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The New Sustainable Development Goals: a Vision for Living in Harmony with Nature

By Cristián Samper and John Scanlon

This week in New York, the U.N. General Assembly will adopt a set of 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and 169 targets that represent an unprecedented opportunity to safeguard globally threatened wildlife species. The new goals are part of an agenda called Transforming Our World: The 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda – a vision for the planet in which “humanity lives in harmony with nature and in which wildlife and other living species are protected.”

The new effort picks up the work of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) – an 8-pronged approach to eliminating poverty while improving health care and education that were adopted a decade and half ago and will sunset this year. Although governments, agencies, non-governmental organizations, and industry have become more engaged in – and committed to – sustainable development since the MDGs were adopted in 2000, much more needs to be done.

Healthy reefs are essential to sustainable fisheries and to the local fishers, like those pictured here, who depend on them for food and livelihoods. Photo by Julie Larsen Maher ©WCS.
Healthy reefs are essential to sustainable fisheries and to the local fishers, like those pictured here, who depend on them for food and livelihoods. Photo by Julie Larsen Maher ©WCS.

There was a strong call for better management of all living species in the Millennium Declaration, and correspondingly, biodiversity conservation was included in the MDGs via a target and indicators under MDG 7 on environmental sustainability. However, results regarding biodiversity loss have been limited and more work is needed to turn declarations and targets into results on the ground.

Why might the new SDGs lead to more progress when the biodiversity loss we now face is immense? The goals and targets in the SDGs cut across the many facets of biodiversity conservation in a much more comprehensive and integrated way than did the MDGs. The need to finance the required response is recognized. Perhaps most important, through the process of their negotiation, the SDGs already have full buy-in from governments giving us great reason to hope that the post-2015 goals will succeed on a much higher level.

A core goal of the SDGs is once again to end poverty and hunger, along with the achievement of sustainable development that promotes broad economic growth, protects the environment, and promotes diverse representation of social groups in national governance matters. These goals take place in the context of growing concern about corruption and lack of transparency that have undermined trust and limited the success of many previous development efforts.

Many former poachers in Zambia's Luangwa Valley now work as farmers grow vegetables using a rural development model that links agriculture and local markets to natural resource management. Photo by Julie Larsen Maher ©WCS.
Many former poachers in Zambia’s Luangwa Valley now work as farmers growing vegetables using a rural development model that links agriculture and local markets to natural resource management. Photo by Julie Larsen Maher ©WCS.

There is now clearer recognition that sustainable development and biodiversity conservation are inextricably linked and that one cannot succeed without the other. The new goals address conservation of both terrestrial and marine ecosystems. The new agenda specifies that UN member states will “conserve and sustainably use oceans and seas, freshwater resources, as well as forests, mountains and drylands and to protect biodiversity, ecosystems and wildlife.” And SDG targets specifically refer to endangered species, calling for an end to wildlife poaching and trafficking.

Those goals complement and put into a supportive context a UN General Assembly Resolution passed last July calling on all 193 UN member states to take actions to prevent, combat and eradicate illegal trade in wildlife. The Resolution recognized the intrinsic value of biological diversity to human wellbeing, expressing deep concern over widespread poaching and trafficking and calling on countries to take decisive steps to prevent the illegal trade in wildlife.

That trade now threatens multiple species – from elephants and rhinos to turtles and rare plants – while undermining local economies and heightening insecurity of communities living near targeted wildlife.

Sniffer dogs are a new tool in the effort to root out illegally trafficked wildlife products that include ivory bracelets; shark fins, leopard skins; and bags of pangolin scales destined for Asia. Photo by Ruth Starkey ©WCS.
Sniffer dogs are a new tool in the effort to root out illegally trafficked wildlife products that include ivory bracelets; shark fins, leopard skins; and bags of pangolin scales destined for Asia. Photo by Ruth Starkey ©WCS.

Through this landmark Resolution, General Assembly members agreed to make trafficking in protected species involving organized criminal groups a serious crime under national and international law; ratify international conventions related to trade in endangered species, transnational crime, and local corruption; and develop sustainable livelihoods for communities affected by wildlife trafficking.

This Resolution and the relevant targets in the SDGs represent a new global consensus among States for action to combat the scourge of wildlife crime in recognition of its devastating social, economic and environmental impacts.

Today, wildlife species across the globe face an urgent crisis. As we lose growing numbers of species due to human encroachment, rapid loss of remaining habitat for land use including agriculture and industry, destruction of marine biodiversity through over-fishing and other threats, and a calamitous rise and industrialization of global wildlife trafficking, the new SDGs present a unique opportunity to confront these tough challenges, while also safeguarding human livelihoods and welfare.

One of 53 community resource committees in Pakistan. Rangers have helped local Markhor goat populations to expand by close to 60 percent. Photo ©WCS Pakistan.
One of 53 community resource committees in Pakistan. Rangers have helped local Markhor goat populations to expand by close to 60 percent. Photo ©WCS Pakistan.

If we do not act now magnificent wild animals and plants will be lost on our watch. The consequences of such a dramatic loss of wildlife globally will rob countries of their national wealth, limiting opportunities for sustainable development, employment generation and poverty reduction, and putting at risk community livelihoods, ecosystem services, peace and security.

Implementing this historic global framework can be achieved through the inclusion of specific measures to address wildlife trafficking at a national level. National and international funding will help to scale up programs and enhance protection of wildlife species in their habitats. Stiffer penalties for poachers, and in particular traffickers and kingpins, combined with stronger efforts to address the problem of corruption along the trade chain, will indicate to criminal networks that wildlife trafficking will not be tolerated. And well-targeted demand side strategies will continue to drive down demand for illicitly-traded products.

We live in a world that has changed remarkably since the original MDGs were adopted in 2000. Communications systems have grown more sophisticated as digital technology has evolved and improved. Transportation systems have become truly globalized, reaching from the most remote parts of the planet to the world’s major urban centers. These trends enhance the threats to wildlife and wild places but also provide the opportunity to address sustainable development and biodiversity conservation in a more integrated fashion.

Goat herders in Argentina's Patagonian steppe regions now participate in a sustainable enterprise aimed at minimizing the environmental impact of cashmere production. Photo ©Lauren Smith.
Goat herders in Argentina’s Patagonian steppe regions now participate in a sustainable enterprise aimed at minimizing the environmental impact of cashmere production. Photo ©Lauren Smith.

Governments from right across the globe have participated in the development of the new SDGs through a challenging but essential consensus-building process. That ground-up process infuses the goals with a fantastic spirit of ownership and deep global engagement. Once adopted, States, together with the wider global community, must put these words into action so that by 2030 the vision of a world in which humanity lives in harmony with nature and in which wildlife and other living species are protected has become a reality.

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Cristián Samper is president and CEO of WCS (Wildlife Conservation Society). John Scanlon is Secretary-General of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES).

Comments

  1. Nuha Mwesigwa PhD Assoc.
    Makerere University
    July 29, 2:17 am

    I read with interest your article above. How can we work together to promote human development in harmony with nature

  2. Christina Dian Parmionova
    Perth, WA
    February 19, 10:10 pm

    The World Wildlife Day 2016 theme is “The future of Wildlife is in our hands”, with African and Asian elephants being the main focus of global campaigns.