The Kunming Declaration & Biodiversity Fund Set a Path Toward a More Just Global Biodiversity Framework

GO SLOW: LION TAILED MONKEY CROSSING, Western Ghats, India. Photo by Subhankar Banerjee, August 2019.

In August 2019, in the middle of heavy monsoon rain and floods, my sister Sudakshina Sen (an avid wildlife photographer) and I arrived at the Western Ghats in southwest India, a global biodiversity hotspot. One day, we got stuck on the sinuous state highway SH-78, due to fallen trees on the road from the storm. Parked by the roadside was a bicycle, with signs attached to both the front and the back, meant to draw attention to the plight of the Lion-tailed macaque, an endangered primate endemic to the Western Ghats. The low-budget signs included a stencil image of two Lion-tailed macaque and the bilingual text: “GO SLOW: LION TAILED MONKEY CROSSING” in English and Tamilian. It struck me that the signs, made by people with very little financial resources, differ from the road signs we all know that ask us to slow down for an animal that might be crossing. Instead, they  highlight the need to accommodate nonhuman beings in the midst of human habitation. For the makers of the signs, such co-existence is a part of daily life of the community in the Western Ghats.

The macaque signs, indications of the resilience and resourcefulness of biodiversity advocates in the global South, provide a useful context for what took place last Friday, when the  first part of the UN Biodiversity Conference concluded with the adoption of the “Kunming Declaration” and the establishment of the “Kunming Biodiversity Fund.” With the Declaration and the Fund, the UN Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) has set a path toward drafting a more just post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework, which will be adopted during the in-person gathering of the UN Biodiversity Conference scheduled to take place next spring, also in Kunming, China. This is a big deal. We should all take a moment to applaud the CBD for choosing to adopt an expansive, inclusive, and justice-attentive approach for both the Declaration and the Fund. I elaborate below a few significant aspects of both, starting with the Declaration.

The five-page “Kunming Declaration” includes a section titled “We Commit to,” which lists 17 different principles as the basis for global biodiversity conservation. Interestingly, that section makes no explicit mention of the 30×30 biodiversity proposal, which aims to protect 30% of land, freshwater, and seas by 2030. The 30×30 plan was developed largely by scientists in the global North and promoted by influential conservation NGOs and nation states, also largely in the global North. However, this 30×30 plan has been critiqued by the UN Special Rapporteur of Human Rights and the Environment as well as several human rights NGOs such as Survival International, who have labeled it as “fortress conservation.” Arguing against such a blatantly neocolonial vision, human rights defenders have urged for a rights-based approach to conservation that would protect and honor the stewardship of biodiversity routinely practiced by the Indigenous and other “ecosystem peoples” in the global South and around the world. Last month, I wrote a commentary in which I offered my own critique of not only the content of the 30 X 30 proposal but also the process used to develop it, which included very little participation from the global South. I also urged that the human rights defenders of the global South and their allies in the global North demand that the UN CBD reject this model and, in its place, adopt a more inclusive approach to biodiversity conservation.

It now looks like the UN CBD did listen to our collective voice of concern and has offered a vision in the Declaration that melds the two models of conservation, the protected area model largely proposed by the global North and the rights-based model proposed by the Indigenous and other ecosystem peoples and their allies. Item #5 in “We Commit to” states: “Improve the effectiveness, and increase the coverage, globally, of area-based conservation and management through enhancing and establishing effective systems of protected areas and adopting other effective area-based conservation measures, as well as spatial planning tools, to protect species and genetic diversity and reduce or eliminate threats to biodiversity, recognizing the rights of indigenous peoples and local communities and ensuring their full and effective participation.”

Even if the approach suggested here feels like a potpourri, it marks a new beginning for global efforts to stem biodiversity loss. While the first part of the sentence highlights the need for protected areas, the last part emphatically recognizes the rights of Indigenous and other ecosystem peoples. By ensuring, from the get-go, that there will be “full and effective participation” of Indigenous and other ecosystem peoples in the process of protecting biodiversity, this statement heralds the development of a more equitable Global Biodiversity Framework.

So, is there any explicit mention of 30×30 in the Kunming Declaration? Yes, but.

The first two pages of the Declaration employ various verbal phrases to acknowledge previous efforts to save biodiversity: “Recalling”; “Emphasizing”; “Recognizing”; “Acknowledging”; “Stressing”; “Noting”; and “Reaffirming.” In that section, the 30×30 plan also makes a cameo appearance: “Noting the efforts and commitments of many countries to protect 30% of their land and sea areas through well-connected systems of protected areas and other effective area-based conservation measures by 2030.” Remarkably, if my reading is correct, the UN CBD is “noting” but not committing to the 30×30 biodiversity proposal, raising the prospect that, in the post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework, it will indeed be superseded by an approach truly responsive to global human rights.

