Tag Archives: biodiversity and human rights

Biodiversity and Respect for Human Rights

The instinctive response of many environmentalists  is to to fence off protected areas as rapidly and extensively as possible. That thought certainly dominates discussions of the Convention on Biological Diversity, the main relevant international treaty. An eight-year-old addendum to the pact calls for 17% of the world’s land surface and 10% of the ocean’s water column (that is, the water under 10% of the ocean’s surface) to be protected by 2020. Currently, those figures are 15% and 6%. Campaigners want the next set of targets, now under discussion, to aim for 30% by 2030—and even 50% by 2050. This last goal, biogeographers estimate, would preserve 85% of life’s richness in the long run.  As rallying cries go, “Nature needs half” has a ring to it, but not one that sounds so tuneful in the poor countries where much of the rhetorically required half will have to be found. Many people in such places already feel Cornered by Protected Areas.” (See also Biodiversity and Human Rights)

James Watson, chief scientist at the Wildlife Conservation Society (wcs), another American charity, has an additional worry about focusing on the fence-it-off approach. If you care about the presence of species rather than the absence of humans, he warns, “‘nature needs half’ could be a catastrophe—if you get the wrong half.” Many terrestrial protected areas are places that are mountainous or desert or both. Expanding them may not translate into saving more species. Moreover, in 2009 Lucas Joppa and Alexander Pfaff, both then at Duke University in North Carolina, showed that protected areas disproportionately occupy land that could well be fine even had it been left unprotected: agriculture-unfriendly slopes, areas remote from transport links or human settlements, and so on. Cordoning off more such places may have little practical effect.

Southern Appalachians, Virginia. image from wikipedia

 In the United States it is the underprotected southern Appalachians, in the south-east of the country, that harbour the main biodiversity hotspots. The largest patches of ring-fenced wilderness, however, sit in the spectacular but barren mountain ranges of the west and north-west. In Brazil, the world’s most speciose country, the principal hotspots are not, as might naively be assumed, in the vast expanse of the Amazon basin, but rather in the few remaining patches of Atlantic rainforest that hug the south-eastern coast.

Deforestation Atlantic Rainforest in Rio de Janeiro. Image from wikipedia

Nor is speciosity the only consideration. So is risk-spreading. A team from the University of Queensland, in Australia, led by Ove Hoegh-Guldberg, has used a piece of financial mathematics called modern portfolio theory to select 50 coral reefs around the world as suitable, collectively, for preservation. Just as asset managers pick uncorrelated stocks and bonds in order to spread risk, Dr Hoegh-Guldberg and his colleagues picked reefs that have different exposures to rising water temperatures, wave damage from cyclones and so on. The resulting portfolio includes reefs in northern Sumatra and the southern Red Sea that have not previously registered on conservationists’ radar screens…

Another common finding—counterintuitive to those who take the “fence-it-all-off” approach—is that a mixed economy of conservation and exploitation can work. For example, rates of deforestation in a partly protected region of Peru, the Alto Mayo, declined by 78% between 2011 and 2017, even as coffee production increased from 20 tonnes a year to 500 tonnes.

Environmental groups can also draw on a growing body of academic research into the effective stewardship of particular species. For too long, says William Sutherland, of Cambridge University, conservationists have relied on gut feelings. Fed up with his fellow practitioners’ confident but unsubstantiated claims about their methods, and inspired by the idea of “evidence-based medicine”, he launched, in 2004, an online repository of relevant peer-reviewed literature called Conservation Evidence.  Today this repository contains more than 5,400 summaries of documented interventions. These are rated for effectiveness, certainty and harms. Want to conserve bird life threatened by farming, for example? The repository lists 27 interventions, ranging from leaving a mixture of seed for wild birds to peck (highly beneficial, based on 41 studies of various species in different countries) to marking bird nests during harvest (likely to be harmful or ineffective, based on a single study of lapwing in the Netherlands). The book version of their compendium, “What Works in Conservation”, runs to 662 pages. It has been downloaded 35,000 times.

Excerpts from How to preserve nature on a tight budget, Economist, Feb. 9, 2919

Who Owns the Genes in the Seas?

