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[PARIS] A newly established global panel on biodiversity faces being sidetracked by niche interests and northern agendas if it does not tread carefully, a meeting has heard.

Intergovernmental Platform on Biodiversity & Ecosystem Services (IPBES) was formed in April 2012, with a mandate to assess the state of the planet's biodiversity and ecosystems, and provide accessible scientific advice to policymakers.

But it faces several challenges. The key issue to emerge at an IPBES stakeholders' meeting in Paris, France, this week (29–30 April) was how to involve voices from the global South, including those of indigenous communities, traditional and local knowledge holders, women, and civil society organisations.

Experts are concerned the panel could become ensnared by northern government agendas, private-sector lobbying or the interests of the vocal conservation sector, at the expense of livelihood concerns and biodiversity priorities of local communities in the developing world.

And many insiders are worried that the IPBES bureau and multidisciplinary expert panel — IPBES's core governance institutions — are already too skewed towards conventional scientific voices and government ministries, and are failing to represent more diverse voices and communities in developing countries.

Representing the vast heterogeneity of interests and agendas is a challenge, but one that must be faced, says Anne Larigauderie, executive director of Diversitas, an international biodiversity research programme, and head of the International Council for Science delegation at IPBES.

"We need to design very clear rules of representation … to ensure that the South, in all its diversity, is involved at every level," she told SciDev.Net. "Whether IPBES is able to do that or not will certainly be a criteria of its success."

Several experts highlighted the need for a participatory approach at the agenda-setting stage to give everyone a chance to influence the panel's work.

Douglas Nakashima, chief of section at UNESCO-LINKS (the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization's Local and Indigenous Knowledge Systems project), told SciDev.Net that ensuring local community participation "has always been a major challenge during these global processes, because biodiversity has to be done at a local level".

"Global and regional science can't bring all the answers that are required," he added. "The two are operating at a very different scale and asking different questions in relation to biodiversity."

With IPBES, Nakashima said, there is hope that linking the local, regional and global can bring results that can help local people and the global community address the biodiversity crisis.

Larigauderie told SciDev.Net that IPBES should learn from mistakes made by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), such as its narrow focus on dialogues between governments and scientists.

"There have been shortcomings in terms of applying IPCC knowledge and making it policy relevant, so that society really owns it and uses it," she said. "This is particularly the case in developing countries, where the IPCC has been criticised as 'science from the North'."

Christine von Weizsäcker, president of Women in Europe for a Common Future's board of trustees, said that "policymakers must learn from the public, not the other way round only", and that this principle must be enshrined in IPBES.

"If we do this right, there is a chance for multidisciplinary expertise from all regions — not just a northern and conservation-dominated agenda," she said.

Implementing local projects and dialogues with structured and transparent inputs; harnessing the power of web-based networks; and tapping into citizen science and informal knowledge networks were all touted at the meeting as important avenues for capturing and integrating diverse knowledge.

However, Nakashima stressed that IPBES must not "reinvent the wheel" but should "recognise all the expertise and networks that have already been developed" to engage and reflect local and indigenous knowledge.

"For example, there's a whole school of work in the Pacific Islands relating to the customary management of marine resources and work in Africa on agricultural systems and soil sciences," he told SciDev.Net. "These would contribute to some understanding of how indigenous knowledge can be effectively brought into IPBES."

Similarly, IPBES must take heed of processes such as the UN Convention on Biological Diversity, where "indigenous peoples have been actively engaging", Nakashima said.

The IPBES "takes as a starting point a clear recognition of the value of both scientific knowledge and indigenous and local knowledge", which, if carried through in its work programme, could yield "some very interesting advances", he added.

"Of course, there are challenges," he said. "We have to recognise that these diverse knowledge systems will sometimes coincide, sometimes contradict and sometimes have very different perspectives on the same situations."