Over the coming months, as the CBD continues to hash out details for the post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework, item #5 in “We Commit to” may be extended into what could be called “Nationally Determined Biodiversity Protection Pledges,” akin to the “Nationally Determined Contributions” that is in the Paris (Climate) Agreement. Each of those biodiversity pledges could contain multitudes, fusing protected area, rights-based, and other approaches to biodiversity conservation that would be appropriate for a particular nation. These pledges may also address biodiversity conservation in the urban centers in addition to rural and remote areas.

Dead bird: tribute to Ryder. A male house finch died from crashing against a glass window of the writer’s house in New Mexico. Photo by Subhankar Banerjee, March 2006.

For an example of why conserving biodiversity in urban areas matters in significant ways we only need to turn to sobering figures about avian mortality. Nearly 3 billion birds have died in the United States since 1970, with a 53% decline in populations for grassland birds and 37% decline for shorebirds. Two significant drivers of that avian mortality have their origins close to home and have nothing to do with protected areas: the glass windows on our buildings kill nearly a billion birds each year in the U.S., while feral and domestic pet cats roaming outside destroy millions more. The latter is a sensitive cultural topic—just consult the eye-opening book Cat Wars: The Devastating Consequences of a Cuddly Killer by Peter Marra and Chris Santella (Princeton University Press, 2016). As these depressing statistics about avian mortality remind us, the biodiversity crisis connects our homes to the wider world. Which means, too, that mitigation measures need to be just as expansive in their geographic and cultural scope.

Billions for Biodiversity Boondoggle, Reeking of Colonial Violence

The other significant development last week was the establishment of the “Kunming Biodiversity Fund.” Before I speak about the Fund, however, let’s take a closer look at the pledges for financing biodiversity conservation that have been made  by a group of nine foundations and/or conservation NGOs, all situated in the United States.

On September 22, at a United Nations General Assembly event, a coalition of U.S.-based foundations and conservation NGOs announced a commitment to collectively spend $5 billion for biodiversity conservation. This unexpected windfall of billions for biodiversity was uncritically celebrated in the mainstream newspapers in the United States, including the Washington Post and the New York Times.  Yet there are two key questions that deserve critical and close reading: Which places, geographic regions and/or ecosystems, will be the beneficiaries of such funding? And: What kind of activities will be funded by this collective generosity?  Bearing those questions in mind, I will focus first on one of the smaller institutions, Rainforest Trust, before turning to the largest, the Bezos Earth Fund. I have no doubt that in the coming months and years, investigative journalists and scholars will give us a more complete picture of the billions for biodiversity boondoggle.

“We will continue to support land purchases,” James Deutsch said in a recent interview. Deutsch is the CEO of Rainforest Trust, a Seattle-based conservation NGO that has committed to spending $500 million (of the $5 billion collectively pledged by nine institutions). Deutsch mentions that places like Congo and the Amazon will be among the areas of geographic focus for their investments, but the interview did not give any specifics to whose lands in the global South will be purchased. Let us now view Deutsch’s statement within a larger cultural and historical context.

In a recent survey essay on “Ecocriticism and the Southern Challenge,” Animesh Roy, a scholar of environmental humanities in India, includes a quote by South African Anglican cleric and anti-apartheid activist Desmond Tutu: “When the missionaries came to Africa, they had the Bible and we had the land. They said ‘Let us pray.’ We closed our eyes. When we opened them, we had the Bible and they had the land.” Roy’s own assessment of the situation sharpens Tutu’s critique and emphasizes its colonialist dimensions: “Thus territorial colonization through military occupation and cultural hegemonization exposed the once pristine African frontiers to unchecked environmental exploitation.”  Stripped of the display of benevolence, a white person like James Deutsch seems like a twenty-first century missionary wrapped in the garb of the conservationist, poised to take away more land from the poor Black people in Congo and other places in Africa and the global South.