It’s an eye-catching statistic: A single company, the multinational chemical giant BASF, owns nearly half of the patents issued on 13,000 DNA sequences from marine organisms. That number is now helping fuel high-stakes global negotiations on a contentious question: how to fairly regulate the growing exploitation of genes collected in the open ocean, beyond any nation’s jurisdiction.

The negotiations that took place at the UN in September 2018 aim, inter alia, to replace today’s free-for-all scramble for marine genetic resources with a more orderly and perhaps more just regime.  Many developed nations and industry groups are adamant that any new rules should not complicate efforts to discover and patent marine genes that may help create better chemicals, cosmetics, and crops. But many developing nations want rules that will ensure they, too, share in any benefits. Scientists are also watching. A regulatory regime that is too burdensome could have “a negative impact” on scientists engaged in “noncommercial ocean research,” warns Robert Blasiak, a marine policy specialist at the Stockholm Resilience Centre.  It is not the first time nations have wrangled over how to share genetic resources. Under another U.N. pact, the 2010 Nagoya Protocol, 105 countries have agreed to rules to prevent so-called biopiracy: the removal of biological resources—such as plant or animal DNA—from a nation’s habitats without proper permission or compensation.

Those rules don’t apply in international waters, which begin 200 nautical miles from shore and are attracting growing interest from researchers and companies searching for valuable genes. The first patent on DNA from a marine organism was granted in 1988 for a sequence from the European eel, which spends part of its life in freshwater. Since then, more than 300 companies, universities, and others have laid claim to sequences from 862 marine species, a team led by Blasiak reported in June in Science Advances. Extremophiles have been especially prized. Genes from worms found in deep-sea hydrothermal vents, for example, encode polymers used in cosmetics. And BASF has patented other worm DNA that the company believes could help improve crop yields. The conglomerate, based in Ludwigshafen, Germany, says it found most of its 5700 sequences in public databases…

It may take years for nations to agree on a marine biodiversity treaty; [A]n “ideological divide” between developing and developed countries has, so far, “led to stalemate” on how to handle marine genetic resources, says Harriet Harden-Davies, a policy expert at the University of Wollongong in Australia.

Most developing nations want to expand the “common heritage” philosophy embedded in the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, which declares that resources found on or under the seabed, such as minerals, are the “common heritage of mankind.” Applying that principle to genetic resources would promote “solidarity in the preservation and conservation of a good we all share,” South Africa’s negotiating team said in a recent statement. Under such an approach, those who profit from marine genes could, for example, pay into a global fund that would be used to compensate other nations for the use of shared resources, possibly supporting scientific training or conservation.

But developed nations including the United States, Russia, and Japan oppose extending the “common heritage” language, fearing burdensome and unworkable regulations. They argue access to high seas genes should be guaranteed to all nations under the principle of the “freedom of the high seas,” also enshrined in the Law of the Sea. That approach essentially amounts to finders keepers, although countries traditionally have balanced unfettered access with other principles, such as the value of conservation, in developing rules for shipping, fishing, and research in international waters.

The European Union and other parties want to sidestep the debate and seek a middle ground. One influential proposal would allow nations to prospect for high seas genes, but require that they publish the sequences they uncover. Companies could also choose to keep sequences private temporarily, in order to be able to patent them, if they contribute to an international fund that would support marine research by poorer nations. “Researchers all around the world should be put all on a level playing field,” says Arianna Broggiato, a Brussels-based legal adviser for the consultancy eCoast, who co-authored a paper on the concept this year in The International Journal of Marine and Coastal Law.

Exceprts from Eli Kintisch U.N. tackles gene prospecting on the high seas, Science, Sept. 7, 2018

The Game-Changers: oil, gas and geothermal

The Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) has decided to degazette parts of two UNESCO World Heritage Sites to allow for oil drilling. Environmentalists have reacted sharply to the decision to open up Virunga and Salonga national parks – a move that is likely to jeopardise a regional treaty on the protection of Africa’s most biodiverse wildlife habitat and the endangered mountain gorilla…The two national parks are home to mountain gorillas, bonobos and other rare species. Salonga covers 33 350 km2 (3,350,000 ha)of the Congo Basin, the world’s second largest rainforest, and contains bonobos, forest elephants, dwarf chimpanzees and Congo peacocks….

