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Big Bodies vs. the Biosphere

Monday, 01 February 2010 08:40 By W David Kubiak, t r u t h o u t | Op-Ed | name.

Confronting the global corporate hijack of Nagoya's COP10.

In the fog of war, climate chaos and economic ruin, the import of the United Nations' COP10 biodiversity treaty conference in Nagoya in October 2010 may be easily overlooked. Given the mighty array of corporate forces now encircling this treaty's premises, that could prove a huge mistake.

Like the Copenhagen-jubilant corporate climate lobby before them, the big corporate bodies that dominate the drug, energy, agro-business and natural resource extraction arenas are aggressively organizing to keep any Nagoya agreement toothless, while the NGO community remains barely aware of their schemes or the fateful stakes.

Fixing the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD 1.0)

Spawned a generation ago, the UN's attempt to preserve the planet's living bounty was finally presented as the Convention on Biological Diversity at the '92 Rio Earth Summit and came into force in late 1993. Dubbed the Kyoto Protocol for living things, the treaty has been spurned by successive big-business-friendly US administrations, but it has been ratified by 193 other countries. The CBD's declared intent was to "significantly reduce the rate of biodiversity loss by 2010 to help alleviate poverty and benefit all life on Earth" but in the absence of clear goals, key players and binding commitments, it has  failed in almost every respect.

To revitalize the process, the United Nations has named 2010 the International Year of Biodiversity and organized the Nagoya COP10 conference to draft a CBD 2.0 that extends and amplifies the original treaty and hopefully fixes its fatal flaws. For better or worse, the results of COP10 will affect almost every ecosystem on earth for the next several decades. It is already being lavishly "worked" by the corporate community and deserves a far more vivid NGO response.

Best Case Aspirations and Big Body Belches

 COP10's preliminary docs envision some relatively strong and salubrious goals:

  • Stopping the rate of biodiversity loss by 2020.
  • Ending subsidies that harm biodiversity.
  • Halting destructive fishing practices.
  • Controlling the unintentional transfer of species from place to place.
  • Placing at least 15 percent of land and sea area under protection.

These proposals do seem promising, but the devil, dollars and seeds of Big Body resistance are in the details. Do agro-business and fossil fuel subsidies harm biodiversity? Whose fishing practices are "destructive"? Do genetically modified organisms constitute new species? What is on, in or under the 15 percent to be protected; who will decide which 15 percent, and what will "protection" entail? What will be the new costs of doing business if such eco-sensitivity is mainstreamed? And how much can be kept vague or voluntary to ensure business as usual for another 10 years?

COP10's other hot button/big buck issues are the CBD's sibling  Cartagena Biosafety Protocol and a proposed International Regime on Access and Benefit Sharing (ABS). One hundred fifty-seven nations have already ratified the Cartagena Protocol, but Big Body guards like the US, Canada, Russia and Australia won't countenance it, because it pushes precautionary restrictions and clear labeling for bioengineered organisms and genetically modified food. The ABS agreement would proscribe biopiracy, curb corporate patenting rights on traditional medical knowledge and pharmacopeias, and share Big Pharma's profit streams from traditional bio-lore derivatives with originating lands and peoples.

The planet's Big corporate bodies clearly recognize the bottom line implications of COP10 and have rushed in to dominate its organization, framing and regulatory intent. They have even co-opted its iconic progenitor, the venerable International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). The International Union for Conservation of Nature publishes the Red List of Threatened Species, the conference's reference bible on endangerment and extinction in the modern world. Interestingly,  IUCN's official host, landlord and chief contributor in Tokyo now is  Nippon Keidanren, the central command, control and lobbying center of corporate Japan.

Nippon Keidanren (Japan Federation of Economic Organizations) represents 1,295 companies, 129 industrial associations and 47 regional economic organizations (including scores of big foreign players like Pfizer, Exxon Mobil and Goldman Sachs). Its self-described mission is "to accelerate growth of Japan's and world economy and to strengthen the corporations" (sic).