In a recent commentary titled “Why Nature-Based Solutions Won’t Solve the Climate Crisis—They’ll Just Make Rich People Even Richer,” Fiore Longo of Survival International recounts a story from a member of the Baiga tribe in central India that is reminiscent of Reverend Tutu’s poignant and painful assessment. In the words of Amarlal Baiga, “The forest department has forcefully put fences around my field and around everyone else’s fields. They have put fences and planted teak trees. This land is ours, this land belonged to our ancestors. They made us plant the trees, they made fools out of us saying: ‘these plants will benefit you’ but now they are harassing us and saying: ‘this jungle is ours and this land doesn’t belong to you anymore’.”

Land purchases for conservation and other forms of “fortress conservation” not only dispossess the original inhabitants but are also likely to trigger a rush of land sales in poor communities, dividing community members or pitting them against one another—a textbook-style divide-and-conquer colonialism. While such purchases for conservation are common in the United States, they are also at times accompanied by scandals. One of the most famous such incidents was revealed in 2003 when the Washington Postpublished a three-part front-page exposé on the Nature Conservancy, the world’s wealthiest green NGO. A two-year investigation had revealed that, in a pithy summary offered by the Guardian, the “Nature Conservancy felled trees, allegedly drilled for gas beneath the last breeding-ground of an endangered bird and sold unspoilt land at discounted prices to its trustees so they could build luxury homes in some of America’s most beautiful landscapes.” If this could happen in the United States where, ostensibly, there is so much environmental oversight, imagine the consequences if wealthy foundations and NGOs of the global North were allowed to have free reign in the global South.

At a time when Indigenous peoples in North America are demanding the return of the lands that were stolen from them by the settler society, a movement that is growing by the day, it is nauseating to read about a white man from Seattle brazenly evoking the prospect of  “land purchases” in the poorer global South in the name of conservation. The purchases he is espousing are a colonial project in a modern guise, intended to accomplish what all colonial projects aim to do, namely possess the land for the purpose of control.

Seattle Rules! from Big Bill to Junior Jeff

Now let us turn to a project that casts a larger shadow over global biodiversity efforts. Last month, the Bezos Earth Fund, established by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, pledged one billion for biodiversity conservation. The Fund will invest on conserving biodiversity in the Congo Basin, the Andes, and the Pacific Ocean.

One productive way we can begin to get a grasp of Jeff Bezos’s intention is by understanding what his big brother Bill Gates, also from Seattle, has already accomplished. Both men left their respective CEO perches, Microsoft for Big Bill and Amazon for Junior Jeff, to start philanthropic ventures, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Bezos Earth Fund, respectively.

Polar bear on Bernard Harbor, Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, Alaska,. Photo by Subhankar Banerjee, June 2001.

With all due respect to polar bears, perhaps an analogy may further clarify the stakes for this discussion. In June 2001, I took a photograph of a polar bear in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska. The bear was standing on the still-frozen surface of the Beaufort Lagoon, bounded, in the south, by the coastal plain of the Arctic Refuge and, in the north, just beyond the barrier island, the Beaufort Sea of the Arctic Ocean. Both the land and the sea are vibrant nurseries for numerous species. Both are also imperiled due to the threat of oil and gas exploration and development. When I made that photo, at the turn of this century, the southern Beaufort Sea polar bear population was thought to be stable; little did I know that, over the next decade, it would decline by 25-50%. If polar bears are still hanging on in the harsh and rapidly melting Arctic, this is due to one of their unique evolutionary attributes—the ability to sniff a seal long before they can see it. “The polar bear’s nose is so powerful it can smell a seal on the ice 20 miles (32 kilometers) away,” according to the San Diego Zoo.

While far from threatened with extinction, Big Bill and Junior Jeff enjoy that same attribute: the ability to sniff an opportunity long before it enters their rage of vision, when it is still thousands of miles away, a dim prospect in a distant future (they are, in that sense, more capable than even polar bears). And Africa offers boundless opportunities to the environmental entrepreneur.

In 2010, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation purchased 500,000 shares of Monsanto. Similarly, the Foundation also teamed up with Cargill on a $10 million project in Mozambique. And why, you ask, did a philanthropic organization cozy up to two of the most notorious agri-giants? To control and develop industrial agriculture in Africa. At the time, Seattle-based Agra Watch “thundered,” as reported in the Guardian: “Monsanto has a history of blatant disregard for the interests and well-being of small farmers around the world… [This] casts serious doubt on the foundation’s heavy funding of agricultural development in Africa.” In the Guardian’s piercing assessment, there was “genuine concern at governmental and community level that the United States’ model of extensive hi-tech farming is inappropriate for most of Africa and should not be foisted on the poorest farmers in the name of ‘feeding the world’.”

