It’s our world. So why don’t we protect it?

When it comes to preserving biodiversity, governments are all talk and no action. It will take more than the UN’s Cancún Declaration to reverse habitat loss and extinction

“It is essential to live in harmony with nature and mother earth as a fundamental condition for the well-being of all life, which depends on the conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity and the ecosystem services it underpins.”

Who said that? Was it a particularly sage Native American, perhaps, observing the 1930s Dust Bowl after European farming methods had devastated the midwest of the United States?

The general sentiment certainly fits that picture, but the sentence concludes in our own century's conservation-speak. Okay, so was it, perhaps, someone from the World Wildlife Fund, or maybe even BirdWatch Ireland, waxing a little lyrical? Wrong again.

Representatives of almost all world governments, including many ministers, said it just last month. It is the first point in the Cancún Declaration, delivered at the opening of the 13th meeting of the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity, in Mexico, on the theme of "mainstreaming the conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity for wellbeing".


Our Minister for Heritage, Regional and Rural Affairs, Heather Humphreys, did not attend, but her department says she is broadly supportive of the declaration.

For their third point these “high-level representatives” said that they are “most concerned” by the damage to biodiversity caused by “degradation and fragmentation of ecosystems, unsustainable land-use changes, overexploitation of natural resources, illegal harvesting and trade of species, introduction of invasive alien species, pollution of air, soil, inland waters and oceans, climate change and desertification”.

At this juncture it becomes hard not to be just a little cynical. It’s very nice to know that almost every government is “concerned” about all these aspects of environmental degradation. But aren’t all the things they mention happening on their watch? Couldn’t all these very powerful people do a lot more to halt and reverse environmental collapse?

That word "mainstreaming" is curious, too. Yes, the UN conference was attended by 6,000 experts and policymakers from all over the world for 10 days of intense discussions. The conference made some significant decisions about ecological restoration and the fraught issue of synthetic biology, although some NGOs, such as Friends of the Earth International, were not impressed overall (as you can read at

But it’s unlikely that you’ve seen more than a passing reference to the conference in the media. Biodiversity loss is very low on the radar compared with climate change, although it is part of the same crisis.


There is still a very big gap between governments’ formal recognition that the integrity of the natural world is vital for human wellbeing and focusing on that concept to the point where everyone see biodiversity loss as an urgent issue.

Yet it's surely too easy (and ineffective) to be totally cynical. It takes some kind of momentum to bring so many nations to support the declaration. And, according to people working on the front line of conservation-policy implementation in Ireland, in our National Parks and Wildlife Service, that momentum is indeed mainstreaming biodiversity concerns into parts of our body politic and economic that they barely reached even a decade ago.

“The agricultural sector now recognises biodiversity as mainstream,” says Ciaran O’Keefe, principal officer for science and biodiversity at the National Parks and Wildlife Service.

Those who are concerned about the greenhouse-gas and biodiversity consequences of increasing our diary herd under the FoodWise 2025 plan will be surprised. But he points out that there are more biodiversity-driven measures in Glas, the current low-carbon agrienvironmental scheme, than there were in its predecessors.

He also sees indications that even intensive farmers are recognising that their impact on species and habitats now needs to be taken into account. He says that certification of low-impact food production will become a crucial selling point in the near future.

O’Keefe also finds that colleagues in other government departments are becoming more aware that our international commitments under the UN’s sustainable-development goals include the protection of biodiversity in all fields of activity.

He concedes, however, that the other departments have not, as our just-expiring National Biodiversity Plan 2010-16 had urged, developed biodiversity plans of their own. “They prefer,” he says, “to contribute to the new national plan.”

A draft of this plan was released for public consultation just before Christmas (at You have until January 20th if you would like to respond.

O'Keefe's colleague Deirdre Lynn, the National Parks and Wildlife Service's senior scientific officer, was one of the Irish representatives in Cancún. She is involved both in passing the Convention on Biodiversity's decisions to relevant Irish agencies and in reporting Ireland's biodiversity status to the Convention on Biodiversity and to the EU.

She believes that the explicit link the convention now makes between biodiversity and human wellbeing is critical to gaining effective support from policymakers and the public. “We’ve got to get the message out about why nature is important to everyone,” she says. “It’s about so much more than saving rare species from extinction. It affects everything in our lives. It’s long gone past talking about saving individual species. It’s about saving entire ecosystems. Without them we will all be much poorer, in a degraded world. Many sectors are beginning to pick this up. It’s a slow process, but people are more and more willing to engage.”


Many observers would say, however, that the National Parks and Wildlife Service has often failed to get this message out in the past, largely because it is chronically under-resourced and lacking in expertise in areas such as communications and social sciences.

The painful and destructive controversy about turf cutting, and in some instances about the designation of protected areas and species, has seen the service cast in the role of highly resented – and rather impotent – regulator. A lot more mainstreaming will need to be done before this situation turns around.

“We could do with an improved communications strategy,” Lynn says. “It’s not just about regulation; it’s about explaining much more clearly why regulation is necessary.” For example, she says, it’s vital to show that biodiversity is essential to every aspect of farming, “at every level, from soil quality to nutrient cycling to preventing landslides, maintaining biosecurity for crops, and protecting against flooding through catchment management. It’s all just common sense.”

Mainstreaming that kind of common sense requires resources, however, and the governments that supported the Cancún Declaration, including our own, urgently need to put their money on the same line as their signatures.

If they really believe that the conservation of biodiversity is essential to the survival of the societies they represent then they must allocate adequate funding to the organisations they make responsible for that challenging task.


Ireland’s most recent report to the Convention on Biodiversity, from 2014, makes for some stark reading about the status of Irish biodiversity, mirroring a similar report to the EU. Only 9 per cent of habitats are in “favourable” condition, as against 50 per cent in “inadequate” condition and 41 per cent in bad condition. For plant and animal species protected under the EU habitats directive the picture is much brighter, with 52 per cent in favourable condition and 12 per cent in bad condition. Under the EU birds directive, however, while more species are increasing than decreasing, a significant number of species are in decline. We clearly need to do a lot more to improve our report card before the marketing label “Origin Green” matches our reality.