Inside the International Convention of Biological Diversity

Inside the International Convention of Biological Diversity

 We are fortunate to have a guest writer for this blog, Mr. David Greenwood-Sanchez. David recently joined the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) held in Mexico and offered to share some of his thoughts about his experience with a conference that is largely unheard of but is worth learning more about.

I met this quirky personality and big brain covered by even bigger hair while in Peru. It was with his help that I connected so easily with the Parque de la Papa and was able to make and share that video and we have continued our conversations and curiosities to today.  It is well worth the read in its entirety, and a brief overview of what he shares is:

  1. The CBD is an international environmental treaty based on the understanding that the earth’s biological diversity is rapidly diminishing, and that any attempt to resist this process must be global in scope
  2. It was a two week conference with representatives from 170+ state governments as well as sovereign indigenous nations, non-governmental organizations (NGO’s), businesses and everything in between.
  3. Takeaway #1 – Synthetic biology is in its infancy, and there is a lot of uncertainty about how to deal with it appropriately
  4. Takeaway #2 – Risk assessment is highly political
  5. Takeaway #3 – With regulation and guidelines, every last word matters
  6. Takeaway #4 – The CBD conference is much more open than other treaty bodies
  7. And his closing question: How can we actually get countries to make meaningful changes?

For a quick bio of David, he is a 3rd-year Ph.D. student in political science at UW-Madison. His research focuses on Latin America, especially state-society confrontations over the introduction of genetically-modified crops and other biotechnologies. Next year he will be working on fieldwork in Peru, Mexico, and Colombia. If you would like to connect, shoot him an email (!IMG_4816

 This past month, as part of my PhD research, I attended the 13th Conference of Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD COP-13), in Cancun, Mexico. This is a tremendously important conference for confronting environmental challenges cooperatively, and on a global level. The hot topic this year was synthetic biology, specifically Crispr-Cas9 – a new gene editing technology that promises to change the world (for better or for worse, depending on who you ask). How should this new technology be regulated? Do we know enough to draft new policies? Will over-regulation cost human lives? These types of questions make the CBD conference an exciting and contested space, where politics, science, technology, agriculture, environment and business overlap and intersect.

The CBD conference is an amazing event! But, it’s not something that has received a lot of media coverage. Maybe international environmental law isn’t sexy enough. Maybe it’s too technical. Maybe people have a bias toward reading about problems rather than prevention. Whatever the reason might be, I found it interesting, and I think you might too. So, I’ve put together some thoughts from my experience there as a student-observer – a mini ethnography of reflections, insights, and things I found interesting that I would like to share with you. Hope you enjoy!

What is the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD)?

The CBD is an international environmental treaty based on the understanding that the earth’s biological diversity is rapidly diminishing, and that any attempt to resist this process must be global in scope. The CBD attempts to confront these problems by creating harmonized sets of obligations for all of its member countries – requirements to develop national strategies, plans, and programs for the conservation and sustainable use of biological diversity.

Some issues addressed by the CBD include, for example, species extinction, deforestation, ecosystem restoration, and the promotion of protected areas. The treaty is also unique in that it explicitly recognizes the relationship between biodiversity and indigenous peoples, and contains provisions to protect indigenous knowledge, practices, and resources, while ensuring that indigenous communities have an adequate voice in decision-making processes (this isn’t always implemented by governments, so there is a lot of work left to do).

These obligations, however, require periodic updating. Why?changing environment

Because the environment is changing; new challenges emerge, and these may require new responses. For this reason, the parties to the CBD, all 196 of them – and this includes every country except for the United States – convene every two years, in what is called a COP (a conference of parties). The first CBD first took effect in 1992 at the Rio Conference, and the latest, this December, 2016, was the thirteenth meeting, hence the title CBD COP-13.

What does an international treaty conference look like?

This conference was held at the Moon Palace Hotel, on the outskirts of Cancun, Mexico. This is no ordinary hotel; it is a massive resort area of luxury hotel buildings, complete with tennis courts, ocean, and a golf course. During the conference, the country diplomats and officials stayed there. Those of us who couldn’t foot the $400/night bill stayed in the city, and took group busses in and out each day.

The conference ran a total of two weeks. Each day’s events began at 10am, with two concurrent plenary sessions – some 170+ state representatives, all facing a chairperson in the front of the room, reading semi-prepared statements of country issue positions and preferences regarding agenda items. In terms of flow, this is probably close to what you might expect – pretty slow moving and bureaucratic.

But, it is also fascinating. The CBD operates via consensus, so countries need partners if they wish to achieve their goals. As the debates intensify, the fault lines across countries become clearer, and often lead to very strange groupings. Anyways, after states have had their say, the chairperson invites representatives of international organizations to speak. And if there is time, then they will invite civil society representatives to speak. After everyone has had their say, the chairperson summarizes the points, and may close the issue or perhaps create a special contact group to examine the issue more closely.

After the first set of plenary sessions, the conference opens to “Side Events.” These are presentations, typically by NGOs, scientists, and state agencies, that cover just about everything related to biodiversity. For example, one side event covered ethical questions of synthetic biology. Another featured a panel of indigenous women from China, Ecuador, Mexico, and Peru, who spoke about threats to their communities and ways of life. Another panel featured industry scientists explaining potential applications of bio-technologies.


