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Biodiversity: galvanizing decision-makers into action

The diversity of life on Earth is shrinking at an unprecedented rate on every level, from gene to landscape. The scientific community now sees this as self-evident, but to date, it has largely failed to attract sufficient political attention to generate enough funding or trigger operations to tackle the crisis.

This is what prompted the idea of setting up an international structure of scientific experts on biodiversity. The final declaration made at the conference on "Biodiversity: Science and Governance", held in Paris in January 2005, called for the launch of international talks on setting up such a structure.

Why has society failed to act in response to this biodiversity crisis? Biodiversity is one of the cornerstones of sustainable development, notably by virtue of the ecological services it renders. Moreover, it is a public asset under the sovereignty of individual countries, which complicates matters somewhat. Lastly, given the complexity of the subject itself and the overlaps between biodiversity and human society, the scientific community working on the issue is itself diverse and still highly fragmented. This is why it is now vital to compile the available information, knowledge and know-how, and set up a group of experts capable of achieving a usable overview of the situation. The aim is to support decisions to be made in favour of the preservation and sustainable use of biodiversity. This was the view expressed by nineteen authors in an article in the latest issue of the journal Nature, dated 20 July 2006*. This type of structure already exists for climate change issues, with the Intergovernmental Group of Experts on Climate Change.

Towards an international panel of experts in biodiversity

Talks with a view to setting up an ad hoc structure on biodiversity began early in 2006. They are being led by an International Steering Committee of scientists, government representatives and representatives of international, intergovernmental or nongovernmental organizations and UN specialist bodies. At the request of the French ministries concerned, the Institut français de la biodiversité was chosen to manage and coordinate the Executive Secretariat, and Didier Babin, a researcher with the CIRAD Forestry Department, was appointed Executive Secretary.

Is such a structure really essential? What form will it take? What are the organizational options that would satisfy requirements? The talks should provide answers to all these questions. To this end, it is necessary to identify, define and assess the gaps and requirements that exist at the interface between biodiversity science and decision-making processes. The first step in the talks will be to establish a picture of how decisions are made concerning biodiversity: categories of decision-makers, decision-making methods, traditional knowledge, local practices, exchanges of knowledge, technology transfers, etc.

Pinpointing and solving the problems of transferring knowledge to support decisions

The existing scientific expertise mechanisms (Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, Intergovernmental Group of Experts on Climate Change, etc) and their usefulness in terms of decision-making are also due to be analysed. To study the sucesses and failures as regards preserving biodiversity, the Executive Secretariat will be consulting the key stakeholders (people, organizations, governments, private sector, international decision-making bodies). The aim is to pinpoint and solve the problems concerning the transfer of knowledge to support decisions. Various case studies will fuel the assessment: how expertise is mobilized in response to crises such as bird flu, invasive species, fishery management, etc.

This first stage is due to be completed in October 2006. Subsequently, at the start of 2007, a second round of talks will be organized on a global level, based on the results of the first round. Following this second round, the International Steering Committee will be making a series of recommendations and proposals on setting up the structure, to be examined in June 2007.

Helen Burford | alfa
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