Klaus Toepfer
United Nations Under-Secretary
General and Executive Director, UNEP

Some environmentalists are already asking: is the conservation battle lost? Is it too late to rescue more than a few pieces of the natural world that we inherited?

Even optimists like me recognize that the environment’s passage through the coming century will be its most severe test. With human population expected to peak at 8 billion or more and the consumer revolution set for exponential expansion – leave alone the worsening stresses of climate change, ozone depletion and hazardous chemicals – species and ecosystems face profound risks. Unless we take extraordinary measures now nature will have been made simpler, duller and less productive by the 22nd century.

According to the Global Biodiversity Assessment, species extinction since the year 1600 has occurred at 50 to 100 times the average estimated natural rate. This is expected to rise to between 1,000 and 10,000 times the natural rate with, already, more than 31,000 species threatened with extinction.

This wave of extinctions and ecosystem destruction is an irreversible tragedy, but humanity’s dependence on food crops and other biological resources also makes it dangerous. We do not want future generations to curse us for permanently impoverishing life on Earth.

Fortunately, we have tools at our disposal for granting the environment safe passage – committed groups and individuals, local and national programmes, and international treaties. The advantage of multilateral environmental agreements is that they enable us to think globally while empowering people to act locally.

The 1992 Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) is one such ambitious international agreement. It is based upon our improved understanding of the interconnectedness and complexity of the natural world, and of the importance of this richness for human civilization. It is the first global, comprehensive agreement to address all aspects of biological diversity: genetic resources, species and ecosystems.

Recognizing that conservation alone could not secure the natural world’s survival, and that development must rely on the use of natural resources, the Convention has also led the way in integrating environmental conservation with socio-economic development. Of particular far-reaching significance is the Convention’s commitment to the fair and equitable sharing of benefits arising from the utilization of genetic resources.

Furthermore, the Convention’s recently adopted Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety is the first global treaty that re-affirms, incorporates and operationalizes the precautionary approach affirmed in the Rio Declaration. The Protocol outlines procedures to deal with issues arising from the transboundary movement, transit, handling and use of genetically modified organisms – and commodities containing them – that may adversely affect the conservation and sustainable use of biological diversity or pose risks to human health and the environment.

Practical and targeted efforts to preserve and sustainably use biodiversity are also taking place under other agreements. Some, such as the 1979 Bonn Convention on Migratory Species (CMS) and the 1973 Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) (whose secretariats, like CBD’s, are administered by UNEP), focus on species. Others, such as the 1971 Ramsar Convention on Wetlands of International Importance, deal with ecosystems. Several regional seas agreements, such as the Abidjan, Barcelona, Cartagena, and Lima Conventions, have protocols on special protected areas and wildlife. Taken together, this canon of conventions protects many of the world’s most endangered species and natural systems.

CITES is a highly developed and specialized tool for saving at-risk species – today covering 35,000 plants and 4,000 animals. It enables governments either strictly to regulate international trade (with an Appendix II listing) or to ban all international commercial trade (via inclusion in Appendix I) in species threatened with extinction. The fact that many commercially valuable species are being harvested at unsustainable rates increases the need for managed trade regimes that can promote a balanced relationship between people and the natural world. Despite its strong focus on conservation, then, CITES is truly an instrument for sustainable development.

The CMS offers strict protection to endangered species that migrate across political borders. It also seeks a coordinated conservation approach by promoting regional agreements amongst states along migration routes. Such agreements can include habitat conservation, capacity building and training, harmonized national legislation, coordinated research and monitoring, and public awareness campaigns.

These treaties share one common aim: the conservation and sustainable use of biological diversity and its components. This will be more readily achieved through stronger collaboration among the various agreements, a goal that UNEP is strongly promoting.

We have the tools for guiding the natural environment carefully through the coming decades. Let’s use them!


Contents | Editorial K. Toepfer | Critical crossroads | Genetically engineered crops... | Sustainable solutions | Protect elephants | Getting it together | CITES: 2000 and beyond | At a glance | Competition | Interpol alert | Deep waters, high stakes | Tall trees and bottom lines | Globalizing solutions | Global Biodiversity... | Walking on the wild side... | Voices of the Earth | Millennium massacre