Towards IWC68 and CITES CoP19

Towards IWC68 and CITES CoP19


The IWC will, for example, discuss the establishment of a South Atlantic Whale Sanctuary, marine pollution or the lifting of the moratorium on commercial whaling (for the full agenda, please click here). CITES, on the other hand, will deal with 52 proposals to amend its Appendices (meaning, it might tighten or soften trade restrictions for a very large number of animal and plant species) or discuss implementation and enforcement matters. In the case of CITES, the agenda encompasses an impressive 91 items to be discussed (for the full agenda, please click here). 

Two major meetings relevant for the conservation of wild species will take place in the northern hemispheric fall of 2022: the 68th meeting of the International Whaling Commission (IWC), 13—22 October, and the 19th Conference of the Parties (CoP19) to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), 14—25 November. Both meetings will, once again, deal with a very large set of issues.

While the two meetings are different in scope and membership — the IWC has 88 members while CITES has 184 Parties —, both meetings have at least two things in common: first, there will be, once again, a divide between Parties and Observers on the issue of full conservation versus versus sustainable use of species. This means, some, if not most, Parties and Observers aim for the full protection of certain species, which excludes their utilisation for human benefit or purposes. In the case of the IWC, this is best reflected in the moratorium on commercial whaling, which has been in place since 1986.  

In the case of CITES, the controversy surrounding trade prohibitions for charismatic fauna, such as elephants, rhinos, or potentially a large set of shark species after CoP19, exemplifies this issue. Second, since not all Parties agree with this view, concerns over the way local resource users are considered in the decision-making process have been voiced.

As a result, both IWC68 and CITES CoP19 also discuss issues of livelihoods and participatory mechanisms for indigenous peoples and local communities (IPLCs).

Many international bodies, such as the United Nations or the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform for Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) as well as the academia have recognised that effective nature conservation is not possible without the active participation of resource users (IPBES, 2022; United Nations, 2022; Cooney et al., 2021). Others have even argued that it is precisely the separation between people and nature that has caused biodiversity loss (Kenter & O’Connor, 2022) This begs the question, why is it still so controversially discussed in the IWC and CITES? By making recourse i to the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), the overarching umbrella of global standards for the conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity, its post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework currently under development, and the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), we show how also other bodies that are by and large sympathetic towards IPLCs still struggle with effective participation. This is especially relevant since also the CBD meets for its CoP15 in December this year.

The problem at hand

With ever more declining biodiversity, both the leaders of the G7 and the CBD’s Kunming Declaration have reiterated their goal to reach the so-called ‘30×30 target’. This means that 30% of the Earth’s surface should be protected by the year 2030. For indigenous and local peoples, this might effectively mean that they are no longer able to use the abundant resources on their traditional lands. Inevitably, this might lead to issues of food security. As a consequence, especially developing states are interested in averting this problem by enabling IPLCs to effectively participate in the decision-making processes in the IWC and CITES — both of which have no formal mechanism in place that makes it possible for IPLCs to make their voices heard.

Both IWC and CITES follow trends which can also be observed in the CBD: the following of global indicators concerning threats to biodiversity. In other words, there is a worrisome “disconnect between what is happening locally and what can be measured globally” (Friedman et al., 2022, 4). In other words, via large-scale interventions, such as the possible establishment of a South Atlantic Whale Sanctuary (SAWS) to protect ‘whales’ en gros or global trade prohibitions for certain species, trends in biodiversity loss are to be reversed. Problematic in this context is that by doing so, local use is neglected and associated voices of local resource users are silenced. Sweeping actions, also in the form of the 30×30 target, make it increasingly difficult to establish human beings as an integral part of the natural environment. Socio-ecological systems are consequently disregarded. Such an approach furthermore prevents Parties to the Whaling Convention, CITES and the CBD from identifying which elements of conservation and sustainable strategies work and which ones do not.

Hippo hunt, 1966. Wikimedia Commons

As Friedman et al. (2022) highlight, review mechanisms, such as the 5-year process model of the Paris Agreement, would enable Parties to shift their focus on implementation and goal attainment by learning-by-doing and information sharing. In the common mode of conservation, however, this exchange lags far behind, especially with regard to the utilisation of best available technologies from all stakeholders. This exchange would enable effective biodiversity conservation. Both modern technologies such as e-DNA or remote sensing, paired with traditional or indigenous technologies would enable conservation to focus on capacity-building and the use of truly effective conservation technologies.

