Truly transformative change is key to combating the biodiversity crisis

For the Convention on Biological Diversity’s new post-2020 framework to be effective – and not more empty rhetoric – governance needs more attention.

Phil Franks's picture
Insight by 
Phil Franks
Phil Franks is a principal researcher in IIED's Natural Resources research group
30 June 2020
Biodiversity, climate and development in the 2020 debate
A blog series exploring how the new global biodiversity framework synergises with efforts to tackle climate change and achieve sustainable development
A view over a forest

Without transformative change to reduce the expansion of agriculture, by 2050 many African countries will lose the biodiversity-rich natural forests that exist beyond protected areas (Photo: Greg Neate via FlickrCC BY 2.0)

Transformative change is widely accepted as essential for tackling the twin crises of biodiversity loss and the climate emergency. But, even though discussions on the Convention for Biological Diversity’s post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework – a 10-year plan for halting the rapid loss of the world’s biodiversity – frequently refer to its importance, the term transformative change is conspicuously absent from the current draft. And discussions have not yet taken COVID-19 into account.

While some of the goals and targets of the new framework are more ambitious than in the past, we have seen most of them before and they have largely failed to be achieved – hence the biodiversity crisis. But upping ambition is just revamping the rhetoric if we cannot recognise and seriously tackle the deeper challenges that have so constrained progress to date. 

Over the last five years I have been leading a research programme identifying the barriers and opportunities to combating the loss of natural forests and their key biodiversity and ecosystem services in sub-Saharan Africa. This has included hosting the SNAPP Food and Forest in Africa Working Group and, more recently, a project in Ethiopia, Ghana and Zambia with research organisations in each country and five major UK universities. In addition, we have done some groundwork with partners in Tanzania and Democratic Republic of Congo

Across Africa the expansion of agriculture is the primary direct driver of the loss of natural forests (including woodlands) and the rich diversity of life that depends on them. The government in Ethiopia, for example, estimates that, for every hectare of new agricultural land, 70% comes from conversion of natural forest

A matter of trade-offs

Our research supports and builds on the landmark Advancing Conservation in a Social Context research initiative. Combating the loss of forest biodiversity is primarily about the need for better managing the competing objectives of agricultural production and forest conservation, i.e. managing trade-offs.

Often dismissed as obvious or pedestrian, these critical trade-offs are often invisible, deliberately ignored or downplayed. As a result, in many countries, including in Ethiopia, Ghana, Zambia, Tanzania and the DRC, agricultural, forestry, and environmental policies are on a collision course.

How these trade-offs are viewed and analysed needs to change. Conventionally, natural scientists and economists have dominated the analysis of trade-offs between agricultural production and conservation. They generally frame them as competing demands for ecosystem services within an ecological system, for example, food production as a provisioning service versus climate change mitigation as a regulating service.

But a crucial element is missing: the socio-political dimension. This puts governance and institutions at the centre, which not only reveals key challenges but also new ways to overcome them. In practical terms, this greatly extends the range of measures that can be used to improve social and conservation outcomes, and more equitably balances different stakeholders’ objectives locally, nationally, and globally.  

Taking the socio-political perspective into account reveals two challenging assumptions that have huge significance for biodiversity conservation.

Some challenging assumptions

The first is the assumption that agricultural intensification spares forest by producing more on existing land. Although this has been a central pillar of conservation strategies for years, the example of Brazil shows the reality has been the opposite.

Where intensification leads to better financial returns and there is potentially available land and weak environmental governance, farmers are likely to convert more forest to farms. The quality of governance is pivotal in determining whether intensification spares forests or actually drives deforestation – a risk that few policies on agricultural intensification in Africa recognise, let alone attempt to mitigate. 

The second is the assumption of many countries in Africa that self-sufficiency in staple food crops is a desirable objective. Both IIED’s and Paul Van Itersum’s analyses of Ethiopia and Ghana show that self-sufficiency would wipe out most natural forest and woodland outside existing protected areas.

IFPRI’s IMPACT model, which models food production and trade from a largely economic perspective, suggests we should not be concerned, as increasing food imports will save the day. But from a political perspective, such a high level of dependency on food imports seemed improbable even before the coronavirus pandemic.

Now, it seems inconceivable in a post-COVID-19 world where many countries may be more wary of relying heavily on global markets with long supply chains to meet their food needs. Increasing domestic food production, though in many ways desirable, will further increase the pressure on natural forests.

These are just two examples of highly significant political and governance considerations that are being largely overlooked in many countries. 

The Intergovernmental Panel for Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) global assessment clearly makes the case that more integrative, informed, adaptive and inclusive governance is crucial for transformative change. This is not, however, reflected in the current draft of the new framework, where integrative and inclusive governance is listed as just one of nine enabling conditions to “facilitate implementation of the framework”.  

The importance of governance

Our research in Africa supports the view that advances in governance are much more than a facilitating factor; they are a prerequisite for transformative change without which the high ambition of the new framework may once again prove empty rhetoric. We therefore propose that in the section of the new framework on enabling conditions the phrase “will facilitate the implementation of” be replaced with “is necessary for achieving the high ambition of”.  

To end on a positive note, the increasing calls for greener and fairer development triggered by the COVID-19 crisis bring fresh opportunity for new conservation policies and plans at global and national levels to succeed where their predecessors have all too often failed.