Volume 14 ● Number 1 ● Winter/Spring 2012ŚNetworking for Sustainability
CITES: A Crucial Convention
Managing and Using Information
For the past thirty-six years, CITES has put into practice the largest global effort at giving meaning to the concept of the sustainable use of biodiversity—with significant benefits for local and indigenous communities and the global environment. CITES-regulated trade is a multi-billion dollar business, with Parties now issuing over 850,000 permits per annum, permits that in effect certify that the trade is both legal and sustainable.
CITES permits also provide primary data to the world’s most extensive and open-access collection on the sustainable use of biodiversity, with over eleven million recorded trades captured in the CITES Trade Database. Each trade has been assessed by national CITES Scientific Authorities as not being detrimental to the survival of the species in the wild, i.e., as being sustainable.
Many of these transactions have contributed to the alleviation of poverty in rural areas that are heavily dependent on wildlife, through improved wildlife management. In turn, this contributes to sustainable development and achieving the United Nations’ Millennium Development Goals (target date 2015), which is of relevance to the upcoming UN Conference on Sustainable Development, also known as Rio+20, to be held in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, from 20 to 22 June 2012.
Working with other international organisations such as the World Customs Organisation, CITES is assisting countries in moving rapidly to the use of new information and communication technologies, particularly in the development of electronic trade documents. The CITES project on electronic trade documentation is well advanced and is of special relevance to other biodiversity-related goods in trade, including trade in genetic resources.1
Immediate registration of data through use of electronic CITES permits creates an invaluable up-to-the minute indicator for scientists, policymakers, enforcement officials and the public to measure the use of biodiversity and to ensure its sustainable, non-detrimental use.
CITES is also developing innovative and cutting-edge electronic tools to assist countries to manage better their biodiversity. The first of these tools is the CITES Trade Data Dashboards, which allow users to visualise through graphs and charts data based on international trade of wildlife, thus facilitating analysis of up-to-the-minute data.2
CITES’ innovative programme “Monitoring the Illegal Killing of Elephants” (CITES-MIKE) works across countries where African and Asian elephants range and provides the up-to-date field data needed for states to make informed management and enforcement decisions, and to build sustainable institutional capacity for the long-term management of their elephant populations. CITES-MIKE’s application also extends beyond elephants to a vast range of other species.
Data in Decision-Making
The national capacity of Parties to CITES is required to use data and information in decision-making. In this regard, CITES creates affordable capacity-building through the open CITES Virtual College, a first for a multilateral environmental agreement (MEA).
Courses, materials, databases, and training materials, including resources developed by CITES Parties and partners, are freely and openly available through the college twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. The college is hosted by, and links to, master’s-level courses provided by the International University of Andalusia.
CITES also co-chairs the largest environmental knowledge management project in the UN family—InforMEA, a Web portal that provides access to information from thirteen MEAs hosted by three UN organisations. InforMEA harvests decisions and resolutions of conferences of the Parties, news, events, national focal points, national reports and implementation plans from MEAs and other relevant instruments, and makes this harmonised information freely available. It becomes possible to search for all MEA decisions and resolutions related to trade and sustainable use—with each MEA remaining the custodian of its data.
This accumulated knowledge is essential for officials who are working on the implementation of MEAs, and for policymakers seeking to take coherent and consistent decisions across multiple conventions, and is particularly relevant in light of discussions related to international environmental governance leading up to Rio+20.
The UN Conference on Sustainable Development, commonly referred to as Rio+20, is being organised pursuant to UN General Assembly Resolution 64/236 (A/RES/64/236) of December 2009. The conference aims to secure renewed political commitment from governments for sustainable development, and to assess the progress of the outcomes of the major summits and meetings held to date on the issue. The conference will focus on two major themes: (1) the green economy in the context of sustainable development and the eradication of poverty; (2) the institutional framework for sustainable development.
The need to improve access to, and dissemination of, information has been highlighted in discussions on these two themes and may underpin many of the decisions related to them. Thus, Brazil, in its submission to the preparatory process of the Rio+20 conference, called for a global treaty based on Principle 10 of the 1992 Earth Summit’s Rio Declaration. (Principle 10 promotes public participation in environmental decision-making and access to information and justice in environmental matters.)
