Surprises on the road to conservation

In the 1970s, no one expected that the 1992 Convention on Biological Diversity would include issues like biotechnology, intellectual property rights and technology transfer.

Waterton Lakes National Park, Canada Photo: Shutterstock /Jason Patrick Ross

In the 1970s, leading conservationists did not expect that the Convention on Biological Diversity, signed in 1992, would include issues such as biotechnology, intellectual property rights and technology transfer.

In 1982, Cyril de Klemm, a member of IUCN’s Commission on Environmental Law, proposed his idea to prepare a “world convention for the conservation of species and natural habitats". At the time, no one within IUCN could have predicted that the final treaty, which was signed 10 years later at the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, would include issues such as biotechnology, intellectual property rights and transfer of technology.

The 1970s were the golden age of environmental law. After the Stockholm Conference, where the environment was firmly put on the international agenda, governments signed international treaties and legal mechanisms on a wide range of topics from air pollution to World Heritage. Important conventions on trade in endangered species (CITES), wetlands (Ramsar Convention) and migratory species (Bonn Convention) – as well as ‘soft law’ instruments like the World Charter for Nature – were adopted.

In many of these initiatives IUCN had played an instrumental role. It was the Commission on Environmental Law in particular that provided technical advice and helped prepare draft articles. At the beginning of the 1980s, however, some members within the Commission felt that existing treaties with their specific focus on certain groups of species or particular regions failed to protect nature as a whole.

To fill this legal loophole, Cyril de Klemm introduced a new approach: an international treaty that vested the ownership of species and natural habitats (‘the genetic heritage of mankind’) in the global community.

In the mid-1980s the time was ripe for such an initiative. Research by biologists such as Norman Myers, Paul Ehrlich and Michael Soulé indicated that a global extinction crisis of an unprecedented kind was underway.

In 1986, these scientists organised a National Forum on Biodiversity in Washington D.C., which created worldwide political and public awareness. At the same time IUCN’s Commission on Environmental Law, in collaboration with the Joint IUCN/WWF Plant Advisory Group, prepared Draft Articles for a Convention on the Conservation of Biological Diversity. Drawing from de Klemm’s suggestions, the IUCN Draft defined biological diversity as common heritage of humankind and introduced national parks and protected areas as the most effective tools to protect it.

In 1988, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) assumed the role of coordinator of efforts to develop a biodiversity convention. The UN agency first convened a meeting of senior scientists in which IUCN was well represented through the likes of Martin Holdgate and Jeffrey McNeely. In the political negotiations that followed between 1988 and 1992, however, IUCN’s role and influence gradually waned.

In his autobiography Penguins and Mandarins, for instance, Holdgate remembered that “it was clear that even an expert like Jeff McNeely would have limited influence on the discussions in the negotiating chamber”. During the often difficult and lengthy negotiations, diplomats introduced numerous new themes while turning down some of IUCN’s original proposals. As a result, the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) changed from a species and parks treaty to a much more comprehensive mechanism dealing with biotechnology, intellectual property rights and transfer of technology. Until the very end, diplomats remained divided over the exact interpretation of these additional issues. It was only because of the vigorousness of Mostafa Tolba, the Executive Director of UNEP, that the Convention became ready for the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, where it was signed by 150 government leaders.

After the Earth Summit, IUCN searched for an appropriate role within the new bureaucratic infrastructure that the Convention on Biological Diversity had created. Two of the organisation’s biodiversity initiatives, in particular, proved to be influential.

Firstly, McNeely set up a Global Biodiversity Forum, in which experts could exchange ideas about all kinds of technical issues in preparation for the CBD’s Conference of the Parties. One of the important legacies of this Forum was that the participants included not only scientific experts and policy makers but also ‘new’ partners including business and industry representatives and indigenous leaders.

Secondly, in 1992 as part of their biodiversity campaign, IUCN and UNEP published a Global Biodiversity Strategy. The document emphasised the importance of biodiversity inventories and paved the way for the Global Biodiversity Assessment (1995), a momentous effort in which IUCN experts such as Vernon Heywood took a leading role. It was in these endeavours, which occurred next to the formal diplomatic process, that IUCN was at its strongest.  

Hans Schouwenburg

Maastricht University, History Department

Read more: Nature’s diplomats: Ecological experts and the conservation policy of international organizations (1920-2000)

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