Industry destroying forest

The Global Biodiversity Framework needs to do more to truly protect biodiversity and indigenous peoples. 

By Nele Marien, Forests and Biodiversity International Program Coordinator

While the climate crisis has dominated the airwaves for a while now, the biodiversity crisis is at least as serious. Actually, these are multiple, interconnected crises, stemming from age old systemic failings. In 2019, scientific body IPBES brought to the fore the urgent need for “transformative change” to prevent biodiversity collapse, which would be disastrous for people and planet. As one example, the global coronavirus pandemic has tragically highlighted the risks of ecosystem loss for global public health.

In a bid to find an answer to this crisis, the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) is discussing a Global Biodiversity Framework (GBF) – effectively how to ‘save’ nature. The CBD is often referred to as the biodiversity equivalent of the climate talks, with the GBF nicknamed the “Paris Agreement for Biodiversity”. Here, we explore the current draft.

This new framework would supersede the Global Strategic Plan for Biodiversity, set for the period 2010-2020. This previous plan did contain a number of good elements, though implementation of its 20 Aichi Targets was lacking, and it fell well short of striving for real system change. Parties at the CBD decided to set aside those previous targets, in favour of negotiating yet another plan.

While we could question whether it wouldn’t have been preferable to expend our collective efforts on properly implementing the existing plan, the discussions on a new framework represent a real opportunity to address the true drivers of biodiversity loss and propose a plan that promotes the system change we so desperately need.

In 2020, civil society – in the form of the CBD alliance – worked on a series of pointers on what that system change looks like in relation to biodiversity, and how to achieve a successful GBF. They identified production and consumption patterns and expanding economic sectors as the most crucial drivers to be addressed. Despite calls for ‘transformational change’, from the start the GBF did not look set to improve on its predecessor in terms of addressing these deeper, systemic drivers, which are still only considered as “indirect drivers” by IPBES.

Shaky philosophy, false start

Built on a shaky philosophy, some of the four goals and 20 targets of the current framework are dubious. 

For example, the second goal is to enhance nature’s contribution to people. Instead of focussing on what nature needs to thrive, it focusses -in a utilitarian way- on what nature does for us. This is underpinned by a hugely erroneous philosophy – the idea that nature is replaceable; that it can be valued and measured; and that it should be viewed only in terms of its utility for humans.

One of the targets that suffers such confusion is the one on agriculture. It focusses on the role of nature in “reducing productivity gaps by at least 50%.” Why is a biodiversity convention focusing on promoting agriculture production and not the impacts of that production that are destroying the very thing the convention sets out to save? Agriculture production should sit with the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), with the CBD looking over its shoulder to ensure the sustainability of biodiversity within its work. This is an example of where corporate power rears its ugly head. Industrial agriculture has a massive negative impact on biodiversity in terms of land grabs, pesticides and monoculture, to name but a few. But the real, non-corporate solutions such as agroecology are sidelined by the GBF.

Another target where this utilitarianism becomes very visible is the one on climate. Biodiversity is seen as the solution for climate change, in the form of the flawed concept of ‘nature based solutions’ (NBS). There is, however, nothing that addresses the impacts of climate on biodiversity, while biodiversity is supposed to contribute to climate objectives by providing offsets for emissions. How biodiverse the ecosystems are is not guaranteed, and in many cases even monoculture tree plantations – often devoid of biodiversity – are being promoted as NBS.

With such philosophies -and the absence of a mindset for real system change- we will never protect biodiversity sufficiently or live within planetary boundaries.

The GBF also lacks equity. The effects of consumption in the global north on biodiversity in the south cannot be understated. Extractivism and dirty industries have an especially huge impact, with much production externalised to cheaper, southern countries to meet northern consumers’ demand. This leads to the complex but essential topic of a just and equitable transition. The global south is, in many cases, dependent on exporting products to the global north, which deteriorates their environment. The south will need to transition out of this historical hell hole and they will need support in doing so. 

Defending the communities that protect nature

In tackling biodiversity loss, we can work on both the protection of biodiversity and avoiding further harm. Frustratingly, the draft GBF concentrates too much on the former and, to its detriment, has too little to say on the latter. And, in terms of its plans to protect nature, it makes a number of fundamental mistakes.