Setting the Big-Friendly Stage and Agenda

Besides accelerating growth and strengthening corporations, Nippon Keidanren now plushly houses IUCN's COP10 project office and remunerates its new director  Naoto Furuya, a bioengineering biometrics analyst seconded from the Mitsubishi Research Institute to which he shall soon return.

Keidanren next funded and co-organized the IUCN's first COP10 warm-up session, a UN University international symposium on "Post-2010 Biodiversity Targets and the Asia Vision" on October 10, 2009. A marine conservationist friend who attended said he was flabbergasted that the only mention of the oceans in the whole affair was an IUCN rep's wrap-up observation that no one had mentioned the oceans all day long.

Keidanren also co-hosted the far ritzier Kobe Biodiversity Dialogue the following weekend "to promote information exchange, dialogue, and collaboration among various stakeholders." I attended hopefully along with 300 other citizens, but quickly became concerned that biodiversity in the stakeholder population seemed to be crashing, too. While there were three or four NGO types wandering about and a fair number of bowing bureaucrats, the podium and panels seemed totally overrun with greenwashed corporate suits. Elegant and articulate spokesmen from Keidanren, Toyota, Sumitomo, Hitachi Chemical and Asahi Breweries all congratulated themselves silly and were only outshone by the heroic ecological achievements of Royal Dutch Shell.

During the final wrap-up panel, I asked about their views on the vastly expanded sanctuaries and protected zones now being proposed to concretely preserve biodiversity. The moderator grabbed the mike, "Well, that's a very interesting issue to be sure, but not exactly what we're here to consider today. Next question …"

Unfazed by the incongruities, Masaki Suzuki, director-general of the Environment Ministry's Nature Conservation Bureau, later effused: "Actions taken by local, national and global business entities will create a remarkable movement for biodiversity towards the COP10 meeting." I don't know about the "for biodiversity" bit, but there is no question that "business entities" are indeed moving towards COP10 in unprecedented force.

The NGO scarcity was not unintentional. One staffer confessed that many in the organizing committee believed that most NGOs only introduce "cacophony" into the proceedings. "Their demands for attention to the specific species or issues they represent get too competitive and centrifugal … They don't systemically address the big picture we must deal with or even collaborate very well. Let them have their own alternative conference. That's what they seem to like to do."

So in COP10 organizers' ideal world we would see 7,000 technocrats, bureaucrats and corporate flacks deciding how we shall characterize, evaluate and "most productively manage" the entirety of life on the planet for the next twenty years with as little input as possible from civil society, indigenous consciousness, or groups who led the biodiversity fight before anyone knew the word. What could possibly go wrong?

Arenas of Concern (aka There Will Be Blood)

Practically speaking, the basic contests of the COP10 conference are threefold.

  • Perhaps the noisiest and most photogenic will be the battle over indigenous peoples' and developing nations' rights to a share in Big Pharma's profits from their hijacked lore and traditions. This is framed equally as a plant diversity issue to keep them well within the CBD's ambit, but the 40-50 tribes who will be showing up are most concerned with restitution and economic justice. They are facing off with big drug and bioengineering bodies only slightly less potent than the huge predatory bodies defining the second mêlée.
  • The second contest is the corporate world's battle to restrain any inconvenient targets or obligatory language in the treaty's proposals for protected zones, usage fees and sustainable management policies. This clash could get quite nasty as the big development, agro-business and mineral/timber/marine extraction bodies lobby furiously against compulsory commitments, lost resource pools and unwelcome hits to shareholder dividends. (A quick comparison of the rather precise preliminary goals noted above with the totally hazy language in host country  Japan's own post-2010 target guidelines released this month shows that this fight has in fact already begun, and in Japan at least the Big brotherhood is clearly way ahead.)
  • The third contest is more a meta-battle over how humanity should relate to the rest of the living world. Unhappily this is not a lofty or inspiring philosophical dispute; it is a raging "ecosystem service"-powered monetary brawl.

