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One Leap Backwards for Biodiversity, One Giant Step Forward for Industry
Biodiversity loses at UN convention on biodiversity

By Anne Petermann and Orin Langelle

(from the July 2008 edition of Z Magazine)

The UN Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) emerged, along with its cousin the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (FCCC), out of the Rio Earth Summit in 1992. Its mission is ostensibly to recommend solutions to the escalating biodiversity crisis, which is manifesting in the extinctions of hundreds of species every day and which threatens the existence of entire races of people.

The CBD was thought to be one of the more approachable UN bodies—where non-governmental organizations and indigenous peoples’ organizations could air their concerns and have a chance to win important precedents on key issues. In 2000, organizations brought concerns about “terminator” seeds (seeds genetically engineered to pass on sterility traits) to the CBD, demanding a moratorium on their use. Backed by a strong, global grass-roots campaign, their effort was a success.

Those days are apparently over.

In a world that is seeing the effects of climate chaos, one could hope that a conference dubbed as the First Biodiversity and Climate Summit, would attempt to solve this disaster. Instead the Conference turned to the same culprits that got us into this mess into the first place: business, industry, and market-based approaches.

At their 2006 Eighth Conference of the Parties (COP-8), the CBD made their first pro-business decision, launching the “business and biodiversity initiative.” This year’s 2008 Ninth Conference of the Parties of the CBD (COP-9) was the grand unveiling of this new business-oriented conservation strategy. The new focus on attracting business to the Convention on Biological Diversity has led some to rename it the “Convention on Buying Diversity.”

“If we want to implement the goals of the CBD and safeguard the natural basis of life for future generation, it is indispensable to involve all spheres of society, and in particular, businesses,” said Gabriel Sigmar, the German minister of environment, president of COP-9.

The CBD’s Business and Biodiversity Initiative states, the “Conference aims to visibly integrate the business sector…” The CBD made available many publications that were extremely pro-business, such as “Business.2010,” “COP-9: Business and Biodiversity in Bonn,” and “Banking for Biodiversity.”

COP-9 also included numerous side events put on by business to showcase their market-driven conservation solutions. These events were quite blatant in their aims, with titles such as “Mainstreaming Biodiversity into Commodity Supply Chains” or “Biotrade Opportunities in Developing Countries.” One especially memorable side event entitled “A Dialogue on Building Biodiveristy Business: Experiences and Opportunities,” was co-hosted by Shell and the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).

Sandy Gauntlett, chair of the Pacific Indigenous Peoples Coalition (PIPEC), said, “The parties to the CBD are fast becoming the world’s largest organization dedicated to opposing equitable social change, with industry playing an increasingly larger role in commodifying the planet’s environmental resources.” She concluded, “Many of the parties are lining up for their slice of the cake.”

The markets approach that overtook the COP-9 this year is based in part on the carbon markets strategies of the FCCC. In particular, the concept of “biodiversity offsets” is a mirror of the FCCC’s carbon offsets, which have made billions for some while doing little or nothing to curb greenhouse gas emissions. As with carbon offsets, the idea behind biodiversity offsets is to make up for biodiversity destruction in one place by “offsetting” it in another. This model is used in the U.S. by Wal-Mart, for example, which can offset or mitigate its destruction of a wetland in the construction of a new store by building a new wetland somewhere else.

FERN’s Jutta Kill rebuts the offset fix by saying, “Carbon offsets are worse than doing nothing because they create the illusion in the public that action is being taken, while not actually addressing the task at hand—reducing greenhouse gas emissions.”

At this year’s “Green COP” the CBD pledged to neutralize its carbon footprint through the purchase of carbon offsets and thereby supposedly account for all of the carbon emissions generated by moving the thousands of delegates and observers from every point on the globe to Bonn, Germany for the convention. (The CBD offered free shuttle buses for all participants to travel between the main site of the CBD, the Maritim Hotel, and the World Conference Center, the former parliament building of the German government where the high level segment of the talks were held. Co-author Langelle used the shuttle bus two times, and both times he was the only passenger.)

