CBD Analysis

The UN Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) is binding for  member states, but it is a framework convention without means of enforcement, and countries can interpret and act on generalities put forth in different ways.  But the CBD still has significant influence over those countries that have signed the treaty.   Even after you get round the problem of moving from the text of the Convention to implementation, there are some problems with the CBD’s methods, when compared with previous conservation efforts that drew from a population ecology approach (protecting particular species).  At the time of its launch (1992/3), it proposed a different foundation for conservation – the Ecosystem Approach.

Instead of forming policy based on an endangered species protection perspective (forefronting a population ecology perspective), the CBD, like MAB (Man and the Biosphere) and other precursor international agreements, attempts to solve problems with the species focus by looking at the “bigger picture”, which can avoid  considering all known species when making decisions (conservation on a species by species basis, and this would be economically undesirable).  The Ecosystem Approach (EA) embraced by the CBD promotes “conserv[ation] of dynamic [systemic] processes rather than unchanging species”, and these processes are embodied in the ecosystem, or habitat of species.[1]  And a systems perspective does not rely merely on species counts (because species exist as part of a “life support system”), while also offering more than previous single resource management (both considered to be “reductive” approaches)  The 12 EA Principles do contain hints of a paradigm shift in ecology, but the ecology presented is by no means based on non-equilibrium and instead seems driven by the desire to maintain a kind of equilibrium defined in economic terms.  At the same time, the EA of the CBD must contend with the issue of functional biodiversity.  To me, there is the clear danger that the evolutionary uniqueness of species (and the uniqueness of individuals relating in particular contexts, which leads to speciation) could be lost in the broader picture created by the EA, which prioritizes certain functions and processes that support sustainability goals.

According to David Takacs (researcher of the biodiversity concept), “the term biodiversity symbolizes biologists’ lack of knowledge about the natural world”[2], and in comparison to attention on endangered species (which are more “accessible” than an entire world of diversity), understanding is still, relatively speaking, slim.  The EA can hide behind this acknowledged ignorance and use it to stimulate and justify research into functional biodiversity, while supporting the precautionary principle; decisions regarding biodiversity are still being made, based on a functional approach that appears to measure diversity primarily in sustainable resource terms.  It is apparent after examination of the biodiversity concept within the EA that the associations described by authors Callicott et. al., do not obtain in the CBD; the term biodiversity, and related ideas of ecological integrity, are no longer solely part of a “compositionalist” vocabulary, indicating support for “protection of non-human conditions”, but instead they are aligned with sustainability and health, and a “functionalist” perspective that calls for the functional management of ecosystems for the good of human beings.[3]

A Comments article in Environmental Conservation (26) by Lakshman Guruswamy , while old (1999), highlights some of the problems with the Convention’s foundations (even beyond economic emphases) that seem to have been ignored.


[1] Takacs, 1996, pp. 66-67

[2] Ibid, p. 83

[3] see Callicott, Crowder and Mumford, 1999

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