On 7 April, 2018, a council of ministers from the DRC, Rwanda and Uganda agreed to ratify the Treaty on the Greater Virunga Transboundary Collaboration (GVTC) on Wildlife Conservation and Tourism Development. The inaugural ministerial meeting set the deadline for September 2018 to finalise the national processes needed to ratify the treaty.

The Virunga National Park (790,000 ha, 7 900 km2)is part of the 13 800 km2 (1 3800 00 ha) Greater Virunga Landscape, which straddles the eastern DRC, north-western Rwanda and south-western Uganda.  The area boasts three UNESCO World Heritage Sites – Virunga, Rwenzori Mountains National Park and Bwindi Impenetrable National Park. It also boasts a Ramsar Site (Lake George and Lake Edward) and a Man and Biosphere Reserve (in Queen Elizabeth National Park). It is the most species-rich landscape in the Albertine Rift – home to more vertebrate species and more endemic and endangered species than any other region in Africa.

According to the Greater Virunga Landscape 2016 annual report, the number of elephant carcasses recorded in 2016 was half the yearly average for the preceding five years. The report also mentions a high rate of prosecution and seizures. It cites a case study on Uganda’s Queen Elizabeth National Park where 282 suspects involved in poaching were prosecuted, with over 230 sentenced….The GVTC has also helped to ease tensions between the countries by providing a platform where their military forces can collaborate in a transparent way. ..

Armed groups have reportedly killed more than 130 rangers in the park since 1996. Militias often kill animals such as elephants, hippos and buffaloes in the park for both meat and ivory. Wildlife products are then trafficked from the DRC through Uganda or Rwanda. The profits fund the armed groups’ operations.

Over 80% of the Greater Virunga Landscape is covered by oil concessions and this makes it a target for state resource exploitation purely for economic gain.


2015: Until recently, in GVL, extraction of highly valued minerals such as gold and coltan, were largely artisanal. The recent discovery of oil, gas and geothermal potential, however, is a game-changer. Countries are now moving ahead in the exploration and production of oil and gas, which if not properly managed, is likely to result in major negative environmental (and social) changes. Extractive industries are managed under each GVL partner state policy guidelines and legislation. Concessions for these industries cover the whole of the GVL, including the World Heritage Sites as well as national protected areas . Since 2006, Uganda discovered commercial quantities of oil in the Albertine Graben and production in Murchison will begin within the next few years. The effect of the extractive industries, similar to and contributing to that of the increase in urbanization is the increased demand for bush meat, timber and fuel wood from the GVL.

Excertps from Duncan E Omondi Gumba, DRC prioritises oil over conservation, ISS Africa,  July 11, 2018//GREATER VIRUNGA LANDSCAPE
ANNUAL CONSERVATION STATUS REPORT 2015

 

An Earth Bank of Codes: who owns what in the biological world

A project with the scale and sweep of the original Human Genome Project…should be to gather DNA sequences from specimens of all complex life on Earth. They decided to call it the Earth BioGenome Project (EBP).

At around the same time as this meeting, a Peruvian entrepreneur living in São Paulo, Brazil, was formulating an audacious plan of his own. Juan Carlos Castilla Rubio wanted to shift the economy of the Amazon basin away from industries such as mining, logging and ranching, and towards one based on exploiting the region’s living organisms and the biological information they embody. At least twice in the past—with the businesses of rubber-tree plantations, and of blood-pressure drugs called ACE inhibitors, which are derived from snake venom—Amazonian organisms have helped create industries worth billions of dollars. ….

For the shift he had in mind to happen, though, he reasoned that both those who live in the Amazon basin and those who govern it would have to share in the profits of this putative new economy. And one part of ensuring this happened would be to devise a way to stop a repetition of what occurred with rubber and ACE inhibitors—namely, their appropriation by foreign firms, without royalties or tax revenues accruing to the locals.

Such thinking is not unique to Mr Castilla. An international agreement called the Nagoya protocol already gives legal rights to the country of origin of exploited biological material. What is unique, or at least unusual, about Mr Castilla’s approach, though, is that he also understands how regulations intended to enforce such rights can get in the way of the research needed to turn knowledge into profit. To that end he has been putting his mind to the question of how to create an open library of the Amazon’s biological data (particularly DNA sequences) in a way that can also track who does what with those data, and automatically distribute part of any commercial value that results from such activities to the country of origin. He calls his idea the Amazon Bank of Codes.

