[Taxacom] convention on biological diversity follow up, COP-9, Bonn May 19 -30

Donat Agosti agosti at amnh.org
Mon Jun 2 07:42:16 CDT 2008

“Not much has changed in twenty years...”(Rod Page,


It might be symptomatic for the current situation of taxonomy, and with it
the ability to measure and monitor biodiversity, that such an important
meeting as the COP-9 is not mentioned in our listserve, nor hardly in the
press in general.


I had only the chance to observe the beginning of the COP in Bonn,
especially to listen to the discussion on the Global Taxonomy Initiative,
Later I had to switch to an audiolink
resssession=1107&player_mode=isdn_real). I must say, it was a dismal show.


Dismal, because I felt set back to 1992 where at the Earth Summit in Rio the
CBD (Convention on Biological Diversity, http://biodiv.org
<http://biodiv.org/> ) was born and faced the same problem as today: We
don’t now what’s out there, we don’t have the tools to measure change, nor
do we have the institutional and scientific set up to deliver. We in the
North misread the CBD by thinking, in simple terms, that it is primarily
focused on conserving the world biodiversity, whilst the South considers
this yet another vehicle to get money from the North.


This then was a typical example in between the lines of the negotiations of
GTI: Africa wants taxonomic expertise and for that an adequate funding
mechanism (which in CBD would be the Global Environment Fund GEF), which the
North would have to pay for. Of course, that does not happen, because there
is no political reason for doing so, and there are more important issues
such as Access and Benefit Sharing of revenues from genetic resources, not
to speak issues like dealing with the impact of climate change, alternatives
to petrol, etc..


There are some lights in the dark: The Mellon Foundation is supporting to
digitize all the plant type specimen anywhere in the world, which, coupled
with institutional initiatives like NYBG, MOBOT, the Botanical Garden at the
Uni Zürich or the National Taiwan University, this will provide at least
access to type and other material. But still, there is not a unified
catalogue of all the plant species available to provide a unified access.
There is GBIF that seems to catalyze the digitization of specimen data, and
there are hundreds of small, taxon based Websites delivering taxonomic
information. Finally there are the Planetary Biotic Inventories supported in
the US NSF – which hopefully will result in taxonomy infrastructure, that
are sustainable.


But is this sufficient? The two widely mentioned issues about massive loss
of species during the COP are not from our taxonomists, and they have
nothing  to do with real data collected in the field. These are rough
estimates by our colleagues in conservation biology. In two years, the
target 2010 will be assessed, a target the parties (Nations) at the COP in
2002 committed themselves to achieve by 2010 a significant reduction of the
current rate of biodiversity loss at the global, regional and national level
as a contribution to poverty alleviation and to the benefit of all life on
Earth. This target was subsequently added by the United Nations General
Assembly to the Millennium Development Goals. There is not dedicated action
in our community to deliver that, to build up even a minimal global
monitoring program that would be up to our standards.


This might seem all political talk. But in other areas, such as the Ozone or
Climate Change, the impetus from such conventions let to very strong science
programs which even have an impact on States that favor unilateralism. 


But we taxonomist did not do our homework. We are about as far away from
delivering a list of the world’s species – we have no clue how we are going
to get the list of the missing 600,000 supposedly existing species. But this
is might not even be so important. There are no plans how we actually do
want to measure loss of biodiversity. This means different sorts of
repeatable survey, not just list of hotspots, ecoregions or guestimates. We
have no institutions in the world for that, and there might be only one
really functional monitoring system in the world, the BDM-CH in Switzerland.


We talk about yet another huge conference on biodiversity informatics in
2009; there are discussions on IMOSEB to create something like the
Convention on Climate Change or the Kyoto Protocol, but with an emphasis on


At the same time, the situation to collect new data is becoming increasingly
difficult through ever more restrictive collecting permits, even for local
people like now in Brazil or India, because the governments are increasingly
worried that they are loosing again huge amounts of income through
biological material that delivers new drugs. This is why there are over
hundred “experts” and diplomats participating in Brazil’s delegation COP for
Brazil alone, but hardly any taxonomist.


If you look at this from a different angle, then our ‘leadership’ in this
area should be seriously questioned, as it would be in any ordinary company
that does not deliver or goes bankrupt – if there is any at all.


As Sandy Knapp points out in here lectures: we need to consider our
institutions as being part of a global research project to describe and
monitor the worlds species. We should share our knowledge, and adhere to
such simple principles like the Conservation Commons or Creative Commons. It
should not be another race of who is the provider and controller of
taxonomic information, but about the underlying scientific question, whereby
the IT is just a tool.


It would also mean, that our institutions should adopt IPR and copyright
policies that are open, that separate science from prospecting and money
making, that is do not have foremost a corporate business model in mind, but
one that suits science best. This should assure, that all their data is
openly accessible, that in the future each single gene being extracted is
linked to a specimen and the respective collecting permits so that
negotiations between permits issuing offices and researcher can be separated
from commercial exploitations, and a mutual trust could be built up between
the scientists and the administrators and politicians.


It would also mean, that taxonomist only publish in journals that allow at
least self archiving (so called Green Road), that we insist that description
are not “work” that can be copyrighted,   that for each publication, links
from the description to all the underlying material are inserted, such as
has been recently been done by Fisher and Smith in PloS-One


Finally, it means that we individual taxonomists must become more active. We
must support fledgling knowledge systems or repositories in our domains to
correct errors, to keep them up to date. Having access to hundred thousands
of digital herbaria sheets or millions of pages of the printed record does
not mean free consumption, but should make the user feel responsible and
protective about this resource by adding more material. Each herbarium
specimen compared with the type should be uploaded as well, each new
publication should immediately put into at least a self archive, or even
better in a thematic or institutional one, so that Google (and others) could
discover it and it becomes integrated into a growing world wide


If our world is really changing that dramatically, we better make sure, we
have something to say and are participant at the next COP in Nagoia, 2010.








Dr. Donat Agosti

Science Consultant


Research Associate, American Museum of Natural History and Naturmuseum der
Burgergemeinde Bern

Email: agosti at amnh.org

Web:  <http://antbase.org/> http://antbase.org

Blog:  <http://biodivcontext.blogspot.com/>

Skype: agostileu

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