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Four Big Takeaways from the IUCN World Conservation Congress

IUCN World Conservation Congress (WCC) makes powerful statements on biodiversity loss and climate change, but worrying trends threaten to undermine the integrity of the institution.

Congress participants hold up 331 flowers in remembrance of he 331 environmental defenders killed in 2020 defending biodiversity Photo by IISD/ENB

For the first time since the COVID-19 pandemic began, NRDC participated in a large, global in-person meeting of governments, government agencies and other stakeholders to discuss and make decisions about the fate of the world’s vanishing biodiversity.

The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), the world’s preeminent network of both government and non-governmental conservation and indigenous peoples’ agencies and organizations, held its 26th World Conservation Congress in Marseille France in early September.

Due to COVID-19 protocols and restrictions, the meeting was a hybrid in-person and online event, allowing participants to engage on site as well as virtually in events, contact groups, and, to a certain extent, voting procedures, though many felt that the format still disenfranchised many IUCN members.

Though not an international law and policy-making body per se, IUCN nevertheless wields enormous influence over global biodiversity policy, largely because countries and national biodiversity agencies are IUCN members, alongside thousands of non-governmental groups like NRDC. Key themes of the Congress were the intersectionality of the climate and biodiversity crises gripping our planet and the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic. As President Emmanuel Macron during the opening ceremony, “There is no vaccine for a sick planet.”

Emmanuel Macron, President of France, opens the World Conservation Congress Photo by IISD/ENB

Here’s four top takeaways from the World Conservation Congress:

1. The Congress passed some really important motions – The main purpose of the IUCN WCC is for IUCN members to gather and adopt motions that contribute to biodiversity conservation and protection and this Congress adopted scores of them (including several in which NRDC was a cosponsor), including:

  • A motion urging the world’s governments to finalize and adopt a strong, comprehensive treaty governing conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity in ocean areas beyond national jurisdiction (the “high seas”). NRDC led an effort to ensure any support for a treaty protecting high seas biodiversity called for fully and highly protected Marine Protected Areas (MPAs).

  • A motion recognizing the science supporting protecting half of the Earth for nature and promoting the adoption of a Global Biodiversity target of protecting 30 percent of land, inland water, and ocean areas by 2030. The motion highlighted the science behind the need for transformative change in the way we use land and sea resources and noted that a strong 30 by 30 target was an important milestone on the way to truly addressing the biodiversity crisis in the long term.

  • A motion urging governments and other stakeholders to protect the world’s 13 otter species, including by protecting them from international trade in live otters and otter parts and products (e.g., skins). NRDC has been leading the fight to protect otters, an important keystone species in aquatic environments, from all the threats they face, including trade in live otters and otter skins, supported by the motion.

  • A motion requesting a full environmental impact analysis of the negative impacts that oil and gas exploration may have for ecosystems and communities in the fragile Okavango Delta region of Namibia, Angola and Botswana, a World Heritage site. This vital last-minute motion shown a light on the dangers posed to the iconic Okavango Delta region of Southern Africa from new proposals to extract oil and gas in the region, which threatens wildlife and Indigenous Peoples and local communities nearby.

  • A motion supporting a global moratorium on damaging practice of deep seabed mining and strict regulation of such practices to ensure they are responsible, equitable, and not destructive to the ocean environment. Deep-sea environments are among the most fragile on Earth, and deep-seabed mining operations can be incredibly destructive. The motion urged governments to stop deep-seabed mining until strict regulations can be developed and put into place.

  • A motion to control the trade in fish swim bladders to reduce the incidental take of marine mammals, including the near-extinct vaquita porpoise in the Gulf of California. Fish swim bladders or “croakers” are valued in some parts of the world as a delicacy, but marine mammals often get caught up in the nets. There are only about 10 vaquita porpoises left in the Gulf of California, in large part due to uncontrolled fishing for totoaba, a fish prized in Asia for its swim bladder.

2. The Congress was inequitable – While the hybrid meeting format was successful in many ways in terms of participation, many felt that the voting procedures—which required in person voting or finding a proxy—still disenfranchised a huge number of IUCN members, especially those from lower income countries still struggling with access to vaccines, reliable internet, and international travel requirements. NRDC and other groups pointed this out at various times before the Congress, pushing the IUCN to allow online/remote voting. But they did not. NRDC served as proxy vote-holder for five other IUCN member organizations, though many governments and other IUCN members were understandably reluctant to delegate their voting power to others. And, thanks to an erroneous decision to require a 2/3 majority vote, a proposal to allow all IUCN members to vote online for motions just after the Congress was struck down.

NRDC using the universal "point of order" sign to signal for an intervention IUCN/Ecodeo/Kiara Worth

3. The Congress barely acknowledged the link between wildlife exploitation and trade and zoonotic disease pandemic risk, let alone the threat it poses to biodiversity overall – Over the course of the Congress, it became pretty apparent that the IUCN was attempting to downplay or even misinform IUCN members and other participants about the links between wildlife exploitation and trade and zoonotic disease risk. Simply put, the IUCN just didn’t seem to want to acknowledge that wildlife exploitation leads to zoonotic diseases, despite a growing body of evidence that we are entering an “era of pandemics” spurred largely by increased wildlife trade and consumption. The IUCN Resolutions Committee even went so far as to block an NRDC-sponsored “New & Urgent” motion addressing the risk of biodiversity loss and zoonotic disease pandemic from wildlife exploitation and trade that was supported by myriad other IUCN members. Some other important “New & Urgent” motions were blocked as well under equally dubious circumstances.

4. IUCN decisionmaking is becoming increasingly undemocratic – At various times, the application of the IUCN Statues and Rules of Procedure appeared arbitrary, which may be reinforcing the idea that some among IUCN leadership are promoting their own agendas, not that of IUCN’s membership. On voting rights; on parliamentary procedure; on motion submission, review and appeals, and on other issues, session chairs and IUCN legal advisors made some questionable procedural moves that affected or could have affected key Congress outcomes. So, while the Congress produced many important motions, some of the procedural problems undermined the democratic processes of the Congress, which could start to weaken the credibility of the institution and its influence on the world stage if not addressed by the newly-elected IUCN leadership.

NRDC fought many questionable decisions on the floor of the Congress and is spearheading a movement within IUCN to reform the motions process to make it more transparent, more democratic, and less corrosive to the united spirit of democracy that usually permeates the Congress. We hope the result will be the sustained integrity of the World Conservation Congress and IUCN in the future.

We will be posting more on those efforts, along with our efforts to engage with IUCN to provide science and fact-based information regarding the wildlife trade and pandemics, in the coming weeks and months.

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