Member states of the UN Convention on Biological Diversity ended their conference in Malaysia last week by announcing a series of measures they hope will slow down the rate of biodiversity loss before 2010.
After two weeks of debate, representatives of 161 governments agreed to conserve at least one-tenth of the area of each of the world's many ecosystem types — for example, those within marine and mountain environments.
They also agreed to bolster efforts to stabilise populations of many species that are now in decline and made a commitment to ensure that global trade does not endanger any species of wild plants or animals.
The measures are part of an overall commitment made by world leaders at the 2002 World Summit on Sustainable Development to "significantly reduce" the rate of biodiversity loss before 2010. Species are now going extinct at a faster rate than at any time in the Earth's history, and human activities such as agriculture and logging are largely the cause.
The Malaysia meeting also agreed to find ways of expanding the world's protected areas — such as 'biosphere reserves' and wildlife parks — in the hope that such moves will help to achieve the 2010 target.
The initiatives, however, fall considerably short of what conservationists and some developing countries have been calling for: namely a cast-iron promise to expand protected lands, and agreement from developed countries to help pay for this.
Currently, 12 per cent of the Earth's land surface is classified as protected. While this exceeds the target of 10 per cent that was set by conservation groups a decade ago, many protected areas in developing countries are known as 'paper parks' because governments lack the finance and technical ability to manage them effectively.
Alistair Gammell of the conservation group Birdlife International says that without extra funds, thousands of species have effectively been condemned. "As expected, governments are in total denial about money," he says. "So disinterested are they that finance officials have not even bothered to turn up. Yet they remain content to sabotage the future of global biodiversity by ensuring the money needed for protected areas is still not available."
The Convention's member countries also agreed to begin separate talks to draw up global rules for scientists and corporations who want access to the biological resources of the developing world. A working group has been established, which will help to find ways of rewarding developing countries and indigenous communities if, for example, a plant extract used in indigenous healthcare is found to have global commercial potential.
Delegates, however, could not agree on whether the rules should be legally binding. Developing countries believe they should be, but many richer nations as well as corporations disagree. The meeting's final declaration, crafted to satisfy both sides, says: "It is noted that the international regime could be composed of one or more instruments within a set of principles, norms, rules and decision-making procedures, legally-binding and/or non-binding."
The Convention's member countries will review progress towards these rules — as well as towards the 2010 target to slow down biodiversity loss — at their next major conference in Brazil in 2006.