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The Convention on Biological Diversity

Sam Johnston describes the major outcomes of the fourth meeting of the Conference of the Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity held in Bratislava, Slovakia, in May 1998.

The author is Programme Officer with the Secretariat of the Convention on Biological Diversity in Montréal, Canada.

The fourth meeting of the Conference of the Parties (COP4) saw the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) move from its start-up phase to a long-term planning cycle. Attended by over 1,300 participants from 152 countries, the Bratislava meeting completed a heavy work schedule and adopted 19 decisions. Sam Johnston describes the major outcomes of the event.

The meeting marked the conclusion of the first medium-term programme of work for the Convention. This programme has seen the establishment of a dynamic institutional structure to develop and implement the provisions of the Convention, including the evolution of a process for promulgating Conference of the Parties decisions and the elaboration of a basic paradigm for the development of substantive understanding of the Convention. The focus of attention for the foreseeable future is implementation.

With a scope as ambitious as the Convention the challenge for the process as it moves into this implementation phase is to find a balance between pursuing a truly holistic and integrative approach demanded by the Convention, whilst at the same time being focused enough to allow development of its provisions. The framework within which this balance is to be achieved is the ecosystem approach as applied to various biome themes such as marine and coastal or forest biodiversity. This approach is one of the Convention’s primary innovations and emphasizes that species and landscapes are viewed primarily as an integral part of their encompassing ecosystem.

The decisions of the Bratislava meeting reaffirmed the ecosystem approach and, importantly, adopted programmes of work for marine and coastal biodiversity (decision IV/5), forest biodiversity (decision IV/7), agricultural biodiversity (decision IV/6) and the biodiversity of inland waters (decision IV/4). Each programme establishes a vision for future work, identifies outcomes/results, a timetable for their development and the means to achieve goals for the particular theme. Most importantly, the decisions indicate the type of final products or instruments which are expected from the programme and will develop the normative basis of the Convention with respect to the particular theme. These include: a) manuals of best practice, b) guidelines, c) codes of conduct, d) guidance for the institutions of the Convention, e) criteria, f) indicators, g) standards/labelling schemes, and h) protocols.

Implementation of each of the programmes is to be undertaken by the institutions of the Convention in a broadly similar fashion. The first main activity will be a review of existing efforts to identify synergies and gaps within the existing institutional framework. The review, mechanism centres around the Secretariat supported in some instances by either informal interagency task forces or ad hoc groups of experts. On the basis of this review the Secretariat is to develop programmatic links with relevant organizations to promote the objectives of the Convention and, where appropriate, begin the process of developing guidelines to assist Parties with implementation. Periodically, the advice of the Subsidiary Body on Scientific, Technical and Technological Advice (SBSTTA) is to be sought. Products of this work are meant to be produced and disseminated to Parties and other stakeholders through regular communication and meetings, cooperation and the clearing-house mechanism of the Convention.

The programme on inland waters will launch the first comprehensive global assessment of inland water biodiversity. It will also promote: watershed management; appropriate technologies; research, monitoring and assessment; and cooperative activities such as a Joint Work Plan with the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands. COP4 decided that urgent attention should be given to the development of rapid assessment methodologies especially related to small island states. The decision also places a priority on two activities for the Executive Secretary: a) compiling information and case studies for use by the SBSTTA in its deliberations on improving understanding of the biodiversity of inland water, identifying its uses and its threats, and b) future work on management experiences and best practices.

It is expected that the fifth meeting of the SBSTTA in January 2000 will consider:

  • implementation of the programme;
  • incorporation of the results of the sixth session of the Commission on Sustainable Development;
  • modes of cooperation with the Scientific and Technical Review Panel of the Convention on Wetlands;
  • the relationship with the Global International Waters Assessment;
  • rapid assessment methodologies; and,
  • advice on the joint programme of work with the Convention on Wetlands.

The forests programme will complement existing efforts in other fora, such as the International Forum on Forests. It will add value by emphasizing the ecosystem approach, integrating socio-economic considerations with conservation and sustainable use, and promoting scientific analyses of how human activities and forest management practices influence biodiversity. It will also address links with related treaties and programmes, such as carbon “sinks” in the context of the climate treaty.

The third meeting of the Conference of the Parties adopted a programme of work for agriculture biodiversity and the Bratislava meeting simply reviewed progress. The programme of work has three key elements. These are an assessment of existing activities and instruments, the development of case studies, and the development and implementation of national strategies on the basis of the guidance provided in the Conference of the Parties decision III/11. The assessment is being carried out in close collaboration with the Food and Agriculture Organization. It is planned that the fourth meeting of the SBSTTA, to be held in May 1999, will address the specific issue of the consequences of new technology on agricultural biological diversity, while the fifth meeting of the SBSTTA, in January 2000, will consider the findings of the assessment with a view to recommending to the Conference of the Parties the priority areas, objectives, activities and processes for the multi-year programme of work on agricultural biological diversity.

