Halting Biodiversity Loss: An Earthzine Conversation with Kalemani Joseph Mulongoy

The Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) adopted by 150 world leaders at the 1992 Rio Earth Summit now has 191 signatories, making it almost universal (with the notable exception of the U.S.). Its goal is equally vast: the conservation of biological diversity in all of its forms, including species of plants, animals and microorganisms; the ecosystems they form; and human cultures. Tracking that breadth is one of the greatest challenges to implementing the convention and stopping biodiversity loss – one reason why the CBD Secretariat based in Montreal, Quebec signed an agreement with the intergovernmental Group on Earth Observations this fall.

For perspective on biodiversity loss and the data management challenges facing the CBD, Earthzine contributor Peter Fairley interviewed Kalemani Joseph Mulongoy by telephone at the CBD Secretariat in Montreal. The Congolese microbiologist led research in sustainable agriculture and biotechnology for over a decade at the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture in Ibadan, Nigeria before signing on with the interim CBD Secretariat (then at the United Nations Environment Program) in 1993 and dedicating his work to biodiversity. Since 1999 he has served as Principal Officer in charge of the Secretariat’s Scientific, Technical and Technological Matters Division. Mulongoy has authored or coauthored more than 100 articles, presentations, books and reports on sustainable agriculture, biosafety, island biodiversity and protected areas.

Q&A with Kalemani Joseph Mulongoy

Kalemani Joseph Mulongoy

Kalemani Joseph Mulongoy

Earthzine: You coauthored a book in 2006 on conservation of island biodiversity. That’s really one of the most dramatic contexts for biodiversity, thanks to the threat of climate change-induced sea level rise, right?

Mulongoy: It is very clear that with sea level rise many of the coastal areas of islands will be flooded and many of the beaches and places for tortoises to reproduce, for example, will be lost. And we know that in many island countries, populations and industries are concentrated in the coastal areas so losing those will be a very serious problem. Some low-lying islands are disappearing already. For these reasons a number of island countries such as Saint Lucia and Seychelles are taking measures to try to protect themselves against sea level rise.

Earthzine: Still, aren’t there limits to what can be done, especially if greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise? The newly elected president of the Maldives wants to build a contingency fund to buy land elsewhere so that the country could literally move to higher ground if it had to. What are the prospects for relocating biodiversity?

Mulongoy: We can move some species. We can put them in zoological gardens. We can move some plants. But we will never replicate the real nature. You know, all these islands, they form microcosms which are very specific and in which evolution is taking place in a different way. You can move some of the species of plants and animals but you cannot replicate the natural conditions that will allow them to grow and evolve normally. That is why it is very important to prevent what will happen with climate change.

I remember, when I was a post doctoral fellow in Nigeria, we identified some quite interesting microorganisms that grew only at very high temperature. They were very important in the arid areas of the Sahel region [south of the Sahara]. The southern part of Nigeria is totally humid so it was very important for us to send samples to labs in the U.S. or Europe that could maintain them. So I do understand how one can save seeds and such, but it will never replicate the complex systems we have in real life.

Earthzine: Since the U.S. has not ratified the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), many readers may not be familiar with how your work in the CBD Secretariat fits in. How would you sum up the CBD and the role of the CBD secretariat?

Mulongoy: The objective of the CBD is to sustain life on Earth – not just the individual species but also the ecosystems they form because it is the ecosystems that are providing all of the services and goods that we need for life on Earth. The secretariat’s role is to help to translate the CBD’s rather general provisions into programs and thus to “operationalize” the convention. We draft programs of work, submit them to the parties and then try to reach consensus. Our role is really to initiate the work of the governments by providing new ideas.

Earthzine: Such as?

Mulongoy: Such as a strategic plan with measurable targets. You know, for several years after it was adopted at the Earth Summit in Rio many people thought the CBD was a convention without teeth. The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, also adopted at Rio, spawned the Kyoto Protocol and thus had a series of clear targets. Governments knew they had to do things to meet the targets as they had agreed. With the CBD, we did not have something like that until 2002 when governments adopted a strategic plan to significantly reduce the rate of biodiversity loss by 2010. They subsequently agreed to a set of targets. For example, governments agreed that protected areas should cover 10 percent of almost all of Earth’s biomes–marine and coastal biodiversity, forest biodiversity, etc.

Earthzine: This fall your secretariat signed a memorandum of agreement to work in partnership with the intergovernmental Group on Earth Observations (GEO). What do you hope will come of that?

Mulongoy: GEO can contribute critical information and tools. We are gathering information to assess achievement of the 2010 targets and looking at what needs to be done in the future, post-2010. The information being gathered through GEO and its Global Earth Observation System of Systems (GEOSS) is very useful. And by collaborating with the Biodiversity Observation Network launched by GEO this spring we can improve the quality and quantity of information available in the future.

At the same time GEO is participating in building technical capacity in the developing countries, which I personally feel is very important. You know, there are a lot of technologies in use today to assess biodiversity, but they are not available to many developing countries. Or they may be available to scientists, but not available to the people who need them to make informed decisions. Of course, there is always a need to have more sophisticated techniques to give us more details. But I believe that the existing technologies could already help us a lot. It is very important to disseminate what we have now.

Earthzine: How can policymakers utilize information on biodiversity?

Mulongoy: What is really useful for policymakers is to try to see the trend of biodiversity – how biodiversity is evolving through time. Of course, we can also pinpoint the data to identify, for example, where threatened species are. For example, in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where I come from, we have one of the most important natural forests in the world. People displaced by civil wars have cut many of the trees down. It is not easy for people on the ground to see the extent of the damage to the forest, but with GIS and satellite information it is possible to see exactly what is going on and even try to predict what more will happen if no action is taken. There are a lot of endemic species requiring protection.

There are many things they can do. With this sort of information the government in the Congo has now decided to strengthen some of the protected areas while at the same time finding ways to help the refugees living there. And when new refugee camps need to be established they are making sure that these are not put in places with, for example, unique species of trees.

Earthzine: Are you hopeful that the U.S. will join the CBD?

Mulongoy: Yes. The U.S. is already actively helping the CBD – both the secretariat and a number of signatories – to implement the objectives of the convention. And domestically the U.S. itself is doing quite a bit of the work to protect biodiversity that is called for under the convention. Then there is the fact that the U.S. is paying more attention to climate change and is certainly going to link that to biodiversity. I am hopeful that the U.S., the most powerful country in the world, will join hands with the rest of the world to ensure that the foundation of life on Earth is protected.

Earthzine: Biodiversity loss seems so rapid and vast. How do you maintain perspective and keep working?

Mulongoy: I’m sincerely very worried about the loss of biodiversity and when I talk about loss of biodiversity I don’t only see the extinction of some species, but also the shrinking and degradation of important ecosystems and the resulting increase in poverty. Then there are the recent food shortages that some have linked to the shift of agriculture to biofuels production. Things like that really worry me. And when you look at the achievements intended for the 2010 targets, at the global level we do not see much progress. We continue seeing the loss of biodiversity.

But at least I know that governments have started taking measures that will eventually, in the near future, start slowing biodiversity loss. And in some areas we can see real success where we have stopped the loss of some biodiversity. So it is possible. It is just a matter of everybody contributing – not only governments but all of us in what we do every day. We know that what is happening is not good, is wrong, and it will decrease the quality of our life on Earth, so we should start preventing environmental degradation and conserving biodiversity. Information will allow us to take the right decisions.