A further matter that is oftentimes disregarded (or even demonised) is the role of business. After all, under the IWC, it is commercial whaling which is prohibited as per the moratorium while under CITES, discursive acceptance of subsistence use can be found while the acceptance for commercial trade is silently swept under the rug. Problematic in this regard is the fact that IWC, CITES as well as initiatives under the CBD are chronically lacking funding. Estimates by the CBD concerning the financing of the post-2020 biodiversity framework have identified a need of annual investments between 151—893 billion USD (CBD, 2020). However, by excluding commerce from the conservation discourse, businesses are deterred from investing in more sustainable practices, even though they are increasingly motivated and even obliged to embrace biodiversity as natural capital. This particularly true for the blue economy, the food industry and even fashion, investments in all of which would boost the business sector whilst increasingly recognising the need for sustainable socio-ecological systems. 

A crucial shortcoming is the way in which civil society has become part of conservation regimes. As Challender et al. have shown, in CITES, civil society in the form of environmental NGOs has contributed to an increased focus on charismatic fauna, not necessarily in line with CITES’ own biological and trade criteria to impose trade restrictions (Challender et al., 2021). These organisations are not democratically legitimised and do not represent all stakeholders. The Arctic Council, the major intergovernmental forum for Arctic governance, for example, has included the six major Arctic indigenous organisations into its decision-making structure. While these so-called Permanent Participants are no decision-makers per se, no decision should however be taken without their consent. Neither the IWC nor CITES have comparable mechanisms in place. Even though under CITES a working group on livelihoods was established a few years ago, this working group has not proved to provide significant change in regard to participatory mechanisms under the convention. Under the IWC umbrella, no such mechanism exists at all and both regimes can be considered substantially inert in this regard (Sellheim & Ojanperä, 2021).

Proposals for change — Food security and the participation of rural communities

Despite the existence of a CITES and livelihoods working group, the issue of a participatory mechanism for rural communities took more concrete shape at CoP17 in 2016. At this CoP, Namibia, the United Republic of Tanzania, Zambia and Zimbabwe tabled a proposal for the establishment of a Rural Communities Committee (RCC). This proposal, however, was voted down. One CoP later in 2019, Botswana, Democratic Republic of Congo, Namibia, South Africa and Zimbabwe tabled another proposal, reiterating the need for an RCC, especially in light of the recently adopted UN Declaration on the Rights of Peasants and Other People Working in Rural Areas (UNDROP) (see also Sellheim, 2022). Due to disagreements over the status of this committee vis-à-vis the Standing Committee and Plants and Animals Committees, in addition to unclear terminology, also this proposal was voted down. 

For the upcoming CoP19, several agenda items tackle this issue. First, the Standing Committee has submitted two proposals: CoP19 Doc. 13 on the engagement of indigenous peoples and local communities and CoP19 Doc. 14 on livelihoods. The former calls for an adjustment of terminology concerning the terms ‘rural’, ‘indigenous’ and ‘local’ and provides guidance on how to maximise the benefits of trade in CITES-listed species for IPLCs. The latter aims to renew decisions concerning the collection of Parties’ case studies on the engagement of IPLCs. Especially this element overlaps with the CoP10 Doc. 13, showcasing how closely intertwined livelihoods and the engagement of IPLCs are. Furthermore, Eswatini, Namibia and Zimbabwe have tabled CoP19 Doc. 15. This proposal essentially underlines the call for the establishment of an RCC, but takes the criticism concerning its status into consideration. Therefore, the proposal aims to establish a Rural Communities Advisory sub-Committee as an advisory body to both the Plants and Animals Committee. Finally, Botswana, Cambodia, Eswatini, Namibia and Zimbabwe have tabled a proposal that aims to enhance the criteria by which the CITES Appendices are to be amended (CoP19 Doc. 87.1): While currently it is trade and biological criteria which are to be taken into account as per Resolution Conf. 9.24 (Rev. CoP17), the proposal aims to include livelihood and food security considerations into account as well. It furthermore aims to focus amendments to Appendix I on the impact of international trade on the conservation status of a species. This means, proposals for amending Appendix I should only be tabled if international trade has been identified as the crucial factor in population decline. 

