At last, the CITES meeting officially begins

Dear Friends:

At long last, the CITES meeting has officially begun in The Hague.  The energetic and entertaining opening ceremony included a series of speeches by host government dignitaries and high-level bureaucrats in the Geneva-based CITES-Secretariat.

Their theme was a simple one: CITES must evolve and CITES must account for the needs of people.  I couldn’t agree more–but the question is how.

But such progress must not be blind to reason and the real needs of people on the ground. To some, the evolution of CITES and attention to indigenous people leads to massive wildlife exploitation—it’s easy to say you’re interested in people’s “livelihoods” but what does that really mean?

The people who live with wildlife should be given a voice in advocating protection of that wildlife.  Animals and plants are an irreplaceable part of the natural systems of the earth which must be protected for this and the generations to come. Those aren’t my words—they’re taken directly from the Preamble to the Treaty itself.

What better way to support indigenous people than protect their environment, conserve their forests, and ensure that wild animals can thrive and provide lasting value to those communities for generations to come. Should CITES, a convention that was specifically designed to address the threat to wildlife from rampant and uncontrolled trade, become yet another livelihood and human development tool? I don’t think so.

On another issue, the world is increasingly becoming more and more technologically advanced. But we mustn’t let technological advancement outpace human need.  What good is a wireless world if people can’t access it?

I have been in wildlife departments in Asia and Africa and I have seen the incredibly difficult working conditions they endure. Government officials in some countries, for instance, sometimes still use snail mail and the delay from this form of communication may mean they are effectively excluded from much of the ongoing global debate and decision-making. 

Since 2004 CITES has been moving inexorably into an electronic environment and, for example, does not provide all delegates with printed meeting documents.  While reduction of paper use is surely a good thing, scores of government delegates have approached Born Free asking for help—if they don’t have computers, how can they access the documents electronically?

Today, my colleagues from Born Free and SSN and I handed new Dell laptop computers to 30 delegates from 30 countries at the bottom of the UN Human Development Index. With our help they can now access the internet, store files, and prepare documents, including speeches and interventions to the gathered delegates. Equally important, they can take these vital machines home with them and employ them in their ongoing work.

We gave these computers to our friends, representing governments who strongly advocate in favour of wildlife conservation.  But we also gave them to countries including Zimbabwe that we know oppose us vigorously on elephant protection.

The laptops were incredibly well received and the delegate from Burkina Faso, replying on behalf of numerous African beneficiaries, said “These laptops will not only help us here but help our conservation work when we return home, and when we meet again in 2010 you will see the benefits of your generosity.”

Born Free believes strongly in capacity building; in lifting the capability of people in developing countries to fully engage in the discourse.  Equity is as important as ethics.

And so tomorrow, when the deliberations begin in earnest, 30 delegates will have a greater chance of being “tuned in” to the discussion.


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