IPBES impressions– a lot of word picking and old conflicts

One of the first plenary meetings we, the new GCE arrivals, attended was a session of the contact group for the IPBEs work programme, which was originally planned as a joint meeting with the contact group for budget and finance. After an initial discussion about general structures and procedures of the thematic and geographic working groups, delegates turned to a more in-depth debate about the scoping document for thematic assessment of land degradation and restoration, which will function as a guide to the final reports on this topic.

The session turned into a word-picking exercise, although most linguistic changes were approved. One aspect receiving considerable attention was put forward by Uruguay, which wanted to see the term ‘deforestation’ replaced by ‘land use changes.’ Support came from the US, Columbia and Bolivia, with the latter suggesting the expression ‘unplanned forest management practices.’ South Africa wished to use the adjective ‘unsustainable,’ but in principle agreed with Bolivia’s wording. Malaysia and Mexico opposed these suggestions, although Malaysia agreed to ‘vegetation cover loss’ as an alternative to ‘deforestation.’ The question, whether the focus should be on land use changes in general, or if deforestation should be mentioned specifically, remained unresolved for the moment.

It was interesting to me that countries did not discuss the reasons for their individual stands on this issue, but it also made it hard to draw conclusions. For instance, Malaysia has been losing forest extensively in the past and is still operating substantial logging concessions in some areas. Maybe the country is aiming for attention from IPBES in the future, if there is a focus on forest loss. On the other hand, with a more general target, Malaysia might be able to make itself look better because increase in vegetation cover may count as a positive type of land use change. Without in-depth knowledge about the work of individual countries’ IPBES task forces and the respective agendas of country delegates, it can be very demanding to develop detailed understanding of what is going on in these debates. Interesting enough there were no suggestions for combining the term ‘deforestation’ with some formulation expressing land use change.

Another topic producing dissent among the delegates was the proposal by Brazil to include a separate chapter about social and economic benefits of land restoration. The country stated clearly that the purpose of this textual extension was to translate jobs, created by restoration efforts, into votes. Sweden and Turkey strongly supported the proposal, which was opposed by Switzerland and South Africa. The latter two countries were concerned about possible overlaps with already existing chapters and preferred highlighting the same.

The discussion can be seen as a reflection of the IPBEs being situated at the interface of science and politics with an intrinsic urge to promote the necessity of conserving biodiversity and the functioning of ecosystems to policy makers and the public.

In this context Turkey pledged for emphasizing the dangers of not acting on land degradation, while Brazil stressed the need to sell solutions in different ways. Whilst socioeconomic value created by land restoration efforts received attention, such benefits were not mentioned in the context of avoiding land degradation. In my opinion this detail deserves attention. Such wording, when translated into action, may lead to an unbalanced focus, reproducing the lack of value reflection of natural landscapes in the monetary system. If job creation by conservation efforts cannot keep up with income prospects from restoration actions, the latter may undermine the goal of conserving natural landscapes by further contributing to the economic infeasibility of the same.

The last comment of the session came from Cameroon, wishing to have trade-offs between different types of land use included in the document. Although not exhaustively discussed in this plenary session, Cameroon put the spotlight on the difficulty, particularly of poorer democratic countries, to both satisfy their populations’ endeavors to reach higher standards of living, while also investing in conservation initiatives. Whilst depending on the votes of their countries’ inhabitants, governments are being pressured by the international community to preserve the world’s largest carbon sinks and biodiversity-rich landscapes. So-called developing countries struggle to find a balance between developmental and conservation needs. Cameroon herein pointed out a reason for the feeling of many people working in this field, that investment in land conservation and biodiversity issues can only succeed if social benefits are felt by societies and reflected in their economies, not only by avoiding potential disasters in the long-run, but also by the immediate creation of wealth.

This essential conflict in human-nature interactions has not become trivial in the more than 20 years since the promising prospects of combining economic growth with environmental conservation led to the principle of sustainable development. The Intergovernmental Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services is yet another institution to tackle the challenge of presenting the protection of natural ecosystems in a way that is aligned with the paradigms of modern societies.

– Leila Schuh

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