Now, under the auspices of the World Economic Forum’s annual meeting at Davos, a Swiss ski resort, these two ideas have come together. On January 23, 2018 it was announced that the EBP will help collect the data to be stored in the code bank. The EBP’s stated goal is to sequence, within a decade, the genomes of all 1.5m known species of eukaryotes. ..That is an ambitious timetable. The first part would require deciphering more than eight genomes a day; the second almost 140; the third, about 1,000. For comparison, the number of eukaryotic genomes sequenced so far is about 2,500…

Big sequencing centres like BGI in China, the Rockefeller University’s Genomic Resource Centre in America, and the Sanger Institute in Britain, as well as a host of smaller operations, are all eager for their share of this pot. For the later, cruder, stages of the project Complete Genomics, a Californian startup bought by BGI, thinks it can bring the cost of a rough-and-ready sequence down to $100. A hand-held sequencer made by Oxford Nanopore, a British company, may be able to match that and also make the technology portable…..It is an effort in danger of running into the Nagoya protocol. Permission will have to be sought from every government whose territory is sampled. That will be a bureaucratic nightmare. Indeed, John Kress of the Smithsonian, another of the EBP’s founders, says many previous sequencing ventures have foundered on the rock of such permission. And that is why those running the EBP are so keen to recruit Mr Castilla and his code bank.

The idea of the code bank is to build a database of biological information using a blockchain. Though blockchains are best known as the technology that underpins bitcoin and other crypto-currencies, they have other uses. In particular, they can be employed to create “smart contracts” that monitor and execute themselves. To obtain access to Mr Castilla’s code bank would mean entering into such a contract, which would track how the knowledge thus tapped was subsequently used. If such use was commercial, a payment would be transferred automatically to the designated owners of the downloaded data. Mr Castilla hopes for a proof-of-principle demonstration of his platform to be ready within a few months.

In theory, smart contracts of this sort would give governments wary of biopiracy peace of mind, while also encouraging people to experiment with the data. And genomic data are, in Mr Castilla’s vision, just the start. He sees the Amazon Bank of Codes eventually encompassing all manner of biological compounds—snake venoms of the sort used to create ACE inhibitors, for example—or even behavioural characteristics like the congestion-free movement of army-ant colonies, which has inspired algorithms for co-ordinating fleets of self-driving cars. His eventual goal is to venture beyond the Amazon itself, and combine his planned repository with similar ones in other parts of the world, creating an Earth Bank of Codes.

[I]f the EBP succeeds, be able to use the evolutionary connections between genomes to devise a definitive version of the tree of eukaryotic life. That would offer biologists what the periodic table offers chemists, namely a clear framework within which to operate. Mr Castilla, for his part, would have rewritten the rules of international trade by bringing the raw material of biotechnology into an orderly pattern of ownership. If, as many suspect, biology proves to be to future industries what physics and chemistry have been to industries past, that would be a feat of lasting value.

Excerpts from Genomics, Sequencing the World, Economist, Jan. 27, 2018

Only One Protester was Killed: Kenya

One person was killed and several injured in January 26, 2015 when Kenyan police clashed with Maasais protesting against a local governor they accuse of misappropriating tourism funds from the Maasai Mara game reserve, an official said.  Police fired shots and teargas as thousands of people from the Maasai ethnic group, clad in traditional red cloaks, marched to the governor’s office in Narok town, the administrative centre of the sprawling Maasai Mara park, witnesses said.

Narok County Commissioner Kassim Farah, an official appointed by the president, said: “Only one protestor was killed by a bullet.  “We regret it but the organisers of the demonstration should be held responsible, not the police.” Kenya Red Cross said seven people injured in the clashes were taken to a nearby hospital.

Demonstrators marched to the gates of Governor Samuel Tunai’s office, shouting: “Tunai must go.” Some hurled rocks. The dispute began when Tunai’s administration contracted a company to collect Maasai Mara park entry fees, a deal the locals say was suspect.