Some activists at the COP-9 also see the market-driven biodiversity offsets approach as another face of the “disaster capitalism” model that uses crises as the entry point for economic reforms and the empowerment of corporations. The markets-based approach to biodiversity is designed to enhance the ability of business to profit off of the global ecological meltdown at the expense of biodiversity protection, which requires a much deeper analysis of the root causes of the biodiversity crisis.

This business-oriented approach was denounced by non-governmental organizations, indigenous peoples’ organizations, and popular movements, like Via Campesina, for catering to corporate profit instead of working toward protecting biological diversity. Camila Moreno, a researcher with the Brazilian land rights group Terra de Direitos, challenged this capitalistic approach and told Djoghlaf that if the CBD did not change this position, then there would have to be a major campaign launched against it.

At the same time that business was being given the red carpet treatment, organizations and indigenous peoples’ groups were mobilizing around several key issues at this COP—two of the highest priorities being the related issues of genetically engineered (GE) trees and agrofuels.

At the COP-8 meeting in 2006, Global Justice Ecology Project, the STOP GE Trees Campaign, EcoNexus, World Rainforest Movement, and the Federation of German Scientists raised the issue of GE trees to the CBD for the first time. During the COP, 11 countries supported the call for a global moratorium on the release of GE trees into the environment. Ultimately, what passed was recognition of the potential social and environmental threats of GE trees and a call to Parties to use the Precautionary Approach with regard to GE trees. The next two years were spent building the campaign and raising awareness around the world about GE trees, so that by the time the COP-9 in Bonn came around, the STOP GE Trees Campaign had grown to include 137 member organizations in 34 countries, united in their call for a global ban on the release of GE trees into the environment.

It was during the July 2007 meeting of the CBD’s Subsidiary Body on Scientific, Technical and Technological Advice (SBSTTA) in the run up to COP-9, that the agrofuels issue was first raised, and a moratorium demanded. This effort was staunchly blocked by Brazil, which is actively promoting its agrofuels (unsustainably produced biofuels) agenda throughout the world. It was raised again at the next SBSTTA meeting in Rome in February 2008 where the body decided to send it to the COP-9.

The GE trees issue was also addressed at the SBSTTA meeting in Rome, where the body was supposed to draft a GE trees decision to recommend to COP-9. At the SBSTTA, several countries, including the African Group, again raised the call for a moratorium. Blockage by Brazil, New Zealand, Canada and Australia, however, left the SBSTTA with a messy list of three conflicting decisions on GE trees that was sent to the COP-9.

Immediately prior to COP-9, while NGOs and IPOs were building the campaign to stop GE trees and agrofuels, Brazil and Germany announced the signing of a new bilateral energy cooperation agreement that would, among other things, include the export of agrofuels from Brazil to Germany and the export of German nuclear power expertise to Brazil. The media circus around this energy deal was one example of industry’s pro-agrofuels propaganda juggernaut that inundated COP-9 before and during its first week, geared apparently toward creating a momentum that would overwhelm the mounting global opposition to agrofuels—the result of mounting evidence of their disastrous social, ecological, and even climate-changing impacts.

Ana Filippini of the World Rainforest Movement states, “World hunger is a source of ever greater concern for those who have yet to suffer from it, and ever greater suffering for those who already do—and who are growing in numbers year after year. Yet the policies being formulated in the global power centers not only do little to solve the problem of hunger, but actually tend to even further exacerbate it.” She continued, “A clear example of this point is the promotion of agrofuels. Under the guise of environmental protection (through the replacement of climate change-provoking fossil fuels) and the green label of ‘bio’ fuels, millions of hectares of land are being turned over to the production of food…for automobiles.”
Moreno adds, “There is a clear link between two of the major issues to be discussed at this meeting—agrofuels (biofuels) and GE trees.” She added, “A clear sign of this is the ethanol cooperation agreement being signed by Brazil and Germany. While German Chancellor Angela Merkel was in Brazil, Brazil’s President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva assured her that so-called second generation biofuels—made from GE trees and other cellulose—would better suit the German market.”

In Brazil, companies are already in the process of developing so-called “second generation” cellulosic ethanol refineries, while at the same time outdoor field trials of low-lignin “biofuel friendly” GE trees have been approved there. This vested financial interest of Brazil in the outcomes of the GE trees and agrofuels decisions at COP-9, however, went unchallenged in the official proceedings, which empowered Brazil to block any decision it saw as a threat to its interests.

