GLOBAL JOURNALIST: Making sense of the UN and biodiversity policy

Friday, October 22, 2010 | 3:45 p.m. CDT

Tim Wall, producer of "Global Journalist": The United Nations convention on biodiversity has been in effect for over 17 years, yet species are disappearing faster than ever. The surviving wildlife is sometimes valued only for the money that can be extracted from it. The convention on biodiversity is meeting this week in Nagoya, Japan. They hope to set measurable goals to slow the disappearance of animals and plants by 2020. They will also examine a practice known as bio-prospecting and its illegal cousin, bio-piracy. Will the convention’s decisions and goals have the ability to change the decisions and industrial practices, or will their words be just more hot air in an already warming world?

Charles Davis, associate professor, Missouri School of Journalism: Here to discuss the convention are Eric Johnston, deputy editor, The Japan Times, Nagoya, Japan; Bryan Walsh, environmental columnist, Time magazine, New York City; and Darren Samuelsohn, senior energy and environmental reporter, Politico, Washington, D.C.


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Eric, since you are there in Nagoya, set the scene for us. What is the mood, what are the delegates doing, and what are some of the major issues?

Eric Johnston, deputy editor, The Japan Times, Nagoya, Japan: The conference is taking place in Nagoya, which is essentially the Detroit of Japan, known for its auto manufacturing industry. So it is a bit ironic that the conference to help preserve the natural environment is taking place in a city known more for being the headquarters of Toyota and heavy manufacturing. The conference began Monday, and we’re into our fourth day. They have already done two all-night sessions over the most controversial issues. They went until 5:30 a.m. a couple of days ago, 3 a.m. last night, and they are meeting now.

What is the most controversial issue at the moment? Well, to put it in U.N. speak, it is called access and benefit sharing. The purpose of the negotiations is to conclude a new protocol that the U.N. convention on biodiversity has been debating since the Rio Conference in 1992. That is, to make sure that the native plants needed for pharmaceutical products and biotech products in countries such as Brazil and Malaysia are extracted legally and fairly. The basic knowledge has been known by indigenous people of those countries for centuries, if not millennia, so the purpose is to give indigenous peoples a fair share of whatever financial benefits might come from being patented into drugs and sold by the pharmaceutical industry.

And how you come up with an agreement that indigenous peoples and pharmaceutical firms can agree on is the crux of the muffin that has divided delegates these past 17 years. The indigenous people are not very happy because they think all the controversial texts in the drafts relate to the rights of indigenous peoples and the rights to accessing their knowledge. Those are being stricken from the working drafts of the texts by the United Nations to reach the lowest common denominator, something that everybody can adopt but in fact will be a weak document. There is concern that unless a strong document is adopted, we could be looking at another failure of Copenhagen-like proportions. You’ve got another four or five days before 120 environmental ministers come in to work out the final details on that, but that is where we stand on the most contentious issue at the moment.

Wall: There is sometimes a fine line between fair trade in that knowledge and outright stealing. Bryan, could you explain the difference between bio-piracy and bio-prospecting?

Bryan Walsh, environmental columnist, Time magazine, New York: That is in the eye of the beholder. In the past you could take the removal of rubber plants from parts of Southeast Asia as an example of bio-piracy and bio-prospecting. Nowadays, a better example might be the element of biological control as in Kenya where they wanted to combat an Asian fruit fly for some years. There is actually a predator in Sri Lanka that can be exported over there and be used to counter those fruit flies. Sri Lanka in the last few years has blocked the export of that. The problem is that drug companies are looking for new ingredients for drugs, and if you see that trade disrupted, you can’t get a fair regulation for that trade. That is one of the key issues here at this convention. At Nagoya, there is an Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, something that could really help us get a better picture on this planet’s biodiversity right now.

Wall: In fair trade of biological materials, say genetics or chemicals from plants, how can that be a development tool to help the people of the communities where those resources are taken from?

Walsh: That is the hope. Where are you going to find these resources? In the countries that have a lot of tropical rain forests and are often poor. This is something they could trade. If people realize the value of those resources, you have another reason to protect biodiversity. I talk to some environmentalists who worry that we will be arguing about how we divide up these biological spoils to the point where there is really nothing left. So, if done correctly, this could result in sustainable development, where you have a win-win situation of protecting biodiversity and benefiting the people who live in these countries who depend on that, but that is going to take into account fair trade laws.

