The advantages of obscurity

At the end of last week, with relatively little international media coverage, the United Nations’ Convention on Biological Diversity, meeting in Nagoya, Japan, adopted a new set of protocols on the protection of natural diversity. The deal was struck at the last minute, with a dispute between developed and developing nations over the sharing of ...

By , a former associate editor at Foreign Policy.
JIJI PRESS/AFP/Getty Images
JIJI PRESS/AFP/Getty Images
JIJI PRESS/AFP/Getty Images

At the end of last week, with relatively little international media coverage, the United Nations' Convention on Biological Diversity, meeting in Nagoya, Japan, adopted a new set of protocols on the protection of natural diversity. The deal was struck at the last minute, with a dispute between developed and developing nations over the sharing of biological resources threatening to scuttle the talks entirely. Bryan Walsh at Time's Ecocentric blog gives the highlights of the new Nagoya Protocol: 

The signatories agreed to protect 17 percent of the planet's land and inland waters, and 10 percent of coastal and marine waters by 2020. (That's up from 13 percent of land and just 1 percent of marine areas right now.) There's also a broad "mission" to take action to halt the loss of biodiversity -- nations will aim to halve the loss of habitats and will each draw up national biodiversity plans that will chart how each country is mean to halt overfishing, control invasive species and in general stop the rampant destruction of the natural world.

Even more noteworthy, however, is the fact that the diplomats in attendance managed to come up with a compromise on what was by far the most contentious issue on the table: the trade in biological and genetic resources. For nearly 20 years, countries have been at odds over how to police the growing trade -- or biopiracy, depending on your perspective -- in biological and genetic resources, the plants and animals usually found in the developing world that can be used to make medicines, drugs and other products in the developed world.

At the end of last week, with relatively little international media coverage, the United Nations’ Convention on Biological Diversity, meeting in Nagoya, Japan, adopted a new set of protocols on the protection of natural diversity. The deal was struck at the last minute, with a dispute between developed and developing nations over the sharing of biological resources threatening to scuttle the talks entirely. Bryan Walsh at Time‘s Ecocentric blog gives the highlights of the new Nagoya Protocol: 

The signatories agreed to protect 17 percent of the planet’s land and inland waters, and 10 percent of coastal and marine waters by 2020. (That’s up from 13 percent of land and just 1 percent of marine areas right now.) There’s also a broad "mission" to take action to halt the loss of biodiversity — nations will aim to halve the loss of habitats and will each draw up national biodiversity plans that will chart how each country is mean to halt overfishing, control invasive species and in general stop the rampant destruction of the natural world.

Even more noteworthy, however, is the fact that the diplomats in attendance managed to come up with a compromise on what was by far the most contentious issue on the table: the trade in biological and genetic resources. For nearly 20 years, countries have been at odds over how to police the growing trade — or biopiracy, depending on your perspective — in biological and genetic resources, the plants and animals usually found in the developing world that can be used to make medicines, drugs and other products in the developed world.

The Nagoya Protocol will create an International Regime on Access and Benefit Sharing of Genetic Resources that will begin to create ground rules for the international trade in genetic resources. Notably, it will also push governments to consider ways to provide restitution for genetic material or "traditional knowledge" taken from developing nations that has been used to create patented drugs or other products. That compensation might come in the form of a special fund that could be used to finance conservation or development in poorer countries.

Of course the agreement isn’t quite as ambitious as conservationists had hoped and time will tell whether countries can actually meet these goals, but after the disappointing failure of the Copenhagen climate talks and amid the pessimistic forecasts for Cancun next month, the concrete pledges in Nagoya represent a rare victory for international coordination in solving global environmental challenges.

The need for action on biodiversity is no less pressing than global warming — scientists believe as many as one-fifth of all vertebrate species could be facing extinction. And the sociopolitical overtones of global action to protect endangered species are no less fierce — see Jeffrey Gettleman on the proposed Serengeti highway in Sunday’s New York Times, particularly the Tanzanian presidential spokesman’s statement: "You guys always talk about animals, but we need to think about people."

But one advantage that biodiversity negotiators have that climate change negotiators do not is that their issue gets relatively little attention. As I wrote after Copenhagen, the media attention surrounding the event — which included drafts being leaked and dissected by the media, a sideshow counter-convention by climate change denialists, cameo appearances by Robert Mugabe and Hugo Chavez, and some high-stakes face-saving shuttle diplomacy by Barack Obama — wasn’t all that conducive to the goal of reaching an agreement that is bound to require painful sacrifices from all parties involved. 

Endangered species advocates are no doubt frustrated that their cause doesn’t get the same amount of publicity, but when it comes time to actually sit down and hammer out a deal, obscurity can have its advantages. 

Joshua Keating was an associate editor at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @joshuakeating

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