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COP14: Corporate power and declining biodiversity

biodiversity
Climate change
Spix's Macaw, the starring bird of the hit film 'Rio' was reported as officially extinct this week. Credit: Etna 1984, CC 4.0
Spix's Macaw, the starring bird of the hit film 'Rio' was reported as officially extinct this week. Credit: Etna 1984, CC 4.0

Corporate pressure has been strong during the past two weeks of negotiations at the Convention on Biological Diversity in Egypt. While the planet spirals deeper into a biodiversity crisis, corporations are doing everything in their considerable power to block the adoption of important measures that can save our ecosystems.

Conflicts of interest

Corporations are stacking scientific sub-bodies with their own people. During an online synthetic biology forum last year, it became clear the agenda was being steered by lobbyists with vested interests. The Corporate Europe Observatory revealed how ‘pro-biotech lobby platform Public Research Regulation Initiative (PRRI) unites industry, researchers and regulators in “like-minded” groups to manipulate crucial international biosafety talks’. In response the Secretariat – the neutral organizing body – suggested new text to the Convention that asks those serving on scientific advisory bodies to declare conflicts of interest.

Conflicting interests will not be made public. Nor will anyone with a conflict be disqualified from service. Instead, a commission will ‘balance’ conflicted parties. But how do you balance someone who has a vested financial interest with someone whose sole interest is preserving the planet? The concept of balance in this context is completely erroneous and sets the stage for clashes between corporations and planetary interests. The biodiversity convention is patently behind standards for curbing corporate interests – even the climate change convention has stronger rules governing conflicts. While the current text is insufficient, it is at least a first step.

Forced in to corporate terms

One of the biodiversity buzzwords is ‘mainstreaming’, and almost everyone is paying the term lip service. The Spanish translation offers a clearer definition of this jargon: Integration of biodiversity in other sectors. We agree that biodiversity should be taken into account in all economic sectors. This is vital. However, the implicit meaning of ‘mainstreaming’ is that those who are working to protect biodiversity will be forced to engage with corporations on the corporates’ terms. We are being compelled to respect the needs of economic growth as defined by transnationals, rather than requiring corporations to adhere to planetary boundaries.

Two years ago, delegates to the Convention were being asked to do mainstreaming work on agriculture, fisheries, tourism, and forestry – industries that are damaging to the environment, to be sure, but which will nonetheless collapse if our ecosystems do. Now, we’re being shoehorned into working on mainstreaming the ruthless energy, mining and manufacturing industries.

There are no solutions to the biodiversity crisis to be found within, or by working with, these industries. There is no way for extractivism to operate in harmony with biodiversity; this is a contradiction in terms.

The Convention is asking states to coordinate with industry based on ‘corporate social responsibility’: we know from experience that corporations wax lyrical about social responsibility in the global North, as they decimate communities and the global South for products they sell as ‘ethical’ to the North. During business events, the corporate mouthpieces claim they simply need to know the ethical guidelines so they can comply. Meanwhile, those same corporations are fighting tooth and nail against a legally binding UN treaty on transnational corporations and human rights. As there are no points of dispute between parties to the Convention over the draft mainstreaming text, we expect it will pass this week.

Neoliberal business as usual

Similarly, industry is parroting the need for ‘transformational change’ in another empty gesture that ultimately maintains the neoliberal status quo. The term again emphasizes corporate social responsibility and the need to incentivize and subsidize business and industry in order to convince them to do the right thing. ‘Transformational change’ co-opts the language of system change, which means creating societies based on peoples’ sovereignty and environmental, social, economic and gender justice, and which requires us all to question and deconstruct the capitalist logic of accumulation.

Proponents of transformational change say that the economy will need alteration, but any hint of evolution is very much framed within the current neoliberal model. No one is suggesting that ‘transformation’ means regulating and restricting corporations and moving towards the real solutions to our biodiversity and climate catastrophes.

We must abandon industrial agriculture in favor of agroecology – a powerful set of traditional farming practices based on ecological principles that can feed the world and cool the earth. However, at this Conference of the Parties, due to close tomorrow , the opposite has occurred: there has been an aggressive corporate push for synthetic biology. This is a new, advanced – and dangerous – form of genetic engineering, which can profoundly alter species and entire ecosystems.

The real solutions to the ecological crisis lie in valuing the wellbeing of people and the planet.

Nele Marien is International Program Coordinator for Forests and Biodiversity at Friends of the Earth International. She has a background as an environmental negotiator and campaigner at the climate change and biodiversity conventions.

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