The marine and coastal programme identifies important operational objectives and priority activities within five key programme elements, which are: integrated marine and coastal area management (IMCAM); marine and coastal living resources; marine and coastal protected areas; mariculture; and, alien species. The programme provides a framework for activities to implement the Jakarta Mandate until 2000 although the framework is designed to be applicable on a continuing basis beyond 2000. Development of a collaborative network to promote ecosystem approaches, the development of the knowledge base on marine and coastal genetic resources and pilot research and monitoring activities on marine and coastal protected areas is to start immediately.

Plans in preparation for the fifth meeting of the SBSTTA include:

  • a review of instruments relevant to IMCAM and their implications;
  • terms of reference for the ad hoc expert groups;
  • criteria for establishment and management of protected areas; and,
  • identification of gaps in existing or proposed legal instruments, guidelines and procedures to counteract the introduction of alien species.

It was also decided that coral reefs and small island developing states required special attention within the programmes’ overall objectives.

COP4 also adopted a programme of work to guide the overall operations of the process (decision IV/16). The programme of work outlined drylands and their sustainable use, including tourism and access to genetic resources as priority issues to be considered at future meetings.

The Sixth Conference of the Parties is to concentrate on forests, alien species and benefit sharing. The Seventh Conference of the Parties will focus on mountain ecosystems, protected areas and the transfer of technology and technological cooperation.

The Fifth Conference of the Parties will be held in May 2000 in Nairobi, Kenya. It is likely that meetings of the Conference of the Parties thereafter will be held at two-year intervals. The priorities adopted at COP4 will be the main focus of the relevant inter-sessional period. Consequently, the fourth meeting of the SBSTTA will concentrate on the sustainable use of drylands and the drylands biome.

Another important decision at COP4 dealt with traditional knowledge. The Conference established an ad hoc open-ended inter-sessional working group to address the implementation of Article 8(j) and to develop a work programme. The group’s first meeting has been tentatively scheduled for January 2000. The Conference invited the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) to consider the concerns of the Convention in its own work.

COP4 considered the implementation of the provisions of the Convention on the sharing of the benefits arising out of the utilization of genetic resources. It decided to establish a panel of experts to develop a common understanding of basic concepts and to explore all options for access to genetic resources and benefit-sharing on mutually agreed terms. The first meeting of the Panel has been tentatively planned for October 1999.

Many other issues on the international biodiversity agenda were also the subject of COP decisions. The secretariat was asked to prepare, with the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) and the World Conservation Union (IUCN), a background paper analyzing the design and implementation of incentive measures for conservation and sustainable use, while Parties were invited to submit more case studies. The Conference of the Parties encouraged Parties and international organizations to cooperate in developing public education and awareness-raising programmes. It decided to start addressing alien species as a cross-cutting issue, and called on the Open-ended Ad Hoc Working Group on Biosafety to complete a biosafety protocol in time for adoption by a special session of the Conference of the Parties in February 1999. The Conference of the Parties also noted the importance of further progress on trade issues and the need for consistency between decisions of the Convention and of the World Trade Organization.

After reviewing the Convention’s operations, including its institutions, procedures, and strategies, the Parties agreed that improving their effectiveness will require prioritizing work, delegating items to subsidiary bodies, and strengthening the preparatory process for Conference of the Parties meetings. To ensure synergies with other processes, it was agreed that there is a need to harmonize the national reporting requirements of the various treaties, coordinate meetings schedules, promote cooperation amongst countries in the same region, explore scientific cooperation on the environmental linkages between the conventions, identify programmes that have multiple benefits, and enhance joint awareness raising.

Several of the decisions are dedicated to strengthening the information base that is so essential to the Convention’s progress. In particular, the Parties supported a Global Taxonomy Initiative, which will promote capacity building and investments in bolstering national collections of biodiversity data needed to implement the Convention. They also urged a more intensive development of the Convention’s Clearing-House Mechanism, which should promote and facilitate technical and scientific cooperation and information exchange between countries. The secretariat has been asked to raise the visibility of the Clearing-House Mechanism by establishing an Internet list server linking all officially designated national focal points.

Finally, the Parties appreciated the flood of national reports that were submitted prior to the meeting in Bratislava. By the time the meeting closed, over one hundred Parties and countries had submitted reports on their implementation of the Convention. National reporting of strategies and programmes for promoting the conservation and sustainable use of biological diversity is central to the Convention’s future, as the responsibility for actually achieving its goals rests largely with the Parties themselves. National reports are also the principal means by which the international community can demonstrate concrete progress towards the Convention’s objectives. The significant amount of work that Parties are putting into these reports is perhaps the most important sign that the Convention on Biological Diversity is entering a new and more dynamic phase.

Further information

Sam Johnston, Secretariat, UN Convention on Biological Diversity, World Trade Centre, 393 St Jacques Street, Suite 300, Montréal, Québec H2Y 1N9, Canada. Fax: 1-514-2886588. Email: Web:

On the Web

Secretariat of the UN Convention on Biological Diversity


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