Support is proposed for setting in motion a negotiating process at Rio+20, for a global Convention that will ensure the implementation of Principle 10 of the Rio Declaration.3
The importance of access to information and of Principle 10 to the objectives of Rio+20 was also recognised by several other countries as the conference approached.
Australia: “Rio+20 outcomes should include emphasis on the need to ensure universal access to modern communication technology to facilitate access to information.”4
China: “Rio Principle 10 of access to information and justice is lacking in implementation and should be reconfirmed and strengthened at Rio+20.”5
Costa Rica: “The fundamental aim … must be to eradicate poverty and meet the pressing needs of the most vulnerable groups in society for guaranteed access to information, equity and justice.”6
Jamaica: “Jamaica considers that a regional agreement, taking into account Rio Principle 10, based on the  Aarhus Convention [on Access to Information, Public Participation in Decision-making and Access to Justice in Environmental Matters] would enhance public participation in the decision making process.”7
South Korea: “Countries should be encouraged to create national laws and policies on access to information, public participation, and access to justice in environmental issues.”8
The European and North American Regional Preparatory Meeting for Rio+20 also noted the need to highlight Principle 10 at the conference. In fact, some delegates at the preparatory meeting “supported the commencement of international negotiations on a new international convention (modelled along the Aarhus Convention), while other delegations preferred other options for strengthening Principle 10”.9
Lastly, the United Nations Environment Programme has also supported the concept of open access to environmental information, proposing that Rio+20 “might consider, for the national level, investing more in building public awareness and understanding by providing open and systematic public access to information”.10
It is not surprising, therefore, to find in a preliminary draft of the outcome document for Rio+20 that will be agreed by participating heads of state and government the following declaration: “We agree to take steps to give further effect to Rio Principle 10 at the global, regional and national level, as appropriate.”11
Drawing on CITES
It is within this context of discussion on improving access to and dissemination of environmental data and information that CITES’s participation in the Eye on Earth Summit and its contributions to discussions leading to Rio+20 should be understood. Arguably, the decades-long work and strategic approach to the provision of data and information adopted by CITES support well the objectives in the Eye on Earth “Summit Declaration”12 and the themes to be discussed at Rio+20, particularly those centred on Principle 10 of the Rio Declaration.
For example, Parties to CITES produce international trade data, publicly available through the CITES Trade Database, that can be used to develop indicators to measure the effect of CITES on regulating trade in wildlife. Such indicators support decision-making and underpin reporting obligations as per paragraph 3(d) of the Eye on Earth “Summit Declaration”.
This data further supports paragraph 3(e), where the principle of publicly available access to environmental information is explicitly stated: “Environmental information should be available to the public.” It also lends support to Principle 10 of the Rio Declaration, particularly with regard to “appropriate access to information concerning the environment that is held by public authorities”. CITES’s long promotion of the free and public access to data on sustainable use may offer many lessons to countries desiring the establishment at Rio+20 of a global treaty based on Principle 10.
The CITES Trade Database is but one of many rich datasets administered by the CITES Secretariat. The CITES Secretariat works with Parties and partners to integrate the data from these many different databases with a view to providing users with the ability better to mine and use the data. For example, data found in the CITES Trade Database is taken from CITES permits and certificates. Working with CITES Parties, the Secretariat has published a toolkit to assist in the development of CITES electronic permit systems.
Once a CITES permit is electronic, officials administering the permit will be able to harvest data directly from other CITES electronic resources, such as the CITES Appendixes, the CITES Species Checklist, and others. In addition, relevant information from the electronic permit will be registered immediately upon issuance of receipt onto the CITES Trade Database, offering policymakers and the public an up-to-the minute indicator that can be used to ensure legal, sustainable and traceable trade in biodiversity.