Davis: Darren, you’ve been very involved in covering the climate change debate. How are these issues interrelated to the climate change and biodiversity?

Darren Samuelsohn, senior energy and environmental reporter, Politico, Washington, D.C.: Just hearing about the negotiations there in Japan reminds me quite a bit of Copenhagen, negotiators working into the early morning hours trying to find some sort of solution. Ultimately, the Copenhagen Conference was considered a disaster, and the U.N. negotiation process itself is in a significant state of shambles. A year later now, going into Mexico, we don’t really know as the diplomats come back together next month where we’re headed in climate negotiations, and that is in large part a north-south divide, a “developers versus developing world” divide, a “United States versus China” divide — things that have been at the center of the climate negotiations for more that 15 to 20 years that still remain impasses.

Wall: That issue of a north-south divide, between the global north and the global south, was one of the problems in Copenhagen. Eric, tell us what you are observing there in Nagoya. Is it a difference between the north and the south?

Johnston: It is a little more complex than that. There are indeed certain similarities to the Copenhagen Conference, specifically the late nights, and there is also a debate going on over the post-2010 strategy for marine and terrestrial conservation and protection. And in the draft text, for example, they’re talking about protecting 15 percent of terrestrial land, basically sanctuaries for biodiversity, or 20 percent and X percent of marine areas. At Copenhagen, it was often about numbers and percentages. These figures are not that controversial this time because the nations, especially in the south, do not agree how to best approach this.

Many indigenous people groups don’t really oppose the idea in theory, but they are worried that if these protected areas are expanded and if they don’t have rights under the convention on biological diversity, they are going to lose their hunting and fishing grounds. So there is something of a north-south divide especially over the issue of funding, who is actually going to pay for a lot of these countries, who is going to fund these preserves, etc. The other issue that got some attention at the beginning of the conference but has waned over the past couple of days is the issue of historical compensation, i.e. making sure that pharmaceutical companies that have already patented medicines gained from previous knowledge and research are compensated. Now what we’re looking at, it’s not as bad as it was at Copenhagen, but it sounds like the parties are all over the place.

Earlier today, the indigenous people of Canada gave a press conference, and I asked them, “Who are your biggest friends and your biggest foes at this conference?” Basically, they said it is different depending on the day. Yesterday, Norway made a very strong statement on behalf of the rights of indigenous peoples when it comes to access to their lands; then the next day Norway changed its position. Brazil has been a consistent friend overall, but the indigenous peoples are worried that as negotiations continue to heat up over the weekend, Brazil may abandon some of its traditional support for indigenous people’s rights for other reasons. So it is really hard to say where the dividing line is.

Davis: Bryan, some people compare the bio-piracy carried out by the industrialized world to copyright violations by the developing world. Do you think that is a fair comparison?

Walsh: What you are dealing with here is unequal trade when it comes to bio-piracy. Companies that come from developed nations can fund lawyers who know the ways to work the developing systems that often lack a structure. There is a bigger bio-piracy concern when it comes to copyrighted issues in the developing world, such as in China and India, as opposed to countries like Suriname, which is poor and probably aren’t ripping off Microsoft Word applications in the same way. You have to figure out a way to build capacities in these poorest developing countries that have the most bio-diversity. If you do that, these trades will be fairer, and you’re not dealing with this tremendous inequality that you have now.

Wall: Darren, give us a perspective on what journalists can do to help their audiences understand the value of biodiversity.

Samuelsohn: It is never as simple or as straightforward as what one particular interest group or a particular country has in mind. Climate change is the same way. You have so many different interests trying to get their point across, and there is an economic interest coming from whatever country, interest group or industries they are representing. From my perspective, you know that your Michigan congressman has an interest in the auto industry and you know that your California lawmakers are pushing with a bit more of an environmental frame of mind. The biodiversity talks in Japan has a lot of the same issues interplaying there but with a much larger audience with 190 countries involved.

Wall: Speaking of those 190 countries, what power will the convention have to enforce its regulations? What can they do to ensure people take their goals seriously?