Merchandizing Pachamama

The Big brotherhood's latest assault on ecological integrity maintains that the only rational way to evaluate a stretch of wilderness or nature is to list and quantify all its vendible service outputs (timber, genetic resources, water, carbon capture, pollination, etc.). Their econometric "ecosystem services" approach essentially demands a spreadsheet for each wetland, forest, mountain valley or coral reef, enumerating features that can be monetized, securitized and lucratively brokered like carbon offsets and credit default swaps.

Certainly if this would also lead to a "full cost accounting" tally of all the externalized costs of each product on our shelves, it would be a great step forward, but this is hardly being discussed, let alone officially proposed. They would simply reframe all rational ecological discourse and policies in terms of market rates that value nature for the same and sole reason labor is valued, as a predictable accessible source of profit pumping energy. The ascendancy of this framing is currently undeniable and perhaps irreversible given the wealth of Fortune 500 support evidenced in the World Resources Institute's donor list.

Contrast this big patron clout with their "small is sacred" opposition who would confer inalienable rights upon the whole blessed biosphere as  Bolivia and Ecuador have just proposed. This Gaian rights concept is not just animistic fantasizing. Bolivia's UN Ambassador Pablo Solón explains, "A rights-based approach could evaluate whether the rights to clear tropical forests for beef ranching should trump the right of species in those forests to continue to exist. Instead of devising ever more complex schemes to authorize environmental damage and to trade in the right to pollute, we would focus on how best to maintain the quality of the relationship between ourselves and Earth."

Advocates argue that halting corporate-induced disease, degradation or depletion of vital ecosystems before they collapse will ultimately enhance human well-being and security as well, especially the security of the billions on the ground already facing lethal harm. By this logic it is in both the public and planetary interest to invest natural systems with recognized rights, empathic allies and a functional watchdog agency.

Toward a Gaian Regency

There is already a proposal pending before the UN to establish a Universal Declaration of Planetary Rights that would concretize and entreaty this vision, and grant champions of threatened species, ecosystems and bioregions the requisite legal standing to sue for their protection.

So now there's a critical "framing" showdown between the Big Is Beautiful crowd's commoditized "ecosystem services" and the Big Is Baneful crew's more holistic "ecosystem rights." Needless to say, big media bodies are laboring to turn "ecosystem service" jargon into biodiversity dogma, but indie media networks can still make Gaian rights an extremely powerful force in public consciousness.

To recap highlights of this circus maximus, we shall see human/corporate combat over indigenous rights and traditional medicines, over unfettered access to resources, wildlife and natural materials, and over how we should officially characterize and evaluate the entire living world. Add to this an expected rearguard action by bloodied but unbowed COP15 refugees, who will accurately claim that global warming is the biggest new extinction driver on the block, and we face two weeks of momentous struggle for which the activist community is hardly yet prepared.

Big Bodies as Planetary Pathogens

"There are a thousand hacking at the branches of evil to one who is striking at the root."
- Henry David Thoreau

Given recent US history and the malignant corporate assaults on universal health care, climate legislation, antiwar initiatives, food/drug safety, consumer protection, media reform and fiscal responsibility, more sentient citizens are starting to notice that organizing around specific symptoms of Big Body malaise just isn't getting us anywhere. The risks of this traditional centrifugal activism are particularly acute in Nagoya, where the opposition is so unified and the stakes so high.

Efforts to address these issues, define joint strategies and collectively empower the COP10 activist community will be continued at COP10.org, a new Kyoto Journal sponsored web site debuting Feb 14. All Big thinkers are invited to participate.

W David Kubiak

W. David Kubiak is a Project Censored Award-winning journalist, Kyoto Journal contributing editor, COP10.org coordinator, and director of Big Medicine, a think tank researching the corporate takeover of our countries, cultures and consciousness. He can be reached at wdk@magic10percent.net.

Last modified on Monday, 01 February 2010 09:01