This repeats itself during the afternoon with another cycle of plenary sessions and side events. Afterwards, beginning around 6 or 7pm, come the contact groups. These are smaller groupings of representatives – perhaps 15 to 30 – who work to take on an issue in more depth. I found these meetings to be the most engaging, and where the most interesting politics took place, especially for synthetic biology (more on this below). These would last as late as about 10:30pm, making for a very full day…

Takeaway #1 – Synthetic biology is in its infancy, and there is a lot of uncertainty about how to deal with it appropriately

One of the big questions going into the conference was whether or not the parties would adopt a moratorium on the use of gene drives – a new technology that rapidly spreads desired genes across a population. (For example, gene drives can be used to genetically modify mosquitoes to no longer spread malaria, and further, to pass this trait to their offspring at unnaturally high rates).  Before the conference, civil society groups and scientists had circulated calls for and against a moratorium on gene drives, so the contact room was packed full every night. In the end, however, no agreement was reached. The general vibe was that some countries are concerned with this, but that there hasn’t been enough time to properly discuss and analyze it. The technology is too new. Instead, the representatives focused on developing a definition of synthetic biology, as a first step to identifying the relationship between these new technologies and the existing regulatory legal obligations for genetically modified organisms. In short, they punted the issue to the next conference. In the meantime, they’ve created expert groups to explore the issue in more depth (again – things move slowly).

Takeaway #2 – Risk assessment is highly politicalIMG_0657

The CBD protects biodiversity by advancing what is known as the precautionary principle. This says that where the environment or human health is at risk, a policy of precaution must be adopted, until scientific consensus shows otherwise. This is especially relevant when dealing with complex systems like our environment, where the connections across living organisms are incredibly complex and often poorly understood. The introduction of new, modified forms of life presents a new and potentially irreversible risk to the environment, and the CBD imposes requirements for each country to follow guidelines that minimize this risk.

The challenge is that following the precautionary principle is slow. When biotech companies develop technologies (through costly research and development), they want to begin using and selling their products as soon as possible. But, precaution does not move quickly! So, industry – including very smart people, who are good at what they do, and are passionate about their work, and are often using it for noble pursuits – is forced to sit back and wait until adequate risk assessments are conducted, which can take years.

And on the other hand, regulatory agencies implement precaution to different degrees, so farmers, indigenous groups, and civil society members are also frustrated since it is often their resources that are at risk. This makes biotechnology regulation extremely political, and makes any changes to the risk assessment process extremely contested. This, in turn, makes the science controversial.IMG_0852

What constitutes a “valid” study? In one side-event discussing transgene spread, I witnessed about twenty members of the audience walk out after a tense discussion, in which they argued that the presenter was using results from “flawed” studies. This parallels some of the debates around the effects of bio-technologies here in the US, and my guess is that we will see much more of this in the future.

Takeaway #3 – With regulation and guidelines, every last word matters

Words matter. A lot. In fact, I would say that the majority of the conference is devoted to discussing bracketed texts, and getting it just right. When there are representatives from 170+ countries present, this is not an easy task, and oftentimes, not a fun one to observe.

But, it matters. For example, indigenous groups have been pushing member countries to adopt the language of “free, prior, and informed consent” in recognition of indigenous people’s inherent and collective rights to their land and resources. Currently, the CBD uses the language of “prior and informed consent.” However, other international law instruments, such as the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and the International Labour Organization Convention 169, use the more expansive definition. So, CBD members are now debating the merits of the word “free.” What precisely does this mean?

For indigenous peoples, it is about creating confidence and developing a mutually agreed-upon relationship when dealing with their resources. The word “free” makes it clear that relationships must not contain any element of “coercion,” which can currently exist within the context of “prior and informed.“ Other states, however, argued that the inclusion of a new term over-extends and ultimately weakens the concept.  For them, “free” is already implied by “prior and informed,” and only serves to create confusion upon implementation.

Discussions like this pervade the entire conference. As an observer, they can appear ridiculous and frustrating. But, this is the reality when you are dealing with diverse countries and interests. And debate is a good sign! It means these understandings and regulations actually mean something at the domestic level (otherwise these countries wouldn’t really care much about the language because they could just ignore it).

Takeaway #4 – The CBD conference is much more open than other treaty bodies

The CBD conference is unique among treaty conferences, in that it is so open towards non-state actors.  One of the oft-cited ideas of diplomacy is that reaching agreements is always easier in smaller groups, and most conferences tend to restrict participation for precisely this reason. The CBD, in contrast, includes the participation of just about every state, and on top of it, invites tens of UN agencies, international organizations, and NGOs to participate (albeit with a lesser IMG_0702importance). Perhaps the secret is the use of the smaller contact groups and expert groups to do the dirty work before the decision-making within the full group. Or, maybe there is just more overlap in environmental values – after all, it is a conference of people trying to protect biodiversity!

As a student-observer, I was able to attend every meeting I wanted to. And I found that participants were happy to talk with me, including scientists, industry representatives, biotech regulators, and civil society representatives.

Loose, departing thoughts!

President Peña Nieto came for day one of the event. Mexico has been a leader in fulfilling the goals of the CBD biodiversity targets (from COP-10 in Aichi, Japan), and this was an opportunity to show off some of the work. Some of this sounds almost unbelievable, such as doubling the national protected area from 10 to 23%. Whoa… There is concern among indigenous groups that the CBD, despite its intentions, currently gives states excessive power in the doctrine of sovereign control over their resources, which is seen as disempowering for indigenous rights. Some indigenous representatives are also fighting for explicit recognition of the roles and rights of indigenous women… A lot of the big questions are still about state capacity.

The existing biodiversity targets are all well and good, but how do you actually get countries to make meaningful changes? This is clearly a work in progress…


A lady with a plan. To Bike Latin America. To Document Agriculture. Live with intention and hope. Make change for the better. In everything, every day.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *