Sthembile Ndwandwe reflects on her attendance at the 15th Conference of the Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity.

In December 2022 I was sponsored by the African Wildlife Foundation (AWF) to attend the fifteenth meeting of the Conference of the Parties (COP 15) to the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD). The AWF together with the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), launched a policy fellowship in 2022 that trains young professionals and youth in international biodiversity governance. I got selected for the fellowship and the opportunity to attend COP 15 was part of our policy training.

COP15 was eventful with negotiations, side events and political demonstrations. The proceedings focused on the Kunming-Montreal Global Biodiversity Framework (GBF), the tenth meeting of the parties to the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety, and the fourth meeting of the parties to the Nagoya Protocol on Access to Genetic Resources and the Fair and Equitable Sharing of Benefits Arising from their Utilization.

The decision to adopt the GBF came with few much-debated and contentious targets. A lot of attention was on the 30×30 (target 3) which proposes that “by 2030 at least 30 per cent of terrestrial and inland water areas, and of marine and coastal areas, especially areas of particular importance for biodiversity and ecosystem functions and services, are effectively conserved and managed…”. The 30×30 is contentious because protectionist conservation has not worked for Indigenous peoples and local communities (IPLCs) and for biodiversity. This is one of the key targets where human rights and biodiversity in the GBF are linked. Embedding human rights in the GBF came after a strong resistance by many NGOs, IPLCs and some countries who opposed a 30×30 proposal if it was without a centring of human rights approach to conservation. Other decisions that were made against the backdrop of tough negotiations were decision 15(19) on digital sequence information (DSI), decision 15(17) on resource mobilization, and decision 5(10) on the new programme of work for article 8(j) which is focused on traditional knowledge. These were priorities for global South countries who typically carry the burden of looking after biodiversity.

In decision 15(17), an ambitious resource mobilization strategy including the transformation of the Global Environment Facility (GEF) was proposed. Calls for the GEF transformation and for a completely different fund outside the GEF funding framework was due to several shortcomings that countries in the global south had observed over the years. However, the COP outcome was disappointing as the GBF maintains the status quo, allowing ‘developed’ countries to continue to ignore their biodiversity financing responsibilities. However, there were some small steps towards reform, with the GBF “Calling upon the Global Environment Facility to further reform its operations to ensure adequacy, predictability, and the timely flow of funds by establishing easy and effective access modalities, including by scaling fast-track systems and by facilitating new contributors.”

There were divergent views on DSI, and its intersection with an already complex Access & Benefit Sharing framework. Those pushing for clear, legally binding agreements on DSI shared a sentiment that although progress had been made in terms of sharing benefits since the CBD was signed in 1992, companies who are predominantly in the north still lag on their obligations to share benefits. Although the incorporation of DSI into the GBF promises benefits by 2030, this remains ambivalent and vague.
Lastly, decision 5(10) proposes means to strengthen article 8(j) of the CBD which provides for traditional knowledge and innovations of Indigenous and local communities. It calls for full participation of IPLCs in the implementation of the GBF and asks for clear guidelines for the incorporation of customary sustainable use, and sustainable use in policy and practice. It also calls for support of transmission of traditional knowledge and for it to receive equal value and recognition.

My highlights were the Human Rights march held on the 10th of December 2022 on a very cold day in Montreal. I regard myself as a scholar activist so being part of a march of that magnitude was very important for me. There was a strong push to mainstream human rights in the GBF and I took part in the march in support of that position. I also enjoyed the presentations and rich discussions in the Nature and Culture Summit which was one of the parallel sessions I made sure I attend – the summit reflected on diverse values of nature and intersections with biological and cultural diversity. Another highlight was having the privilege of being exposed to the art of global policy negotiations and seeing how different regions, such as Africa, pushed for their priorities.

All in all, attending the COP15 and being part of the fellowship was a great experience. It broadened my understanding of the African agenda in conservation and biodiversity use, gave me a dose of confidence to take up space where governance of natural resources in Africa is concerned, and assured me that I have a voice and that I can use it.

Photo credit: Sthembile Ndwandwe