Q&A: ‘We have biodiversity laws, it’s time to enforce them’

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Elizabeth Maruma Mrema is the executive secretary of the UN Convention on Biological Diversity. Copyright: Image courtesy of United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity.

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  • Environmental laws ‘lack enforcement’, says UN biodiversity chief
  • Elizabeth Maruma Mrema is one of a handful of African women leaders at the UN
  • Family culture and government policies drove her success, she says

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Pollution, overfishing and deforestation for agriculture have driven biodiversity loss to unprecedented levels. Global failures to enforce environmental laws have led to this dire situation, says Elizabeth Maruma Mrema, executive secretary of the UN Convention on Biological Diversity.

Growing up in the shadow of Mount Kilimanjaro, Mrema went on to study law. It was a chapter on the marine environment in the fledgling international Law of the Sea that pushed Mrema towards what would become known as environmental law.

Now a global leader on biodiversity, Mrema tells SciDev.Net that she would not be where she is today without the recognition of the value of educating girls — and years of hard work.

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Congratulations on becoming the first African woman to head the UN Convention on Biological Diversity. Would you say that you’re one of only a few African women to lead a UN body?

We have quite a number of African women leading different UN bodies. Within the UN Environment Programme, at the [senior] level we are two women from East Africa, both from East Africa. So, we can say a handful, but not one of the few. But I’m delighted that in recent years the number of African women leading different UN programmes, funds, specialised agencies, is increasing. Women at the UN in 1995 were 19 per cent at senior level and as of last year women in general were 62 per cent. I’m delighted that [for] the UN Secretary General [Antonio] Guterres, that has been one of his priorities, to really ensure gender equity at senior levels within the UN.

You’ve worked on a range of policies and laws, from the Agreement on the Conservation of Small Cetaceans to the Gorilla Agreement. When you began your career in environmental law, is this what you expected to be working on?

Actually, I did not begin as an environmental lawyer, I just began as a lawyer and my interest used to be international law, and specifically Law of the Sea. In the 1970s and 80s, Law of the Sea was the international law. At the time when the Law of the Sea Convention was being negotiated — and it took ten years to negotiate that convention — those were my young ages as a lawyer at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and at the time, my minister was the president of the preparatory committee on the International Seabed Authority. I was his assistant, doing all the speeches, the groundwork. So, Law of the Sea was my speciality.

Within Law of the Sea there’s one chapter, 12, which is specifically on marine environment and that is the chapter which brought me to the bigger picture of environmental law. My environmental career began with my joining the UNEP in the 1990s. The environmental law we know today began in the 1970s, particularly after the Stockholm Conference on the Human Environment, and it is that conference which established the UNEP and adopted the Stockholm [Declaration] principles. It is at that conference for the first time that a clean and healthy environment was recognised in an international document.

Before then, environmental law was more based on species. After 1970s and with UNEP, environmental law which we understand today became more integrated, more overarching, with the recognition that you cannot separate environment, water, forest — they’re all integrated. We have now the framework convention on biodiversity, the convention on desertification, the convention on climate change. So, this is when the momentum of the environmental law we know today emerged.

Environmental law, just like any other law, is a body of policies, principles, regulations, put in place to manage the relations of human beings on issues. So, it’s how we manage the gorilla, how we conserve small cetaceans, and all other species. There’s the development of policies and laws, regulations, which — and this is more important — are followed with enforcement and implementation.

And this is where the main challenge is of environmental law we face today. We are not short of laws, we are not short of policies, be it at national, regional or global level. The Convention on Biological Diversity is going to celebrate 30 years next year and yet biodiversity loss is now unprecedented in the history of humankind. What we are lacking is effective enforcement and implementation. I am one who always says we don’t need new international instruments or laws, what we need is strengthening, enforcement and implementation of existing laws before we can think of new ones.

“I am one who always says we don’t need new international instruments or laws, what we need is strengthening, enforcement and implementation of existing laws.”

Elizabeth Maruma Mrema

Every time a new law is negotiated, it means enforcement goes back as the new law is being negotiated. It takes years to negotiate an international treaty and as you negotiate it means environmental degradation continues. Let us implement what we have in place before we can think of new ones, because we’ll continue to add instruments on paper, decorating our shelves, but still what is needed is implementation and enforcement.

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What’s needed to ensure that more African women can follow in your footsteps? Is it a matter of mentoring and support for girls and women, or is wider systemic change needed?  

I think it is both. You cannot reach the leadership level if the appropriate education is not in place. That’s why at early stages a girl’s education becomes key, because that’s preparing for leadership in the future. In my case, it’s not just girls’ education, but also policies at national level in terms of preparing future leaders becomes key. In my country, in Tanzania, at the time I was going to school from secondary to university level, the then-President Julius Kambarage Nyerere had a policy of uplifting the status of girls, women. And the policy was to prepare the girls to take leadership. How was it done? At secondary level the pass mark for girls was different from the boys. When I went to university, while girls went straight to university from high school, boys had to work for two years. Those spaces at the university that would have been occupied by boys were occupied by girls. If not for that government policy probably I would not have been here. We also need the men to be with us, we can’t say the women will move on their own.


What was the path that led to your position now? What role did education, family dynamics, and so on, play?

Yes, family dynamics also comes in. As I grew up, many families would not take women to school, because it was considered that the girls will get married and it is the other family, other region, other province which will benefit from that education, and not her own family or her own region. The parents would take the girl to school up to primary level, and the boys were the ones who would continue, because when you educated the boys you educated the village. But if you educated the girls you educate other villages at the cost of this village.

Fortunately, in my case, my father was a chief then. And being a teacher before he became a chief, he realised the importance of education, whether it’s for boys or girls. In a family of 11 — four girls and seven boys — all of us went to school, he did not discriminate. But I will take this as an exception, because culturally that was not the case. The girl was prepared to deal with care-giving, take care of the family, bear children, take care of the husband and the community. This is where I thank my father. Government policies at that time propelled us even more.

When I began working, I’ve been very lucky that over ten years with the government service, having the same boss — a man — and my many years with the United Nations, now over 25 years — the majority of it also with one male boss — actually they’ve all been supportive of building me. Where literally all of them kept on reminding me: “Elizabeth, the sky is the limit. It is for you to work hard, I will not do anything, you have to sell yourself.”

But what I realised during my working life, it’s not just being a woman, being an African, it meant also working three, four times more than others. Many times, I’ve held simultaneously the jobs of three people. At least in my case I found that I have to be two, three steps higher than men, in terms of demonstrating my capability, and have the capability sell itself as opposed to me just being pushed.

So that has been tough going, but I see now the situation is more relaxed, recognition is there. It’s changing a lot.

This article was produced by SciDev.Net’s Global edition.

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