National interests cause tension while revising the African Regional Assessment

On Thursday, the 15th of January 2015, after the plenary meeting, the delegates divided into their regional groups (e.g. Americas, Europe, Africa) to draft the regional assessments of biodiversity and ecosystem services. I was particularly interested in hearing African points of view, since I know Africa contains many biomes and high biodiversity, but its climate is projected to become more severe. So, I joined the regional group on Africa, settled down in the last row in a small hall, put on the headphones (so I could hear the discussion simultaneously translated to either French or English), watched the ongoing negotiation process and took notes.

For the following three hours, the draft for the “Regional Assessment on Africa” was projected on a wall, while the delegates went through each of the paragraphs and mainly agreed to the document. If there were suggestions to add or change phrases in the draft, they were discussed, and finally a convenient solution was included in the draft.

But the delegates started to disagree when the discussion turned to how to divide Africa into sub-regions. The original draft mentioned ‘countries and territories,’ (territories such a Réunion, Mayotte or Western-Sahara) but this terminology was not favourable for all the members. Thus, the delegate from Morocco asked to delete Western-Sahara from the draft, but others, such as the chairman, or the delegate from Algeria opposed this proposal. After some discussion, the Moroccan delegate left the hall, only to return after half a hour. Then she again addressed the chairman and stated she would be satisfied if ‘territories’ (including Western-Sahara) would be deleted from the draft. Finally, a lawyer from UNEP helped to solve this dilemma of ‘countries’ and ‘territories:’ it was agreed that territories recognized by the African Union would be included, and marked with an explanatory footnote. Consequently, Western-Sahara, as well as Réunion and Mayotte stayed in the draft.

Despite this conflict, a spirit of productivity prevailed in the working group. In addition to the original wording, the members also included “climate-related risks such as desertification and silting” in the assessment. Furthermore, the delegates emphasized that capacity-building of African experts as well as cooperation between delegates and compromise are needed to create a successful assessments and to tackle coming challenges.

For me as observer, it was particularly interesting to see how national politics and conflicts over the status of territories influence such international proceedings, even when the topic of the negotiations is completely different, namely biodiversity and ecosystem-services. This dispute showed me how international negotiations work. I saw how focusing on national interests can hinder the important international decision-making process. But, on the other hand, I also could see that despite conflicts and hang-ups along the way, the processing continued, so that the assessment passed in the end.

— Markus Martini and Helen Sitar

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