Other MEAs hold similar unique, and often under-utilised, data resources. In this regard, CITES is working with other environmental agencies on the harmonisation of targeted categories of data hosted by respective MEAs for the advancement of sustainable use “by taking advantage of the rapid development of information and communication technologies”, as per paragraph 2 of the Eye on Earth “Summit Declaration”. The collaborative platform driving this joint work is the MEA Information and Knowledge Management Initiative, which reflects many of the issues discussed at the summit, as in its Working Group 1 on Policy, Governance and Institutional Networking, Working Group 3 on Technical Infrastructure, and Working Group 4 on Capacity Building, Education and Awareness Raising.
The achievements of the MEA Information and Knowledge Management Initiative also reflect the objectives of Principle 10, particularly the latter’s recommendation that “States shall facilitate and encourage public awareness and participation by making information widely available”. The initiative also acknowledges paragraph 17 of “The Future We Want”, the preliminary draft of the outcome document for Rio+20, which encourages governments to “underscore that a fundamental prerequisite for the achievement of sustainable development is broad public participation in decision-making”. Harmonisation of MEA data and information, especially of decisions and resolutions, greatly facilitates public understanding of various governments’ obligations under different MEAs. For example, using InforMEA, the Web portal developed by the initiative, indigenous and local communities can at a click of a mouse retrieve all relevant MEA obligations that may be of relevance to their communities. It is also possible to retrieve relevant MEA decisions and resolutions on sustainable use and poverty alleviation.
In its contribution to the white paper drafted by the Eye on Earth Summit’s Working Group 4 on capacity building, the CITES Secretariat stated that
the enhancement of institutional capacity must consider technical and political issues, particularly with regard to participation of stakeholders in the development of policies guiding access to and use of government data. Failure to do so will create ineffective capacity building projects that will lack sustainability and public support. These efforts must also recognize the special concerns of groups such as indigenous and local communities regarding access to and use of their knowledge.13
The CITES Virtual College was designed to enhance the capacity of Parties to CITES, and to build sustainable on-demand training. By harnessing new information and communication technologies, the CITES Secretariat has been able to design courses that meet the needs of the whole CITES family, as well as the specific needs of individual Parties and regions—and to make available a wide array of up-to-date reference materials.
For example, the first course launched through the CITES Virtual College focused on making a non-detrimental finding on the export or import of CITES-listed species. Such an exercise is at the heart of CITES and ensures that international trade in species remains sustainable.
The Virtual College is hosted by the University of Andalucía in Seville, Spain, which, beginning this year, will require incoming students to its master’s course, “Management, Access and Conservation of Species in Trade: The International Framework”, to complete the Virtual College. This collaboration will ensure the continued use of the Virtual College by CITES Authorities, which normally constitute the largest group of students enrolled in the master’s programme. Equally important, this collaboration will facilitate the establishment of communities of practice and other similar networks.
These efforts to enhance cost-effective training and courses, particularly for Parties in developing regions, support the call for “the immediate implementation of the Bali Strategic Plan for Technology Support and Capacity Building” found in the preliminary outcome draft for Rio+20. They also support a number of national and regional submissions to the compilation document of Rio+20. Note, for instance, that the G77 and China have promoted support for
existing regional and sub-regional structures and mechanisms in developing countries and encouraging their creation, where needed, with the aim of facilitating cooperation and the exchange of information, including capacity building, exchange of experiences and expertise to advance the implementation of the decisions at regional and sub regional levels.14
CITES and the Future We Want
As of this writing (27 March 2012), the most current amended unpublished version of the “Zero Draft of the Outcome Document” for Rio+20 includes two recommendations pertaining to CITES. These recommendations highlight the unique role of CITES as a convention standing at the intersection between trade, environment and development. They also recognise that CITES has “put into practice the concept of sustainable use of biodiversity for over three decades with tangible benefits for biodiversity as well as local people and the global environment”.
Many factors are responsible for this decades-long success regarding the legal, sustainable and traceable international trade in wildlife. One of the main factors, however, is the manner in which Parties to CITES produce data that can be used to develop indicators. These indicators can be used to measure the rate of international trade in wildlife, to monitor species populations so that they can remain sustainable in the wild, and to gain insight into illegal activities such as poaching that can threaten livelihoods, exacerbate poverty and endanger sustainable legal trade.
