Monday, 19 September 2011

Interview: Ivana Alessandro on biodiversity and human rights

In this interview, the Council of Europe’s Ivana D’Alessandro discusses the quickening pace of biodiversity degradation in Europe.

She also outlines the work of the Convention on the Conservation of European Wildlife and Natural Habitats, better known as the Bern Convention, which over the past 32 years has become a pillar of the international legal architecture.

It is the first international treaty to bring countries together on nature and conservation issues in order to protect both species and habitats.

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1) The Bern Convention has been an active part of Europe’s legal framework for some 29 years, yet the Council of Europe admits that the pace of biodiversity decline is quickening. How do you account for this situation?

ID: Biodiversity is declining fast, particularly because of economic growth and development of our societies which transform key natural habitats thus affecting a high number of species. However the question is: wouldn’t biodiversity decline faster without instruments like the Bern Convention?

Institutional and policy responses in favour of biodiversity conservation have undoubtedly increased thanks to the legal framework provided by the Bern Convention, which obliges Contracting Parties – among other things - to promote national policies for the conservation of wild flora and fauna and their natural habitats. The same applies to research and scientific investigation, which the Bern Convention has encouraged and promoted over 30 years.

Invertebrates can be taken as an example here: there are 1 200 000 species of invertebrates which account for nearly 95% of the animal kingdom and occupy a primordial position in biological cycles.

These species started to appear in national legislations shortly after they were included in Appendices II and III of the convention in 1988. Their status then suddenly changed: ceasing to be disregarded, they became the target of very effective protection measures and tools for enhancement and thus protection of certain habitats.

The protection of invertebrates would not be where it is today without the Bern Convention and the efforts of the many people who have worked, under its umbrella, to demonstrate the importance of invertebrates in terms of biodiversity.

2) What in your view keeps this treaty, conceived more than 32 years ago, relevant to today’s biodiversity issues?

ID: The Bern Convention is Europe’s treaty on nature conservation and the only regional convention of this kind worldwide. One of its strengths, is its large and diverse membership, extending from Iceland to Azerbaijan, and including 50 contracting parties, among which the European Community (EC) and four African States (Morocco, Tunisia, Senegal and Burkina Faso).

It protects both species and habitats and recongnises the intrinsic value of wild flora and fauna, which needs to be preserved and passed to future generations. It has also proven to be an important instrument for achieving sustainability as it takes account of the role that people play in the wider environment and their interactions with nature.

It is a living treaty because it is flexible. It takes into account that the species which it protects are rarely present in all European countries and that their status can be different in different States. It allows for flexibility of action and it makes it possible to vary the provisions of the convention to meet changing circumstances.

For example, the lists of species and habitats to be protected can be easily amended according to changes in nature conservation priorities.

Finally, the Bern Convention provides a forum of discussion for the promotion of a coherent and effective approach to the protection of environment and, as all Council of Europe’s instruments, it fosters the co-operation between Member States and the harmonisation of the legal framework and current practices.

3) At a recent conference in Cyprus, the Council of Europe pointed to the threat to birdlife in southern Europe and the Mediterranean area. What is the scale of the threat and how will the problem be tackled in future?

A survey targeting 40 European countries, realised by BirdLife International as a contribution to the conference organised by the Council of Europe, shows that Illegal killing of birds is a widespread phenomenon and is not primarily restricted to the Mediterranean countries, as often speculated. The review confirms that such activities occur on a regular basis in most European countries, although their intensity in the Mediterranean countries is indeed higher.

The conference pointed out that there is no single solution but a combination of techniques, actions, measures and strategies is urgently required to halt the illegal killing of birds. The key message from the participants is “zero tolerance toward illegal killing of birds.”

Under the Bern Convention, the conference started a long-term process aimed at systematic monitoring, promoting a shared reporting system as well as exchanges of good practices, improving investigation techniques and capacity building for enforcement agencies.

4) You are organising a meeting of experts on 19 September to discuss the setting up of the Emerald Network. What are the main aims of this project?

ID:The Emerald Network is an ecological network of protected areas which provides a model for conserving biodiversity, while allowing a degree of human exploitation of the landscape. It was set-up by the Council of Europe in 1989 and its implementation started in 1996 under the Bern Convention. Both Contracting Parties and Observers can set-up the network.

In this framework, the European Community, in its capacity of Contracting Party to the Bern Convention established a representative system of legally protected areas throughout the EU, known as Natura 2000. At a pan-European level, the Council of Europe is currently working to assist other Bern Convention Parties outside the EU to respect their obligation related to the setting-up the Emerald Network.

The Group of Experts which is meeting next week will review the calendar for the setting-up of the Emerald Network; ensure coordination with the EU for the future harmonization of the Emerald and the Natura 2000 networks; assess the sufficiency of the sites proposed by the Contracting Parties to integrate the network following very strict and precise criteria.

Once accepted to become part of the Network, the Emerald sites will be properly managed in order to achieve their primary objective - to ensure the long term survival of species and habitats listed as threatened throughout Europe.

5) In your view, what more should governments be doing to ensure stronger protection of Europe's biodiversity?

ID:Increase integration of biodiversity issues into the cross-sectoral policy and economic agenda. It is essential to continue bringing economic and social requirements into harmony with the ecological and cultural functions of our environment.

Protecting and enhancing biodiversity clearly contributes to maintaining ecosystem services and to mitigate and adapt to the negative effects of climate change. National governments already show their understanding of the urgency of the situation, in particular when recognising the frightening pace of biodiversity loss in spite of the increasing efforts at national and international level during the last two decades.

At the last COP 10 of the CBD, national governments set many and ambitious targets for the next 10 years. At the end, these targets aim to contribute to the protection of our right to a healthy environment - to the protection of life on earth. The challenge today is to achieve these objectives. The Bern Convention will continue to work towards contributing to the achievement of these ambitious targets set at world level.

6) What are the economic and social costs of decreasing biodiversity?

ID: The major cost is that we are loosing many ‘ecosystem services’ that are essential to the sustainability of our standard of living and to our survival. The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity (TEEB ) study is a major international initiative to draw attention to the global economic benefits of biodiversity, to highlight the growing costs of biodiversity loss and ecosystem degradation and to draw together expertise from the fields of science, economics and policy to enable practical actions.

7) In your view, is it easier now to persuade others of the arguments in favour of conservation and the protection of biodiversity?

ID:It is but much needs to be done. A survey carried-out by the European Union last year revealed only 35% of European citizens know what biodiversity means. However, once the concept is explained, it is difficult to argue against nature conservation. A shift in attitudes is certainly needed to understand that applying a few constraints to our way of living can do a lot for ensuring a healthy life to our children.

8) What is your message to those who fear that 'real world' economics and 'man’s needs' will inevitably triumph over the protection of biodiversity?

ID:My message is that the real world is for human beings. Biodiversity is life on earth. Protecting nature means protecting our future.

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