There is an over-emphasis on ‘Protected Areas’. To date, many areas that are supposed to be ‘protected’ still suffer intrusions and damages. At the same time, there is little attention on ‘not protected’ areas, negating the need to ensure biodiversity everywhere, and land use is arbitrarily separated between land for nature and land for humans.

In regions where indigenous peoples live, conservation should be primarily based on community forest management, whereby those who live in harmony with nature are the ones who manage and protect it. 80% of global biodiversity which is still in good condition is in the hands of these indigenous peoples and local communities (IPLCs). Their rights to manage territories according to traditional knowledge and practices must be at the centre of the framework – not only because it is more effective, but also in the name of justice.

Yet, beyond a late inclusion of “Other Effective Area-Based Conservation Measures”, the GBF makes far too little effort to support IPLCs. Land is frequently taken against their will, and when they stand up to defend their territories they are being slashed down and their human rights abused. If we don’t ensure the rights of the defenders, we don’t defend the environment and biodiversity. Frustratingly, this is an area that is deemed not relevant for many in the CBD. Furthermore, ‘protected areas’ themselves are linked to rights abuses, as communities often find themselves evicted from land that is sanctioned for ‘protection’.

The CBD has a long history with indigenous peoples, who have a specific status within the convention. There is a working group dedicated to indigenous issues and there has been a lot of work on the knowledge of indigenous peoples and their relationship with biodiversity. Yet, this rich and invaluable history is getting lost in the current framework. 

The protection of biodiversity in the framework is based on the concept of ‘No Net Loss’, which relies on erroneous offsetting policies (similar to the problematic ‘Net Zero’ in climate agreements). It allows, for example, a corporation to plunder one territory for mining infrastructure by promising to ‘protect’ land somewhere else. One example is Rio Tinto’s biodiversity offset in Madagascar. It would be laughable if it wasn’t so dangerous. We need to actually stop these extractive projects in their tracks, before they have a chance to destroy nature and livelihoods, and protect biodiversity in and for itself. Not mitigate its destruction to serve the needs of humans and corporate greed. 

Tackling the drivers of ecosystem loss

More important even than protecting nature, is stopping the drivers for biodiversity loss. This can only be achieved by regulating the economic sectors that are most destructive -industrial agriculture, mining, energy, manufacturing, tourism, and the finance provided for all of those- and strengthening governance at all levels to do so. These aspects are being discussed under a separate debate on mainstreaming – or integration of biodiversity in all sectors.

Unfortunately, this is where we see that the mighty corporate hand is now taking hold of the GBF as it does with so many international agreements. Where there should be stringent regulation, we see very little of that. Instead we see a number of false solutions: self-certification, voluntary regulations, dialogue with corporations and reliance on consumers taking their own responsibility. Where is the accountability?

Troubles in the process

The Post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework was to be negotiated over two years, and finalised in the CBD Conference of the Parties (CoP) in October 2020. The covid pandemic has decided otherwise. Right now, virtual negotiations are taking place and the CoP was postponed to October 2021. We are past the halfway point in the process, which does not necessarily follow a logical route. For example, while there is no agreement on the very goals and targets for the framework, discussions have been ongoing about their indicators. We wonder: what sense does it make to work on the details, while the main structure is not yet defined?

Virtual negotiations are becoming commonplace in the era of covid-19 travel restrictions, and heralded by many as a positive turn, allowing ‘anyone’ to participate anywhere in the world. But this is simply not true. Virtual negotiations are deeply unfair. Northern countries are well prepared with largely reliable internet connection. This is not the case in the global south – often when the floor is given to a southern nation, there is silence. Wildly differing time zones are another issue. The participation of civil society and indigenous peoples – the very foundation of biodiversity preservation – are further relegated. How can indigenous peoples, who often have no internet connection, take part? This process also leads to further shortening the inadequate time allocated to civil society organisations and affected peoples. Overall, there is a real democratic deficit in virtual negotiations. 

Despite its shortcomings thus far, the Global Biodiversity Framework still represents a huge opportunity for us to collectively address biodiversity loss properly and proactively. Civil society groups in the CBD Alliance continue to fight for a framework that truly upholds the rights and role of indigenous peoples and local communities, and to protect biodiversity in and for itself.