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Africa’s no show at binding global biodiversity conference in Nairobi

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The 25th meeting of the Subsidiary Body on Scientific, Technical, and Technological Advice (SBSTTA) and the resumed second part of the 15th meeting of the Conference of the Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD COP 15) took place in Nairobi, Kenya, from October 15-20, 2023. The conspicuous absence of a good number of African countries in such meetings where important decisions regarding the implementation of the binding Global Biodiversity Framework are taken is telling. One implication of this is that only a few African countries have the required technical expertise and capacity to negotiate and defend Africa’s interests and positions. This needs to change if Africa wants to have any voice in these global conversations about conservation.

During the 15th meeting of the Conference of Parties in Montreal, Canada, African countries were, as ever, arm-twisted by developed countries in the adoption of the Global Biodiversity Framework. African countries sought to insert the principle of Common But Differentiated Responsibilities (CBDR). The CBDR principle was meant to ensure that developed countries that have contributed more to global environmental degradation bear greater responsibilities for providing financial resources and technologies for the implementation of the framework in developing countries. But African propositions were dismissed. The Global Biodiversity Framework was adopted against Africa’s position in a manner which a commentator described as a coup d’état. This episode alone should have been a wake-up call, prompting African countries to be better prepared, more organized and show greater solidarity in global discussions. But alas! That didn’t happen.

Africa and its political leaders are yet to prioritize important global development issues such as biodiversity conservation, an attitude that has worked against the collective interests of Africa, its rich and diverse bioresources and its people. This attitude also explains why there remain many avoidable obstacles in Africa’s quest for better expertise of – and a common position on – the issues discussed in these global meetings.

According to some reports, these obstacles range from a limited awareness of the value of biodiversity, inadequate capacity and expertise at various levels, lack of proper coordination, limited financial resources, lack of policy and legal coherence at the national level, to the lack of political will by African leaders to support Africa’s participation in the negotiations and implementation of biodiversity frameworks. These challenges weaken Africa’s influence in global biodiversity governance and decision-making. If nothing changes, this situation will likely persist in future negotiations.

To increase their influence and strengthen their voice in pushing through Africa’s interests and positions at future meetings, African countries ought to a) fund evidence-based research that recognizes our local and indigenous knowledge and practices, b) intentionally and strategically invest in building the capacity of their experts, and c) strengthen cooperation and coordination among member countries of the African Union.

To better understand and appreciate what Africa brings to the table when it comes to enriching global biodiversity, one needs to keep in mind that Africa is reputed as “home to one-quarter of the world’s mammal species and one-fifth of the world’s bird species. It is believed that one-sixth of the world’s plant species are native to Africa, and the continent boasts about 369 wetlands of international importance. More so, Africa has around one-sixth of the world’s remaining forests, including those that comprise the Congo Basin, a 240-million-hectare rainforest straddling eight African countries that absorbs 4 per cent of global carbon emissions every year, offsetting more than the entire African continent’s annual emissions”.

However, recent reports show that Africa is losing its biodiversity and genetic resources at a rate that should be of concern to all Africans, especially its political leaders and policymakers. It is believed that “over 6,400 animals and 3,100 plants in Africa are at risk of extinction, and populations of vertebrate species in Africa are estimated to have declined by 39 per cent since 1970. Africa’s bird populations show declines over the past 25 years, a pattern likely matched by fish and plant populations, though data is limited, while Africa currently hosts 9 of the world’s 36 biodiversity hotspots (defined as regions with more than 1,500 endemic plant species that have lost at least 70 per cent of their primary native vegetation)”.

As a result of this level of decline in its biodiversity, the livelihoods and survival of more than 62 per cent of Africa’s rural population who rely on the continent’s diverse natural ecosystems for their food, water, energy, health, and daily sustenance are severely threatened. More specifically, the massive destruction of the large rainforests of the Congo Basin threatens the livelihood of about 80 million Africans who live in the region. For these reasons alone, Africa should adopt a more proactive approach towards conservation if it wants to save its population from hunger and these existential threats.

Hence, Africa’s change in attitude is important not only because Africa’s rich biodiversity is being lost at an alarming rate and people’s livelihoods are threatened but most importantly because Africa cannot continue to be a passive actor (on the global stage) that only needs to implement resolutions adopted without its consent and significant input. Africa has so much to lose if it continues to pay leap service to global conversions about biodiversity conservation. The current passivity portends great danger to the continent’s collective interests, especially its environment and the survival of its people.

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