The lessons learned by CITES about information policy, governmental and institutional networking, content and user needs, technical infrastructure, capacity-building and education, are certainly relevant to Rio+20, particularly with regard to trade, sustainable use and development. For example, the networks established through the CITES Virtual College bear an obvious significance in relation to the pre-conference proposals to develop a green economy knowledge-sharing platform, not least as regards capacity-building mechanisms, technical support, technology transfer, and financing.15
Furthermore, the United Nations Environment Programme has proposed that “a green economy must be underpinned by sustainable consumption and production patterns, and will contribute to resource efficiency”.16 CITES’s experience in making non-detrimental findings, or, looked at another way, in how to ensure sustainable consumption, offers many lessons for decision-makers developing policies to this end. Indeed, CITES also has unique experience in the making of significant trade reviews, where indicator data are used to ascertain if international trade in wildlife is sustainable.
This experience provides Parties to CITES with a well-grounded methodology for making decisions on recommendations to suspend trade. Indicators based on CITES trade data can also provide Parties with information relevant to whether they will impose stricter domestic measures regarding the conditions for trade, a step which remains open to all Parties to CITES. This know-how could be significant regarding proposals that UN “member states could commit themselves to avoiding unjustified trade restrictions”.17
In conclusion, understanding the inextricably linked factors related to trade, environment and development will drive discussions at the Rio+20 conference. CITES has succeeded in developing time-tested methodologies, and this rich experience and knowledge may be of relevance to negotiators in finalising the outcomes for Rio+20.
2. CITES Trade Data Dashboards [http://cites-dashboards.unep-wcmc.org/].
3. “Submission by Brazil to the Preparatory Process Rio+20 Conference”, Brasilia, 1 November 2011 [http://tinyurl.com/dyv26pc]. A global treaty based on Principle 10 of the Rio Declaration was also highlighted during discussions at the Eye on Earth Summit in Abu Dhabi, 12–15 December 2011, and referred to in the preamble to the final declaration.
4. “Australia’s Submission to the Rio+20 Compilation Document”, 1 November 2011 [http://tinyurl.com/ccjamxf].
5. “National Submission of the People’s Republic of China on the UN Conference on Sustainable Development in 2012”, 28 October 2011 [http://tinyurl.com/d6pyqjx].
6. “Contribution of Costa Rica for Compilation Document to Serve as Basis for the Preparation of Zero Draft of the Outcome Document for Rio+20”, I November 2011 [http://tinyurl.com/ckzabzy].
7. “Jamaica: Submission to the Compilation Document for Rio+20”, 1 November 2011 [http://tinyurl.com/cdc7vey].
8. “Proposal of the Republic of Korea on the Rio+20 Outcome Document”, 4 November 2011 [http://tinyurl.com/c8pcjrj].
9. “Europe and North America: Report of the Regional Preparatory Meeting for the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development”, Geneva, 1–2 December 2011 [http://tinyurl.com/c43kby7].
10. Secretariat of the United Nations Environment Programme, “Input to the Compilation Document for UNCSD” [http://tinyurl.com/cjffnrb], pp. 10–11.
11. “The Future We Want—Zero Draft of the Outcome Document”, 10 January 2012 [http://tinyurl.com/c4qcm68].
12. “Eye on Earth Summit Declaration”, Abu Dhabi, December 2011 [http://tinyurl.com/cystjv2].
13. Working Group 4, “Capacity Building, Education and Awareness Building, White Paper”, Eye on Earth Summit, 21 September 2011 [http://tinyurl.com/cp5y4ml], p. 15.
14. “Submission by the Group of 77 and China for the Compilation Document of the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development (RIO+20)” [http://tinyurl.com/cvdg837].
15. See UNCSD Secretariat, “A Green Economy Knowledge-Sharing Platform: Exploring Options”, March 2012 [http://tinyurl.com/bmkpbo9].
16. Secretariat of the United Nations Environment Programme, “Input to the Compilation Document”, p. 7.