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The biodiversity leader who is fighting for nature amid a pandemic

Elizabeth Mrema has a mighty task ahead of her, leading countries as they negotiate new biodiversity targets.

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Deforestation of hillsides in Guatemala.

Habitat destruction is one of the main drivers of species loss.Credit: Robin Moore/National Geographic

Earlier this month, Elizabeth Mrema was appointed executive secretary of the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), making her the first woman from Africa to lead the intergovernmental body.

The CBD was created by a UN treaty, signed into force by nations in 1992, and helps to set global targets to conserve biodiversity.

Mrema, a lawyer from Tanzania, now based in Montreal, Canada, takes on her new role after more than a decade in leadership positions at the United Nations Environment Programme — and at a crucial time. She will oversee the creation of a new global biodiversity agreement for the next decade, which is currently being drafted. The accord was expected to be signed at a meeting in Kunming, China, in October, but this has been postponed until next year because of the coronavirus pandemic.

The previous global biodiversity targets, signed in 2010 and called the Aichi targets, are widely agreed to have failed to stop species loss. Some scientists are now renewing calls for a single target to halt species extinction. But others worry that an extinction target would neglect other important goals of the agreements, such as ensuring that benefits from biological resources are shared.

The new coronavirus, which originated in animals before it spread to people, has also brought renewed calls to stop the trading of wildlife, provoking long-simmering tensions between those who want to conserve species, and those pushing for their sustainable use.

Mrema spoke to Nature about how the pandemic has influenced negotiations and the challenges ahead.

How has the pandemic affected the biodiversity agenda?

One could say that I have been appointed at a bad time for biodiversity, considering that the whole world is just emerging from, or still in, lockdown because of the COVID-19 pandemic. But at the same time, I see it as a major opportunity, as biodiversity is being discussed more than ever before. There is greater awareness of the impact that human activities can have on nature, and of the connection between human health and biodiversity.

Our interference, through deforestation, agricultural expansion, livestock intensification and habitat fragmentation, has exposed wild animals and brought them into closer contact with people, which has resulted in the spillover of pathogens and zoonotic diseases, human-to-human transmission through trade and tourism, and the explosive pandemic we currently find ourselves in.

These are not new issues to the convention. But the pandemic has brought these issues to the fore, and has emphasized discussions about how to prevent future pandemics. I still consider 2020 to be a super year for biodiversity, as we spend it preparing, talking, creating awareness and showing the links. 2021 will be the year for the deal.

Do you agree with calls to ban wildlife markets and trade?

Closing wet markets and banning wildlife trading totally would negatively affect communities who depend on wild animals. For centuries these communities have been living with wild species, conserving them, and consuming them sustainably. The problem is us city dwellers, who have interfered with that harmonious environment by bringing wild animals out from the forests and the bush to the cities, to quench our selfish dietary choices. The consumers and buyers of wild animals are not the poor people; they are the affluent communities in the cities.

A total ban would also open the door to illegal trade in wildlife. Instead, we need more hygienic practices in wet markets that continue to operate, and regulated wildlife trade, within the framework of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora. We need to ensure the sustainable consumption of species for those communities who rely on this, while also curbing illegal trade. It is a delicate balance.

Headshot for Elizabeth Maruma Mrema, Executive Secretary of the Convention on Biological Diversity.

Elizabeth Mrema has been a leader in the United Nations Environment Programme for the past decade.Credit: SCBD

Some scientists have called for the CBD to adopt a global, measurable target based on species extinction. Is this a good idea?

If the biodiversity community succeeds in coming up with such a target that resonates with all of us, in the way that the climate-change community has, that would be excellent. But it will be difficult to come up with one answer because of the multifaceted nature of the issues on the biodiversity agenda. Unless we can come up with a target that addresses the drivers of biodiversity loss, we need to tread carefully. But if we succeed, that will be the best result possible, because then it becomes a song everyone will sing, and that everybody can align with to deliver that one key message.

How do you expect geopolitical tensions that have arisen during the pandemic to affect the negotiations?

We hope that, despite any global geopolitical tensions, by speaking in the name of nature, we will succeed in bringing people together. Countries cannot deal with these problems on their own. We need international cooperation.

Is the financial crisis in the wake of the pandemic likely to affect the new agreement?

The major challenge now is that countries are facing economic recession caused by COVID-19 and their focus will be on economic recovery. Governments might not be able to contribute as many resources, both human and financial, towards implementing the global diversity framework we are drafting as they would have had there not been a pandemic.

We need to ensure that the economic recovery builds into it a green economy and sustainability. We need countries to build back better, prioritizing biodiversity in their stimulus packages and stopping the incentives that have led to further degradation of biodiversity, which could also help to prevent future pandemics. Some countries have already come out clearly in support of this. For example, in May, the European Commission adopted a biodiversity strategy for 2030, which incorporates biodiversity loss, climate mitigation and adaptation into their recovery plans.

How will you ensure that you don’t lose momentum by next year?

My number-one goal is to get more stakeholders engaged and speaking about the importance of biodiversity and nature, and learning about the impact of human activities on biodiversity loss, and on climate change, changes in land use, pollution and invasive species.

These stakeholders will help us by putting positive pressure on governments to agree on an ambitious and transformative, post-2020 global biodiversity framework, and can then help us in implementing the agreement. We don’t want Kunming just to be a meeting of environmental communities, but to involve youth, businesses, local communities, cities and municipalities.

These efforts are continuing in the virtual world. If anything, we have had more consultations and more time to prepare and engage during this period. I am seeing a lot of support and commitment, but for now these are only words. Will they translate into tangible, measurable, smart actions that will make a difference? That keeps me up at night.

The current biodiversity targets have largely failed. How will you ensure that the next accord doesn’t also?

It is very clear that we will fail, or not be able to achieve all the Aichi targets. The reasons for those failures are now known, and we are building those lessons into the draft global biodiversity framework. Unlike the previous goals, the major difference this time is that all stakeholders, including youth, business and Indigenous groups, have contributed to various iterations of the draft.

The parties are still the decision-makers who will finally adopt the framework, but they have realized that they need the engagement of other groups during the negotiations and in implementation.

Also, while the focus on implementing the Aichi targets involved environmental ministries and departments, this time, health, agriculture, fisheries, forestry, planning and finance ministries are getting involved.

doi: 10.1038/d41586-020-01947-9

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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