We should heed this example. If indeed “the United States’ model of extensive hi-tech farming is inappropriate for most of Africa,” the global North’s model of biodiversity conservation that is now being advanced by the Bezos Earth Fund in Africa and other places in the global South will likely also turn out to be inappropriate in the years to come. Big Bill advanced colonial violence in Africa in the name of “feeding the world”; Junior Jeff will no doubt follow in the footsteps of his big brother, asserting colonialist dominance in Africa, all in the name of saving the mountain gorillas and other African megafauna.

Earlier this year, we learned that Bill Gates is now the “biggest private owner of farmland in the US.” Responding to that sickening news, influential Indigenous scholar-activist Nick Estes wrote: “Land is power, land is wealth, and, more importantly, land is about race and class. The relationship to land—who owns it, who works it and who cares for it—reflects obscene levels of inequality and legacies of colonialism and white supremacy in the United States, and also the world. Wealth accumulation always goes hand-in-hand with exploitation and dispossession.” Nick, a dear friend and colleague, lamented that Bill Gates “now owns more farmland than my entire Native American nation.” Also, if you have been following the plight of Black farmers in the United States this year, it would not be difficult to connect their struggles to the fact that one white man, in the name of philanthropy, is now the single biggest owner of American farmlands.

And while it has some catching-up to do, the Bezos Earth Fund and its philanthropy in the name of biodiversity conservation may turn out to be just as destructive as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. I urge investigative journalists and scholars to probe the Bezos biodiversity swamp and uncover its inexorable spread around the world.

Kunming Biodiversity Fund

Imagine, for a moment, that there is no United Nations and no World Health Organization (WHO). Imagine also that, in that same world, corporations like Moderna and philanthropies like Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation are running the coronavirus pandemic mitigation for the whole Earth—from research to development and production of vaccines to their administration and distribution. At the close of last week, using information from Our World in Data, Andrea Germanos reported in Common Dreams that, while 47.4% of the world population has received at least one dose of a Covid-19 vaccine, this is true of only 2.7% of people in low-income countries. I likely don’t have to convince you that this grave vaccine inequity would, in the absence of the WHO and the UN, become much, much worse.

Ever since the news broke in late September of that collective pledge by U.S.-based foundations and/or conservation NGOs, I’ve been worried about the potential colonial violence that this group might unleash on the poorer nations in the global South.

The UN CBD’s Kunming Biodiversity Fund gives me some relief. I see it as akin to the Green Climate Fund. The countries that helped establish the Kunming Biodiversity Fund and have so far contributed to it include China and Japan. But the global North now must come forward in a big way. Just like the climate crisis, the intensifying biodiversity crisis is a product of wasteful and unsustainable consumption in the richest countries of the world and the shortsighted policies of corporations and governments that prioritize profits over sustainability and justice. The countries in the global North have a moral obligation to contribute significantly to the Kunming Biodiversity Fund, just as they have a moral obligation to contribute to the Green Climate Fund. Not that the Kunming Biodiversity Fund is the solution to all the world’s problems. It will have many shortcomings. It will have its own challenges and political limitations. But like the WHO, the Kunming Biodiversity Fund will, without a doubt, help advance a more just mechanism of financial support for biodiversity conservation in the poorer nations of the global South. And none of this would have happened if the nine foundations and/or conservation NGOs, all based in the United States, had become the sole or lead financiers of global biodiversity conservation and thus been given license to pursue their own neocolonial ambitions on a global scale.

Even as we engage with and develop global and transnational biodiversity initiatives, we should also listen to and learn from biodiversity protectors in places like the Western Ghats where people slow down for Lion-tailed macaques as they cross the road. Their local ecological knowledge must inform and shape global biodiversity policy.

Subhankar Banerjee is an artist, activist and public scholar. He was most recently cocurator (with Josie Lopez) of the exhibition Species in Peril Along the Rio Grande. Editor of Arctic Voices: Resistance at the Tipping Point  (Seven Stories Press, 2013), Subhankar is currently cowriting (with Ananda Banerjee, with drawings by laura c. carlson) a book on biological annihilation to be published by Seven Stories Press, and coediting (with T.J. Demos and Emily Eliza Scott) a book on contemporary art, visual culture and climate breakdown to be published by Routledge. He has spent two decades contributing to the multispecies justice campaigns to protect significant biological nurseries and human rights of the Indigenous peoples in Alaska’s Arctic. Subhankar is the Lannan Foundation Endowed Chair and a professor of Art & Ecology at the University of New Mexico.