In response to the inherent links between these issues, organizations and indigenous peoples’ groups developed a unified position against both GE trees and agrofuels. This consensus was embodied in the formation of the Orange Bloc, so named because of the bright orange shirts they wore that read “Brazil-Germany Deal: CBD: Committed to Biodiversity Destruction” on one side while declaring “No GE Trees, No Agrofuels, Ask Me Why” on the other. In addition, several NGO side events dismantled industry’s argument that the biofuels-from- food-crops crisis can be addressed through the promotion of cellulosic, non-food GE trees.

In the case of GE trees, the pro-industry orientation of the CBD was demonstrated repeatedly. The decision from COP-8 on GE trees called on the CBD Secretariat to gather information from relevant stakeholders and to compile it into an INFO document for the SBSTTA meeting in Rome, where it would be used to help the body make a recommendation on GE trees. In response to this call for information, the STOP GE Trees Campaign gathered reports, scientific articles, and other information on the dangers of GE trees, which were hand-delivered to the CBD Secretariat office in Montreal. Despite obtaining a receipt for the box of documents and assurance from the Secretariat that the information would be included, the CBD Secretariat later claimed that they had no such box, and that it must have been lost. As a result, the INFO document did not take into account any of the information on documented risks and concerns with GE trees submitted by the Campaign.

In another blatant example, a delegate from Brazil, which was the number one blocker of the GE trees moratorium, admitted in a conversation that a representative from ArborGen (the world’s leading GE trees developer) was a member of the Brazilian delegation.

This undue industry influence was readily evident in the negotiations on GE trees. In addition to the input from ArborGen, PRRI (Public Research and Regulation Initiative), a biotechnology industry front group, was seen in huddles with the Brazilian delegation. At a COP-9 side event on GE trees, a PRRI spokesperson stated, “A moratorium on field trials [of GE trees] is against progress in science toward renew- able energy [and] puts nature and future generations at risk.” Some of the more insidious influence by industry was in the manipulation of the text of the COP’s decisions. There was a concerted effort, for example, to insert the phrase “consistent with international obligations” into several key decisions. While this may seem innocuous enough, in fact it opens the door to challenges under the WTO.

On top of the corporate manipulation of the COP was the CBD Secretariat’s subterfuge of NGOs, IPOs, and Via Campesina. When representatives from these three groups were waiting to read their opening statements to COP-9 delegates, a member of the CBD Secretariat told them they would not be called on until the afternoon, so they should get some lunch and come back later. Moments after leaving the room, they were called to speak. Fortunately, quick action brought them back immediately so they did not lose their opportunity to present the concerns of civil society to the COP. This was one example of numerous efforts by the CBD Secretariat to undermine the efforts of civil society groups present.

The atmosphere of animosity from the Secretariat, combined with their excessive pro-business attitude, led to increasing levels of outrage among the NGOs, IPOs, and the small farmers present.

Via Campesina launched their resistance on the opening day of the COP with a protest on the green outside of the COP-9 perimeter. Agricultural biodiversity was a major theme of COP-9 and Via Campesina was protesting the exclusion of small farmers from discussions about agricultural biodiversity. After being pressured, the CBD did finally allow Via Campesina to make an opening statement to the plenary. Three days later, when Via Campesina was excluded from speaking during the COP-9 celebration of International Biodiversity Day on May 22, four Via Campesina activists dropped banners at the celebration, which read “No Agricultural Diversity Without Farmers” and “Nature for People, Not for Business.”

The reaction from UN security was swift. The banners were quickly removed and the banner hangers escorted from the conference venue where their access badges were taken from them, excluding them from participating in the meetings. This “zero tolerance” attitude toward dissent continued to be felt throughout the COP and was even applied to journalists.