Johnston: That is a very good question because there is one country of the 193 countries that ratified the CBD treaty that is not a member of the convention, and that of course is the United States. And a lot of people are asking, without official ratification of the CBD treaty, how good is it? Can we really enforce it, especially if we’re talking about American-based pharmaceutical or biotech companies? There is concern, for example, that pharmaceutical lobbying and biotech lobbying in countries that sign and ratify whatever comes out of Nagoya will nevertheless be under financial and political pressure by the United States to say, “Of course, you’ve got the right to do whatever happened in the convention, but we would prefer you not do that, especially countries that don’t have strong legal mechanisms or strong democracies to deal with that.” Again, it is still early days on the exact wording of the final agreement, but compliance mechanisms are very much being debated. But as far as how it can be enforced, those questions will have to wait until the very end when the environment ministers come in and approve the final language.

Davis: Darren, why is the United States not a signatory, and why is it sitting out so many of these environmental international conventions? 

Samuelsohn: The U.S. Senate is the problem. Getting them to ratify a treaty is a complicated and difficult process. Sixty-seven votes, two-thirds of the Senate, are required, and countless treaties are stuck in the Senate without any chance of seeing them coming up on the floor. They have been trying to ratify the Law of the Sea Treaty for a number of years, which is seemingly less controversial than a future climate negotiation agreement, but still, inherent interests tend to block these things. When it is on the international stage, it is restricted by what it can do by whatever authority Congress has given it. For the climate negotiations, the U.S. is allowed to participate because it had ratified the underlying United Nations framework convention treaty and the Rio treaty from 1992, which is a Bush-era agreement, but it is not allowed to participate in the Kyoto Protocol negotiations because unanimously the Senate said, hell no, we’re not going to participate in those.

Davis: Darren, do you feel as though the audience interest level in issues like biodiversity are somewhat muted? Do you sometimes feel like you’re telling incredibly important stories that people aren’t paying enough attention to?

Samuelsohn: The United Nations process can be so dull in watching it unfold. They operate in a lingo that is impossible to penetrate as a reporter, and then you have to turn that language into something the public can understand. So often the stories are best told by trying to get away from the U.N. process, interviewing people and actually experiencing how these negotiations are playing out at ground level. But to blend these together can be quite a challenge. That is why the U.N. process is cloaked in such mystery. It happens also sometimes behind closed doors, so you don’t really know what is happening. In Copenhagen, President Obama and the leaders in China, Brazil and India were negotiating that final deal late into the night, behind closed doors. No reporters were allowed in the room, only a White House photographer and a U.N. photographer. You were relying on them to tell you what they came up with, and you can understand our skepticism there as well.

Johnston: I think one of the problems is that by the time everybody came to Copenhagen for climate change, it had essentially boiled down to an argument over percentages, like how much do we reduce greenhouse gas emissions, what should the peak year for emissions over the next century be? For biodiversity, by contrast, there is no one international body of recognized experts providing coordinated policy advice to government officials, so it is not just the journalists. Also the government officials say, “What am I arguing for, and what am I arguing against? Explain to me in two minutes or less, 100 words or less, one memo or less.” And it simply can’t be done, so it is difficult for journalists to explain it, and it is difficult for government policy officials to get a grasp on it because you’re getting advice from so many quarters, and it’s often very scientific in nature. By the way, we are told that the head of the convention on biological diversity has not one but three Ph.Ds. I don’t know if that is true or not, but that is what we’re told, so it is an issue of making it understandable to intelligent lay people as well as people who are in government.

Davis: Bryan, how do you deal with that journalistically? Not only science but also diplomacy?

Walsh: Well, I try not to get too wrapped up in the U.N.-ness of the U.N. process, which can literally suck you in and spit you out fast. The real work is being done outside the U.N. now, by countries working together as at the end of Copenhagen or individually in nations. I feel as though there is a loss of credibility and a loss of optimism — trust in this global process to exact change in a meaningful way. If you actually come up with a protocol here in Nagoya, it’s not going to be like the World Trade Organization that has real power to make its decisions.

Davis: Humans are dependent on the natural world for air, water, food, medicine and many other necessities. The diverse web of life supports us, but we are rapidly cutting the threads that keep our civilization stable. The convention on biological diversity hopes to set rules and guidelines that will remind humanity that the species we drive to extinction today could have been the cure for cancer tomorrow. The next few decades will decide the future of humanity on this planet, so let’s hope we make the right choices. No matter what decisions we make, life on earth can survive without us, but we cannot survive without it.

Producers of Global Journalist are Missouri School of Journalism graduate students Ryan Kresse, Youn-Joo Park, Tim Wall, Rebecca Wolfson and Kuba Wuls. The transcriber is Pat Kelley.

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