At the IWC, the issue food security has been tabled on numerous occasions with different Parties tabling proposals for resolutions in this regard. Opponents of these initiatives have argued that whales should not serve as a food source and that such recognition would inevitably lead to a lifting of the moratorium. Consequently, these proposals have been voted down. Up to this point, no proposal for a resolution on participation of rural communities has been tabled. For IWC68, Gambia, the Republic of Guinea, Cambodia, and Antigua and Barbuda have tabled yet another draft resolution on food security as IWC/68/8.2/01/EN. The draft resolution strongly relates to the recommendations and assessments of the UN’s Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) and the importance of marine living resources as a food source. Moreover, the draft resolution calls on IWC members to take into account issues of nutrition, cultural diversity and livelihoods into account when making decisions. The draft is progressive in so far as it does not consider the status quo of cetaceans as a food source, but it highlights the their nutritional potential in case of nutritional distress. In other words, if issues of food security arise, whales should not be excluded from being used as a food source. 


With the meetings of the IWC, CITES as well as the CBD impending, the issue of participation will once again rise to the surface. This time, however, the tabled proposals for change seem to rest on a much more solid basis, given that the United Nations as well as authoritative bodies such as IPBES have underlined the need for more participation. As also academia has shown, more effective participation is likely to improve conservation outcomes. If it is the longevity of species stands at the fore, both ‘sides’, i.e. those favouring conservation and those fostering sustainable use, share a common goal and should consequently not oppose each other. If, however, it is principal resistance against the lethal use of certain species such as whales, no common ground can be found. It is especially those contracting parties that follow this line of thought that will likely argue that, for instance in the case of CITES, the Convention’s object and purpose does not aim at the protection of livelihoods or aim for the participation of IPLCs, but rather the conservation of listed species from overexploitation through international trade.

Problematic with this view — or overly strict interpretation of a treaty — is the fact that it neglects the fact that a cooperative cycle between government, the private sector and civil society (including IPLCs) could generate a “positive feedback between sustainable use, benefit sharing and conservation of biodiversity while moving away from incentives harmful to nature” (Friedman et al., 2022, 6). In other words, by including different sectors that make use of biodiversity, the likelihood of achieving positive conservation outcomes is much higher.

Against this backdrop it would appear likely that both members of the IWC and Parties to CITES would support the tabled proposals for change. A realistic view unveils, however, that a rather narrow and idealised view on both the legal texts and certain species prevails over truly aspired positive conservation outcomes. Inevitably, this will probably result in yet failure for these proposals to be adopted. 

In our view, the issue is not whether a certain species should be used, but rather how or to what degree it can be used to ensure its long-term survival. At the same time, the issue inevitably should circle around the question as to whether total protection of a species is able to avoid adverse effects on those communities living in close proximity to it. The primary moral obligation consequently rests with the species the different conventions aim to protect. Indeed, they should be protected by all means necessary — including their sustainable use as a tool for their conservation.  


CBD. (2020). Estimation of resources needed for implementing the post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework. 

Challender, DWS et al. (2021). Mischaracterizing wildlife trade and its impacts may mislead policy processes. Conservation Letters 15(1), 

Cooney, R et al. (2021). Think Before You Act: Improving the Conservation Outcomes of CITES Listing Decisions. Frontiers in Ecology and Evolution, 

Friedman, K et al. (2022). The CBD Post-2020 biodiversity framework: People’s place within the rest of nature. People and Nature, 

Kenter, JO, & S O’Connor. (2022). The life framework of values and living as nature; towards a full recognition of holistic and relational ontologies. Sustainability Science, 1–14. s11625-022-01159-2  

IPBES. (2022). Summary for policymakers of the thematic assessment of the sustainable use of wild species of the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services. Advance unedited version. 7 July 2022. 

Sellheim, N. (2022). Die UN Erklärung über die Rechte von Kleinbauern: Eine Übersicht. Natur & Recht 44 (8), 528—540.

Sellheim, N & O. Ojanperä. (2021). Indigenous youth and international conservation law: Five case studies. Review of European, Comparative & International Environmental Law.  

United Nations. (2022). The human right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment. A/ RES/76/300. 

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