IUCN World Conservation Congress: a challenge on valuing nature, for what it’s worth

From September 6-15, the IUCN World Conservation Congress is taking place in Jeju, South Korea. This congress takes place every four years and brings together government, NGOs, and the public and private sectors to discuss how to ‘manage’ nature.

A Motion entitled Sustainable use of abundant biological resources (M151), sponsored by the Fur Institute of Canada, has been tabled for consideration at this meeting. This motion seems to be a revision of an earlier version, M145, entitled Avoiding Scientifically Unjustified Impediments to Sustainable Use of Abundant Biological Resources, also sponsored by the Fur Institute of Canada.

Motion M151 requests that member states ensure their legislation and policies are consistent with both IUCN’s sustainable use philosophy and their obligations as Parties to the CBD.  However, M151 then goes further by asking member states to give priority to “concerns and conservation challenges of indigenous and local communities” over the concerns of other citizens, potentially including its own.

This motion could apply to the exploitation of any non-endangered species, and no specific legislation is mentioned by name. However, the text hinges on a reference to “recent legislative initiatives taken by some States to ban the trade in selected wildlife products or to ban trade-for-profit of selected wild species…” which seems (at least to this observer) to be nothing more than a thinly-veiled grumble about the European Union’s ban on seal products. 

Environment Canada has identified this motion as “of potential interest to Canada” and, perhaps not coincidentally, the list of co-sponsors of M151 bears a striking resemblance to the organizations that objected to the EU restrictions on seal products, some of which are currently challenging the EU ban in the European General Court.

A cursory review of M151 finds it to be weak, redundant, and unsupported even by the IUCN’s own policies. But there are other reasons why conservationists – and Canadians, if the government of Canada supports this motion - should be concerned by M151, and the attitudes expressed therein.

In the Preamble, it is alleged that there are mysteriously unnamed “legislative initiatives” that restrict trade in wildlife products and somehow “discourage sustainable use of abundant renewable resources” by having “eliminated the value of selected charismatic species.” Hefty accusations indeed!

But restricting trade in wildlife products does not necessarily discourage sustainable use. And eliminating markets for wildlife can impact only the economic value of dead wildlife, its parts and derivatives.  It is erroneous to assume that “non-use” of a particular species is somehow detrimental to sustainability and conservation. 

History shows us that both non-use and use, and whether that use is consumptive, or non-consumptive, commercial or non-commercial, can all have varying impacts on ecological sustainability.  It is also erroneous to assume that “value” is synonymous with “economic value.” 

In reality, wildlife and ecosystems hold a wide variety of values, such as intrinsic, scientific, or option values. Indeed, these other, non-economic values, are recognized and supported by the IUCN, which notes that international and national policies should take these into account.

Motion M151 imposes the value system of a few special interest groups on state members by urging them to place the concerns of one group of individuals and special interests over those of others. It prevents state members from making decisions consistent with the legitimate religious, cultural, and ethical values of its citizens - values that are specifically acknowledged in IUCN policy.

In fact, it seems a bit unusual that some co-sponsors of this motion - such as the Inuit Circumpolar Council - who work diligently to protect their own values and culture would seek to prevent other cultures from doing the same.

By claiming that that “non-use, regardless of numerical abundance, has reduced formerly valuable species to the status of pests,” and making statements about “selected charismatic species” the proponents of this Motion reveal and impose their own set of values. 

Identifying a species or individual as a “pest” or as “charismatic” is a value judgment – the very sort of “non-scientific” value that the sponsors of the motion claim they wish to avoid! 

A level of abundance, behavior, or any other species trait that may be considered a nuisance by one individual may well be viewed differently by others holding a different set of values.  By imposing the views of what is considered a “pest” by one individual or state member on another, M151 seeks to impose the moral values of a few special interest groups on the diversity of cultures that comprise the IUCN membership.  

IFAW also believes that the cruel and inhumane treatment of animals under the guise of “sustainable use” is unacceptable.  Claims of sustainability or of “ecosystem-based approaches to management” do not legitimize the infliction of pain and suffering on sentient beings.   But whether a given level or kind of suffering crosses a cruelty threshold is, ultimately, a value judgment – the sorts of values that the Fur Institute of Canada, and others, apparently consider to be “scientifically unjustified impediments” to sustainable use (by which they actually mean commercial, consumptive use). 

There is ample evidence that seals suffer, both physically and psychologically, when they are hunted. The EU ban on seal products does rely on science. From what higher moral standpoint does Canada challenge the moral choice of Europeans?  Shouldn’t the EU be free to implement domestic legislation that reflects the value they give to the level and kind of suffering experienced by seal pups when they are clubbed, hooked, or shot, under the guise of 'sustainable use'?

Ironically, another important concept that could be considered a “scientifically unjustified impediment to trade” is the Precautionary Principle.  The IUCN guidelines for applying the precautionary principle state that that it should be incorporated explicitly into appropriate legal, institutional and policy frameworks for biodiversity conservation and natural resource management - but M151 could actually prevent a country from implementing legislation in accordance with the precautionary principle! 

Taking a precautionary approach in wildlife conservation is going to be increasingly important as many species face new impacts from the effects of climate change.  The IUCN Red List notes that climate change impacts are almost certainly going to be negative for harp seals in the future, and with the recent string of bad ice years in harp seal breeding areas and increased mortality of pups, scientists have argued that we should be implementing a precautionary approach to the management of commercial sealing operations by reducing the Total Allowable Catch.

At IFAW, we believe that conservation must not be limited to the protection of endangered or threatened populations and species, but should prevent species and populations from become threatened or endangered in the first place.  We also believe that wildlife can only be conserved into the future if its intrinsic value is recognized.

If the value of wildlife is reduced to that of a mere commodity – and if conservationists focus only on economically-valuable species -- it will not be possible, and there will be no stimulus, to conserve wildlife and protect biodiversity in the longer term. The protection of biodiversity requires the conservation of wildlife in its natural habitat.

IFAW’s team at the World Conservation Congress will be working to defeat motion M151 and taking part in discussions on a wide variety of subjects.

Please keep watching IFAW.org for updates. 

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