Visitors to the Maasai Mara, one of Africa’s biggest tourist draws, pay $80 per day to roam an area full of wildlife such as lions, rhinos and giraffes. Upmarket lodges and luxury tented camps can charge hundreds of dollars per person per day for the experience, although a spate of militant attacks in Kenya as well as the Ebola epidemic on the other side of Africa have scared off many tourists….

Local government finance has come under increased scrutiny from Kenyans since a newly devolved system was introduced in 2013 under which local governments receive about 43 percent of the national budget directly and are responsible for raising their own additional revenues.  Devolution was designed to spread wealth and help local communities benefit from revenue earned in their areas but analysts say corruption and other issues that have blighted national politics have now also spread to local bodies

Corruption protest in Kenya’s Maasai Mara region turns deadly, Reuters, Jan. 27, 2015

Conservation: a Military Operation

Mander, founder and chief executive officer of the International Anti-Poaching Foundation (IAPF) – registered in Houston, headquartered in Zimbabwe, and training rangers across Southern Africa [states]…”while we’re trying to win people [over], tens of thousands of animals are being killed every year. We need to do something now, on the ground, to stop the hemorrhaging. Otherwise there won’t be anything left by the time we’ve won all the hearts and minds.”

Mander’s urgency is not misplaced. Poachers in South Africa killed the equivalent of one rhino every eight hours in 2013. They hacked or sawed off their horns and sold them on the world market for as much as $27,000 per pound – more than the price of gold. That makes the average horn on the average rhino worth close to a quarter-million dollars.  Across Africa, the number of elephants has fallen from 1.3 million 40 years ago to fewer than 400,000 today. Each year, the continent loses somewhere between 5 and 10 percent of those that remain. This has prompted organizations such as the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species to predict that Africa will lose a fifth of its elephants in 10 years.  Other groups warn that the African elephant could be extinct within a generation, consigned to picture books, zoos, and eventually fairy tales, like the unicorn.

Mass killings of Africa’s wildlife have happened before, notably in the 1970s and ’80s, a period known as the “ivory holocaust.” In 1989, an international ban on trade in elephant ivory curtailed the supply of illicit animal parts, and populations of the hardest-hit wildlife began creeping up again.  But so did the demand. Asia’s growing middle class increasingly sought out the animal contraband that serves both as ancestral trappings of wealth and a source of traditional medicines.

To supply these expanding markets, poaching has surged again. But this time the sophistication, funding, and malevolence of the poachers and their big-time criminal underwriters have reached new heights. The few who are caught are often found with their own night-vision goggles, sniper rifles, bandoliers of ammunition, and other specialized gear. Big-money backers equip the gunmen with helicopters to land inside the electric fences that guard wildlife. They bribe veterinarians to supply the poachers with powerful animal tranquilizers, which are used to fell the beasts all the more quickly.

In the face of this onslaught, the world’s conservation organizations have significantly increased their efforts despite chronic underfunding. But Mander argues that the conservation “industry,” as he calls it, is “dangerously fragmented” and wasting energy pulling in different directions.”It’s a world wildlife war. Don’t let anyone tell you it’s anything else,” he says back at his main encampment in Zimbabwe. “And the way we’re heading, we’re going to lose.”

Mander is an unlikely poster boy for an environmental conservation movement… At age 19, he joined the Australian Navy and soon transferred into the force’s equivalent of the US Navy SEALs. Six years later, he had become a fully trained Special Forces sniper and specialist diver. But his commission ended, and he shifted into private security and protection of VIPs in Iraq. Twelve tours and three years later, he’d become a wealthy man but decided to quit. …

In Zimbabwe, a wildlife reserve manager with a team of rangers out in the bush decided that hiring Mander was worth a try…Seeing the need to teach rangers about military tactics, and using money from investments he had made during his high-paying days in Iraq, Mander set up the IAPF in 2009. To date, it has trained rangers from 10 separate wilderness areas in Zimbabwe and is expanding into Mozambique. IAPF is also leading efforts from South Africa to create an international standard for wildlife rangers around Africa and beyond….

