CITES – While there is movement, there is inertia in including indigenous youth

When the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) was adopted in March 1973, the discourse on including indigenous peoples into the decision-making processes was just emerging. Now, almost 50 years later, CITES has become a fierce battleground of competing interests, similar, yet not quite as bad, as in the International Whaling Commission (IWC).

CITES works through three Appendices: on Appendix I, species are listed in which international trade is principally prohibited; Appendix II lists species the international trade in which is controlled and regulated while Appendix III lists species that are subject to national trade restrictions, but that do not face international control.

The raison d’être of CITES is to halt biodiversity loss through the restriction and control of trade. But as many a scholar has shown, the causes of species decline are hardly based on trade, but rather a conglomerate of different factors. Therefore, only in combination with other conservation treaties CITES contributes to a biodiversity conservation regime.

Even though it has been widely recognised that indigenous peoples and youth are important stakeholders in the conservation discourse, CITES has fully evaded the question of youth up until 2016 when the 17th Conference of the Parties (CoP17) was held in South Africa. Here, proposed by South Africa and the United States, Resolution 17.5 on Youth Engagement was adopted. In this resolution, youth are finally recognised as important future decision-makers and skill-holders for the future. Therefore, the resolution calls on parties to closely work together with universities and youth groups, to include youth representatives in country delegations and to engage youth to actively participate in the CITES decision-making processes.

In how far this is practically implementable remains to be seen, however. One issue that exemplifies the difficulties of turning policy ideas into concrete initiatives is the inclusion of local communities into the decision-making process. At CoP18 in 2019 I was able to participate in the intra-sessional working group on rural communities. Several hours country and organisational representatives tried to find a solution concerning different issues, such as the legal standing of a proposed Rural Communities Committee or what terminology was to be applied: would it be ‘peasants’, ‘rural’ communities or ‘indigenous’ peoples? After all, the terminology would have quite important legal implications. Not surprisingly, no consensus could be found – also because of time constraints – and the issue was pretty much postponed to CoP19.

This is to say that CITES has thus far not managed to find an adequate way of dealing with the involvement of local communities and indigenous peoples. Since this is the case, it is not surprising that the involvement of indigenous youth is not far advanced either. While there are initiatives to pay more attention to the interests of youth, the example of rural communities shows the inertia of CITES in turning a resolution into practice.

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