By Susan Lieberman
Sharm el Shekih, Egypt
The global community has gathered in Sharm el Sheikh, Egypt for the Conference of the Parties of the Convention on Biological Diversity, or CBD—an international treaty to which every country in the world other than the U.S. is a member (but that’s another story). I am here leading the delegation from the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), the global organization I’m proud to work for as Vice President for International Policy.
For close to two weeks, we will discuss the many threats to the world’s wildlife and habitats, from tropical rainforests to the world’s ocean. Our planet is in the midst of an extensive, well-documented biodiversity crisis. We see a loss of species, habitats, and ecosystems critical to our planet’s health, and to the well-being of all of us—including to Indigenous Peoples and local communities that are directly dependent on healthy ecosystems for their very survival.
Recent scientific reports have shown that the extent of terrestrial and marine ecosystems that can be still be considered intact and ecologically functional is dwindling. Threats across the globe today are massive, and include habitat loss and devastation, illegal killing of wildlife and wildlife trafficking, illegal and unsustainable fishing, illegal and unsustainable timber trade, harmful development projects, climate change, and so much more.
The images of devastated landscapes devoid of their natural biodiversity, vast industrial-scale monoculture for commercial agriculture, and largely empty seas are becoming all too familiar and all too dominant. The consequences for biodiversity are clear: ever increasing numbers of species facing extinction and the degradation of the critical ecosystem services that underpin the very health of our planet and our own well-being.
In short, we are moving from a serious erosion of biodiversity to a serious ecological crisis that will impact all of us. And yet how many people know about this conference in Egypt? Or that between this meeting and the next conference in Beijing in 2020, the world will adopt new targets to set the course of biodiversity conservation for the next decade and beyond? But even as we endeavor to expand the constituency for this critical work, we cannot wait to take action.
More than anything, all of the governments here in Egypt must work and commit to save the Earth’s last intact places: the remaining boreal forests of Canada and Russia; the remaining tropical forests of Central Africa and the Amazon Basin; the remaining grasslands of Central Asia; and the remaining healthy coral reefs found in the tropical belt around the world to identify just some of the most critical biodiversity strongholds.
Just as urgently, we must secure the intact ecosystems and corridors between these place that are so critical for the maintenance of healthy, thriving populations of jaguars, elephants, tigers, sea turtles, parrots, whales, and so many other species threatened by the actions of people.
These intact forests, grasslands, coral reefs, and other intact landscapes and seascapes must be prioritized for many reasons, including because they are the most resilient to the impacts of climate change and increasing development pressures, and offer some of the greatest potential for protecting biological diversity for future generations.
I am excited to be here in Egypt to work through these issues with government officials from around the world, as well as other conservation organizations, indigenous peoples and local community representatives, and so many more. But I am very worried. This treaty, like all treaties, is made up of governments, and they are the ones making the decisions on behalf of all of the inhabitants of our beautiful and fragile planet—the only one we have.
Will the governments of the world talk but not act, show complacency, support business-as-usual, and squabble over minutiae? Or will they be ambitious and bold, and show true leadership and commitment to the future of a healthy planet? Will we be able to look back on this meeting as a watershed moment, when the governments of the world, through the CBD, truly committed to real conservation action, and to saving the magnificent, intact places on earth, for all of us?
Our children and future generations will ultimately be the judge, and they need our commitment, action, and leadership more than ever.
Susan Lieberman is Vice President for International Policy at WCS (Wildlife Conservation Society).
(Photo, top: Julie Larsen Maher/WCS)