He teaches intelligence gathering and analysis, as well as overt and covert patrolling. He shows them how to set up observation posts, how to use force properly, and how to deal with battlefield casualties. Mander deploys the gear he used when he was in Iraq, the night scopes and the infrared lights. He’s working on a new gas-driven drone that can spend five hours in the air scouring the landscape for poachers. His rangers go through physical training drills every morning. Their uniforms are new and spotless. “People will try to package it up in a softer way – I don’t know why – but antipoaching is a paramilitary operation,” he says. “Law enforcement should be a ranger’s No. 1 job, but it’s been turned into a minor role.”…

Mander is not the only one militarizing ranger training. In Kenya, the British Army is helping teach similar battlefield techniques. In South Africa, former special forces soldiers are doing the same. Drones are undergoing trials in a dozen wildlife reserves across Africa. The key ingredient in Mander’s approach is a perpetual show of force, which he believes acts as a deterrent…

Critics in the conservation community worry that militarizing the antipoaching movement raises the risk of innocent people getting caught in the crossfire. They think it sidesteps the judicial process at a time when courts are beginning to impose harsher sentences on poachers….

“A lot of people will argue that we need to be focused less on the military approach I’m trying here and more on community work and hearts and minds and sustainable alternatives for communities,” Mander goes on. “Look, I’m all for that. Let’s have people out there working on that. But while they’re at it, I’m going to be here on the ground trying to stop the bleeding and hold on to what we’ve got left before everything’s dead.”

Excerpt, Mike Pflanz, The ivory police, Christian Science Monitor, Mar. 2, 2014

Saving Forests through Forced Evictions

For decades, the Kenyan government has attempted to evict indigenous people from the forests of Embobut and Cherangany, in the western county of Elgeiyo Marakwet. Past tactics have even included torture and setting fire to homes, those affected say…The government – accused in recent weeks of preparing to carry out yet another forced eviction – maintains that communities living in 12 forest glades must leave so it can rehabilitate the degraded forest and the water services it provides to the surrounding regions and beyond.

“This is a government initiative aimed specifically at conserving the country’s second-largest water tower – nothing else,’’ said Inspector Stephen Chessa, who works for the Kenya Forest Service (KFS) and is in charge of the Embobut eviction…

But one forest warder who preferred to remain anonymous told Thomson Reuters Foundation he and his colleagues had been instructed to evict forcefully anyone who resists the move.  The U.N. special rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples, James Anaya, expressed deep concern about this prospect, urging the Kenyan government “to ensure that the human rights of the Sengwer indigenous people are fully respected, in strict compliance with international standards protecting the rights of indigenous peoples”.  Most families are asking for more time to assemble their things and harvest crops before leaving the forest.   But Solomon Mibei, head of conservation for the KFS, said families would not be given extra time and the evictions would continue as planned. “They have no reason to continue staying in the forest – they were compensated,’’ he said.

The situation is complex because there are different communities living in Embobut: the Sengwer indigenous people; groups displaced by disasters and political violence; and others who have come to benefit from cultivation opportunities.  “Why should the government treat us equally with the victims of post-election violence and landslides?’’ asked Sengwer spokesperson Yator Kiptum. “The forest is our home – our case is different, it’s not fair at all.”…According to Article 63 of the constitution, community land shall be vested in and held by communities identified on the basis of ethnicity, culture or similar community of interest. Community land consists of ancestral lands and lands traditionally occupied by hunter-gatherers.

Justin Kenrick of the Forest Peoples Programme (FPP), a UK-based rights organisation, said the government’s justification for evicting people is forest conservation, but research has long since shown that forests are best preserved not by evicting ancestral communities but by supporting them to regain secure rights to their land.  Payments to evictees by the government are “intended to distract the public and the communities themselves from addressing the real issues”, Kenrick said. “According to international treaties to which Kenya is a party, the Sengwer should have been consulted, and accepted or rejected the proposal,’’ he added.  Kiptum, however, claims the Sengwer were not consulted, did not sign anything, and have not agreed to hand over their land for the small amount of money that has been paid into some people’s bank accounts.  “You cannot create a humanitarian crisis for the sake of conserving biodiversity while there are other ways of doing it better,” said Stephen Cheboi, coordinator of the North Rift Human Rights Network based in nearby Eldoret town. He also called for an audit of the compensation process.

Excerpts from Caleb Kemboi, Indigenous rights clash with forest protection in Kenya, Reuters, Jan. 17,, 2014

See also Biodiversity and Human Rights