasperated participant plaintively noted, “Forests are more than sticks of carbon.”