GE trees and monoculture timber plantations were also a magnet for protest, with three actions taking place, both on the grounds of the UN meeting, and outside. On May 23, a reception hosted by the German Forestry Association was the target of protest due to their emphasis on using technology to transform trees into “renewable energy” as well as plastics, chemicals, and other products. Following long presentations on the merits of industrial tree plantations and high tech uses for trees, participants retired to the roof for a dinner. During the dinner, a series of women from Global Forest Coalition, Global Justice Ecology Project, World Rainforest Movement, and the Brazilian group Terra de Direitos stood on a chair to give the participants an unofficial presentation on the destructive impacts of monoculture tree plantations on communities and ecosystems in countries around the world, and to warn of the potential impacts of using GE trees in future timber plantations. While a handful of forest industry representatives stormed out during the statements, others stayed and some even applauded.

The German Forestry Association was again the target of protest during a tree planting ceremony. Activists dressed as Frankentrees invaded the event amid chants of “Ban GE trees” and “No monoculture tree plantations.” A GE tree opponent wielding a large paper axe stopped the Frankentrees from any further contamination of the UN grounds. The action caused quite a stir at the COP and helped re-energize the efforts of those inside that were continuing to fight for a GE trees moratorium.
A final effort to demonstrate ongoing and growing opposition to GE trees occurred on one of the last days. Women from the STOP GE Trees Campaign, along with the campaign’s squirrel mascot, held a long sign in the hallway outside the door to the plenary that read, “suspend GE trees” in support of the ongoing work of the African Group to include language that would suspend future plantings of GE trees until research had proven they would do no harm. Security arrived almost immediately and forced the women to leave the building or lose their access badges.

Other actions during the COP targeted a business-sponsored lunch, where CBD Executive Secretary Ahmed Djoghlaf spoke to business about the importance of partnering with the CBD, as well as a side event hosted by the Forest Stewardship Council, which was disrupted due to FSC’s wood certification program that certifies large-scale timber monocultures as sustainable.

Finally, after long weeks of haggling over each and every word, decisions at the COP-9 were made. Because all COP decisions have to be made by consensus, and due to the inability of the COP to override countries with vested financial interests in some of the most contentious issues, most of the decisions made were predictably in favor of big business.

Despite the broad, unified support among NGOs, IPOs, and numerous countries—including all of Africa— for a moratorium against GE trees, the official decision that was ultimately carved out of compromise was a watered down, loophole-ridden text that opens the door for future GE tree development. Likewise with agrofuels, where no attempt was make by the COP-9 to curb the growing and unsustainable emphasis on monopolization of land to produce transport fuel.

The lack of action was swiftly condemned. In his closing statement to the COP-9 plenary, ETC Group Executive Director Pat Mooney stated, “I am concerned that issues such as agrofuels and GE trees will come back to haunt us in the years ahead and that we will come to realize that in our effort to sidestep the challenges we face today, we are walking into a collision tomorrow.”

As has historically been the case, the work to protect ecosystems will now unjustly fall upon the communities and peoples that live there. Social movements and organizations are moving forward with a newly revitalized campaign to support grassroots community efforts to protect their forests and lands from the dual threats of genetically engineered trees and agrofuels.

In the midst of the industry-dominated COP-9, critically important alliances were formed. During a panel on the social and ecological impacts of GE trees, a Brazilian representative from Women of Via Campesina announced that they would be officially taking up the issue of GE trees. This undoubtedly rocked Steve Strauss and the other three PRRI representatives since they were likely well aware of two previous actions taken by Women of Via Campesina in Brazil on International Women’s Day in 2006 and 2008. Thousands of women in 2006 and hundreds more in 2008 took action against non-native eucalyptus monocultures in Brazil by destroying millions of eucalyptus seedlings belonging to pulp giant Aracruz Cellulose, which is also involved in research on GE eucalyptus and is one of Strauss’s corporate partners.

Social movements are losing their patience with UN bodies such as the CBD and the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. An international call has just been launched for a massive mobilization in Copenhagen, Denmark in 2009 when the UNFCCC meets to finalize the agreement that will follow after the Kyoto Protocol expires in 2012. Next year is also the 10th anniversary of the WTO shutdown in Seattle. Stay tuned.

Anne Petermann and Orin Langelle are co-directors of Global Justice Ecology Project; photos by Langelle. Langelle is also the Media Coordinator for Global Forest Coalition (www.globalforestcoalition.org) and Petermann is GFC’s North American Focal Point. The STOP GE Trees Campaign is a program of Global Justice Ecology Project.