Bearing the brunt

Global biodiversity has been pushed to crisis point by a lack of international collaboration; Elisabeth Jeffries investigates. 

In October, a pair of Eurasian brown bears was airlifted to the Pyrenees from Slovenia in order to bolster diminishing numbers of the species. This was a welcome piece of good news for the bears, whose survival depends on collaborative conservation activity. Unfortunately, most other European countries were unaware of the bears plight. This lack of information matters. In July, the French government published its biodiversity strategy, which conained an objective to increase the population of brown bears in the country. However, it failed to translate the documents associated with the strategy – so the news only hit the headlines in France. As a result, fewer people worldwide care.

Policy gaps and barriers

The Eurasian brown bear’s situation may be very specific but the problem is not. All over the world, gaps and barriers in government, communications and business obstruct biodiversity management – delaying the successful international strategies that are essential for thriving ecosystems, which often cross national boundaries. 
This, in turn, leads to disjointed policy.

“Rules are fragmented across jurisdictional levels, between countries, between states within countries, between agencies with particular responsibilities, and across specific biophysical and social problems,” says professor Paul Martin, director of the Australian Centre for Agriculture and Law at the University of New England, Australia.

In land-based environments, forests are an obvious casualty of these inconsistencies; they are managed differently across countries, with varying laws on land use and diverse or lax regulations on business. According to Tony Juniper, executive director of Advocacy and Campaigns at the World Wide Fund for Nature, forests are an area requiring urgent attention. “Lots of major companies have said they aim to be selling products unassociated with deforestation by 2020, but many of them are struggling to do this, not least because of the absence of an international framework that is aligned with trade agreements,” he says.

Another issue is the use of agricultural chemicals, which can be toxic enough to harm the pollination process in plants. This affects not just flowers and plants, but wildlife of all kinds.According to Juniper, national laws around agricultural chemicals are inadequate. “If we are to conserve biodiversity while protecting food security, we need a new regime for the management of pesticides,” he says. 

Maritime activities

With the recent massive increase in media attention on ocean plastics, a chasm in maritime policy has become evident. “About 45% of the planet is not reasonably managed,” says Carl Gustaf Lundin, principal scientist on the Global Marine and Polar Programme at the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN). He draws particular attention to maritime species, which he describes as “miserably managed”. “We’ve lost more than 95% of big fish,” he says.

Demersals, he says, are among the fish most in trouble. These flatfish, which include flounder, sole, plaice and skate, live on the seabed and are subject to recurring fishery disputes. At the same time, governmental demersal high-seas policy is not managed internationally but regionally. “Demersal fish are already fished out in some places,” says Lundin. “If you took a broader approach, you might solve the problem. But in some cases, countries in fishing areas are completely uninterested in significant reform and don’t want to cede any management authority. They prefer miserable fish stocks to broader management.”

Meanwhile, the noise of human activity has been ignored – another governance gap. “Shipping has an impact through noise, which is an important issue,” says Lundin. “Animals communicate through sound, and many of these problems are particularly significant in coastal waters.”

Across the world, the activities of many industries at sea are either poorly managed or unmanaged, providing an opportunity for entrepreneurs. Fisheries have historically been the most controversial example of management difficulties. However, new industries or technologies provide the biggest headache, often exploiting policy loopholes. 

Lundin cites seabed mining for manganese nodules as the most pressing concern. Manganese nodules are about four inches wide and may contain manganese, iron, nickel, copper or cobalt. “They are not very valuable,” says Lundin. “You need a lot of nodules for this to be worthwhile, which would have a significant effect on the seafloor if mined.”

Crusts on underwater mountains, which have formed over millions of years, also contain minerals. As Lundin points out, though, excavating these zones means stripmining whatever is living in them. “There is high biodiversity in these areas, and this activity would mean enormous losses.”

These are just a few examples, of course; transboundary and intra-national management is fraught with conflicting interests between governments and industries. “Action is patchy and uncoordinated, and this needs to change if we are to stop mass extinction,” says Tony Juniper. 

New agreements

Much of current global biodiversity policy originates from the UN Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), signed in 1992. Under the CBD, governments aim to conserve biodiversity, and use it sustainably. They must develop national biodiversity strategies and action plans, such as the strategy published by France this year, and integrate these into broader national plans for environment and development. However, implementation is inconsistent between countries, and is not always completed. 

“In many countries, implementation is poor,” says Paul Martin. “And even if it is happening, effectiveness is a concern.” The aim of the CBD, he explains, was to embed a fully accountable and comprehensive system of biodiversity governance, rather than to put in place a few principles here and there. “Unfortunately, it is the latter interpretation that dominates.”

Nevertheless, there is some cause for optimism. An opportunity to learn from the experiences of the last 25 years will arrive in 2020, when countries will negotiate a new treaty under the CBD. The post-2020 policy arising from this agreement is expected to provide a ‘New Deal for Nature’ to help the international community to address biodiversity and ecosystems loss.

At the same time, a new UN legally binding marine agreement to limit exploitation in the high seas – usually zones more than 370km from a country’s coastline – is due in the next couple of years. It would be the first to protect biodiversity in areas beyond national jurisdiction. However, Carl Gustaf Lundin is doubtful whether it will have a significant impact, citing a reluctance to engage from nations such as the US and Russia. “There is a general lack of interest from a number of countries,” he says. “I’m not overly optimistic; there are stumbling blocks.” Of these, he believes the most significant is the ideological conflict around access and benefit sharing, which would help developing countries avoid making the mistakes of ex-colonial era countries.

Better communication

Greater environmental pressure demands further international collaboration, requiring diplomacy and a constructive approach that may involve some compromise. For centuries, countries have considered environmental issues primarily within their own national boundaries, in terms of their own national interests or patriotic perceptions of land use and industries. More cooperation is challenging, but there is a simple way to get started: good communication. Translating and publicising national policies across borders would be an obvious first step. 

Elisabeth Jeffries is a freelance journalist


Image credit | iStock
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