Biodiversity as a Cornerstone of Sustainable Development: A Sri Lankan Perspective

Marking International Day for Biodiversity today (22nd May), Dilani Hirimuthugodage (Research Officer – IPS) looks at the Sri Lankan interventions in the wake of its ratification of the International Convention on Biological Diversity 19 years ago.


There is growing recognition of the fact that biological resources and diversity are vital to humankind’s economic and social development. It is accepted that diversity is a global asset of tremendous value, and that it needs to be preserved for future generations. At the same time, the threat to species and ecosystems has never been greater than it is today. In response, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) convened the Ad Hoc Working Group of Experts on Biological Diversity in November 1988 to explore the need for an international convention on biological diversity. The Convention was opened for signature at the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992, and entered into force in December 1993. Sri Lanka signed the convention in 1992 and ratified it in March 1994. Presently, 192 countries and the European Union are parties to the convention. The United States of America (USA) has signed the convention in 1993 but not yet ratified it.


What is the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD)?


The CBD is an international legally binding treaty and is the main document regarding sustainable development. Its three main goals are 1) conservation of biological diversity, 2) sustainable use of biological components, and 3) fair and equitable sharing of benefits arising from genetic resources.


The objective of the CBD was to develop national strategies for the conservation and sustainable use of biological diversity. The agreement covers all ecosystems, species, and genetic resources. It sets principles for the fair and equitable sharing of the benefits arising from the use of genetic resources, notably those intended for commercial use. It also covers the rapidly expanding field of biotechnology through the Cartagena Protocol on Bio-safety which seeks to protect biological diversity from the potential risks posed by living modified organisms, resulting from modern biotechnology.


Paddy fields bordering highland forests in Kotmale, Sri Lanka (image copyright Anushka Wijesinha/IPS, 2012)


The CBD recognized, for the first time in international law, that the conservation of biological diversity is an integral part of the development process. Importantly, it is legally binding; countries that are ‘Parties’ to it are obliged to implement its provisions. In line with this, Sri Lanka too has implemented its own policy framework to comply with the CBD.


Biodiversity in Sri Lanka


Sri Lanka is one of the 34 biodiversity hotspots identified in the world and has the highest biodiversity per unit area of land amongst Asian countries. The wet zone rainforests are home to nearly all of the country’s woody endemic plants, and about 75% of its endemic animals. The genetic diversity of agricultural crops is also quite remarkable, with 3,000 varieties of rice having been recorded. Many of the indigenous varieties of rice are tolerant to pests, adverse climate, and soil conditions. In addition to the diversity seen in coarse grains, legumes, vegetables, spice crops, roots and tubers, there are over 170 species of ornamental plants.


Several threats to Sri Lanka’s biodiversity were identified many years ago. The major threat is the ever-increasing demand for land for human habitation and related developmental activities. Poor land use planning, indiscriminate exploitation of biological resources, weak enforcement of legislation, the absence of an integrated conservation management approach, loss of traditional crop and livestock varieties and breeds, pollution, human – wildlife conflicts, an increasing spread of unknown invasive species, and increasing human population density, are some of the other critical threats to biodiversity.


For a developing country like Sri Lanka, it is a challenge to balance both ecological and economic development targets. However, development activities should be done in a way, and at a rate, that does not lead to the long-term decline of biological diversity. Biodiversity is a measure of sustainable development which means that ‘growth today will not deprive the quality of life of future generations’.


CBD and Sri Lanka


Since the ratification of the CBD 19 years ago, Sri Lanka has made some progress. In 1999, Sri Lanka prepared and published a comprehensive Biodiversity Conservation Action Plan (BCAP). The BCAP identified four broad areas of ecosystem diversity: forests, wetlands, coastal and marine systems, and agricultural systems. This was updated with the publication of an Addendum to the BCAP in 2007 to reflect several issues that had a major bearing on biodiversity conservation in Sri Lanka, since publication of the BCAP. In the year 2004, Sri Lanka also ratified the Cartagena Protocol. The Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety is a subsidiary agreement to the Convention.


During 2005 and 2006, Sri Lanka carried out extensive stakeholder consultations through the National Capacity Needs Self-Assessment (NCSA) Project in order to identify national capacity needs in implementing the Convention on Biological Diversity. Subsequently, Sri Lanka has drafted a Biosafety Regulatory Framework in 2005 and a National Policy on Bio Safety in 2011, to regulate bio technology and Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs). These policies provide protection from the importation of GMOs, the adverse effects from bio-technology, and technology transfer issues, etc.


19 Years and Counting


Even though Sri Lanka was able to establish a policy framework for bio-safety implementation, the progress remains poor. As was highlighted at a recent IPS in-house seminar, Sri Lanka does not have suitable laboratories to conduct GMO testing, which is a critical gap in implementing the policy. Further, the national BCAP (and Addendum) have not been implemented in a holistic manner. The special mechanisms required need to be identified and operationalised, but this is delayed due to the need for funds and other support. The coordination required for implementing the BCAP is also difficult due to the complexity arising from the vast number of institutions and laws that govern biodiversity.


An area that has received less attention is Article 8(j) of CBD, which refers to traditional knowledge of a country. Sri Lanka has to give high priority to this since the country has a very rich traditional knowledge base, and has experienced several cases in the past where traditional knowledge in agriculture and medicine was lost due to the lack of rules and regulations. Indigenous knowledge and traditional crop varieties are integral features of the Sri Lankan agriculture sector, but has failed to protect this.


Even though there are nearly eighty laws to protect biodiversity, but they need revising as many of them are outdated. A proper implementation and monitoring process needs to be in place, with closer linkages between the ministries that are responsible for sustainable development. Biodiversity policies and plans have to be integrated with agriculture and fisheries policies. As Braulio De Souza Dias, the Executive Secretary of the UN’s Biological Diversity Secretariat, recently said – “Biodiversity and associated ecosystem services are the cornerstones of sustainable development. It is important to ensure that both issues are not considered in isolation”. With the rapid expansion of physical infrastructure development, it is vital that biodiversity conservation is given due recognition in order to ensure that the ongoing development embodies a strong sense of sustainability.


It has been 19 years since Sri Lanka ratified the Convention on Bio Diversity but it is clear that much still remains be done in terms of creating effective policy frameworks and strategies for their implementation. Concrete steps must be taken soon if Sri Lanka is to safeguard its rich bio diversity, in the midst of the rapid development taking place.