Northern “Biopirates” Gobbling up Living Resources of the Global South

By Stephen Leahy

PARIS, Feb 1, 2010 (IPS)

Rich countries are like biopirates, looting far-away lands for food, raw materials and cheap labour. They’re plundering other richer ecosystems because they’ve largely destroyed their own. And they’re blocking global efforts to create an independent scientific assessment panel that is likely point the finger at the real reason species are going extinct at 1,000 times their natural pace, experts say.

European politicians were “shocked” to learn that just 17 percent of Europe’s ecosystems were in decent shape, Dominique Richard of the European Environmental Agency told participants on the final day of the U.N.-hosted Biodiversity Science Policy Conference in Paris.

“We’ve just completed our first complete assessment of the state of biodiversity in Europe and the results really shocked policymakers,” said Richard, a European biodiversity expert.

Most of Europe’s natural systems that provide essential services like food, clean air and water, climate regulation and so on have been in decline for years. But no one in Europe really notices.

That’s because the rich are “geosphere people” who help themselves to nature’s ecological services anywhere in the world, said Ashok Khosla, an eminent Indian environmentalist and founder of the Delhi-based Development Alternatives Group, who was representing the International Union for Conservation of Nature.

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The poor, on the other hand, are “ecosystem people” who depend directly on local resources for their livelihoods, Khosla told delegates. The ecosystem people cannot afford to get their food or water elsewhere, so if they degrade their own ecosystems, they suffer the direct consequences.

That’s the main reason the regions with greatest amounts of biodiversity – where nature is richest and least degraded – are the lands that indigenous people control, said Victoria Tauli-Corpuz, chair of the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues.

“While indigenous people live in areas with the richest biodiversity, we are still the poorest of the poor,” said Tauli-Corpuz.

The current economic system does not value nature or nature’s services, said Khosla. “A tree is a capital asset worth far more than its value as lumber. But we simply don’t know how to fully value a tree or a forest.”

Recent estimates have set “nature’s annual worth” at several times the current global economy, he notes. Reforming the economic system will take time, but meanwhile, valuable natural assets are being lost.

One major initiative to slow this rate of loss is to finally put in place an authoritative organisation similar to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) for biodiversity this year during the U.N. International Year of Biodiversity.

Many policy decisions, even green ones, are made without regard to impacts on biodiversity, said Anne Larigauderie, executive director of the Paris-based DIVERSITAS.

For example, government policies that encourage and subsidise the use of biofuels and biomass energy to reduce carbon emissions have largely gone forward with little investigation into the potential impacts on ecosystems.

“Institutions, government and the public perception have a fragmented view of the world, and these are the indirect drivers of biodiversity loss,” Larigauderie said at the conference.

Since 2005, Larigauderie and others have been trying to get governments to create an Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) – an IPCC-like organisation for biodiversity. There is no global mechanism that pulls all information about ecosystems and their current status together, and analyses it for decision making.

The key function of such a panel is to bridge the enormous divide between biodiversity science and policy and be able to provide science-based guidelines for policy makers, said Larigauderie.

“Governments from 95 countries were at the last negotiating meeting and we’re hoping there IPBES will be launched in October of this year,” she said.

October is when the 193 countries that have signed the Convention on Biological Diversity have their biannual Convention of the Parties, where they will seek a binding agreement on targets to curb biodiversity loss over the next 10 years.

“We need a serious intergovernmental panel like IPCC, a panel with teeth and a solid mandate,” said Khosla. However, it took too long for the IPCC to get started and produce relevant information, he cautioned.

Indigenous people support the IPBES concept but want to be sure that they and their traditional knowledge are involved. “We’ve been fighting to prevent exploitation and destruction of nature. We can help and do a lot but we need support, additional resources to do it,” said Tauli-Corpuz.

Poor countries are also asking for capacity-building support so that they can assess the status of their natural systems and understand the threats. Such countries simply don’t have the expertise or resources, but help from the rich countries has not been forthcoming, reported Larigauderie. And that reality may compromise or scuttle the hope of an effective biodiversity panel.

“Rich countries are not interested in paying for capacity building,” she said.

Biodiversity is not a major priority for governments of rich countries, noted Khosla. And so the “geosphere people” (or biopirates) of the North will continue to plunder the natural wealth of South without the detailed knowledge of the damage being done.

“In the end we need to change mindsets, values and ethics,” he said.

FYI the Biodiversity Science Panel – IPBES – has been up and running since 2011. — Stephen

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