Negotiation and Dialogue at the UN Biodiversity Conference

This is the second in a series of blogs about the participation of CAGJ/AGRA Watch in the 2016 United Nations Conference on Biodiversity in Cancun, Mexico. Read the first blog: Convention on Biological Diversity: what is it and why do we participate?

Phil Bereano, Simone Adler, and Johanna Lundahl during a Plenary session of the CBD.

By Simone Adler

Beginning this past Sunday and going through December 17th, the two week United Nations Conference on Biodiversity in Cancun, Mexico is organized into different levels and spaces of negotiation, dialogue, and presentation. Throughout, the participation of attendees to the Conference varies by process and rank.


The Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), the Nagoya Protocol on Access to Genetic Resources and the Fair and Equitable Sharing of Benefits Arising from their Utilization (aka Access and Benefit Sharing, ABS), and the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety are all being negotiated at this Conference. Each has its own governing body. For the CBD, it is the 13th Conference of Parties (COP 13); for the ABS it is the 8th Conference of Parties Serving as the Meeting of Parties (COP-MOP8), and for the Cartagena Protocol it is the 2nd Conference of Parties Serving as the Meeting of Parties (COP-MOP2). This UN Conference is unique in that all three COP and COP-MOP are meeting simultaneously, as the content of each are inextricably related.

Who is participating?

The primary participants in CBD, ABS, and Cartagena Protocol negotiations are the government delegates from the countries that are signed Parties, i.e. the members of COP-13, COP-MOP8, and COP-MOP2. These participants are known as “Parties”. Significantly, the US has not signed these agreements, thus is not a Party. However US governmental officials do attend, and have considerable influence over the deliberations.

“Observers” of the negotiations are the next category of participants, and includes both civil society and governments. Non-party government delegates, such as from the United States, though considered Observers, may have significant influence by being able to participate in working groups or through political relationships. UN agencies are also considered Observers. The civil society participants in the Observer category include indigenous peoples’ organizations and local communities, NGOs from the global South and North, educators, and activists from social and environmental justice movements (and this is the status of our delegation). These civil society observers are invited to participate in the CBD Alliance (see below). Observers can make statements and interventions during negotiating meetings. However, to influence the negotiations, it is strategic to lobby and engage with Party delegates in order to get their positions supported on that level. Thus, much action occurs “in the corridors.”

Business and industry also enjoy Observer status in the CBD negotiations,though their participation is often represented through their proponents in UN agencies, large international development associations, non-profit scientific research institutes, university students, and even Party delegates.

CBD Alliance

The CBD Alliance is a loose network for civil society to organize and strategize on participation and implementation of the CBD, recognizing that the work of civil society is critical for biodiversity. Each morning the CBD Alliance meets before the plenary sessions of COP-13 and the COP-MOPs. In the meetings, there is discussion on the agenda items groups are following, report-backs on negotiations and side-events, and proposals for meetings to organize positions and statements. CAGJ/AGRA Watch is actively participating in this space with our African partners and other allies, both new and long-standing. Participants are encouraged to share notes through a common platform and contribute submissions to the ECO Newsletter, distributed to delegates each day. On Wednesday, AGRA Watch member Phil Bereano had an article featured in the ECO Newsletter: When Dollar Signs Grow on Bushes.

Plenary session of the CBD

Negotiation Agenda and Meetings

The daily Conference schedule involves a morning COP-13 Plenary session where delegates give positions on agenda items first, followed by observers. Following the plenary, participants have the option of attending “side-events” during lunch. In the afternoon and evening there are Working Group meetings. This year’s conference includes two full weeks of negotiations. Key agenda items of concern to the CBD Alliance include:

  • Item 9: progress in implementation of the Strategic Plan and Aichi Targets (Aichi Targets were created at the COP-10 meetings as a set of biodiversity protection targets to be achieved in the UN Decade on Biodiversity 2011-2020)
  • Item 11: resource mobilization and the financial mechanism
  • Item 12: capacity-building, technical and scientific cooperation
  • Item 15: marine and coastal biodiversity
  • Item 17: sustainable wildlife management
  • Item 10: strategic actions to enhance implementation
  • Item 14: Article 8(j) and related provisions (This is on prior and informed consent, with efforts to adopt “free” prior and informed consent. This is an important mechanism in UN conventions for requiring consultation with impacted peoples [i.e. indigenous peoples and local communities] on development projects, particularly as related to biopiracy.)
  • Item 19: guidelines for the 6th national reports, indicators for Aichi targets
Opening Plenary session of the CBD, with the president of the CBD speaking.

Decision-Making: Working Groups and Contact Groups

Working Groups are created to make decisions based on agenda items. Working Group I deals with items under the CBD, ABS, and Cartagena Protocol. Working Group II deals with items only under the CBD. They establish smaller Contact Groups to resolve difficult issues. The Contact Groups meet in the evening after the side-events, and can go late into the night.  Chairs of these groups can assemble smaller groups as “Friends of the Chair”. There are three categories of decisions:

  • 1) Items with clean text coming from subsidiary bodies;
  • 2) Items with bracketed text coming from subsidiary bodies but with a number of unresolved issues;
  • 3) Items needing to be re-considered in light of intersessional work or updated information, or items not previously addressed.

Therefore, decision-making is a multi-level nested process: Plenary, Working Groups, Contact Groups, “Friends of the Chair”. Observers can participate in Plenary sessions and Working Groups openly, in Contact Groups with permission, but are barred – as are most Parties – from the “Friends of the Chair” meetings.

At the end of the Conference, on December 17, decisions made in Working Groups and Contact Groups will be debated, may be amended, and will likely be adopted.

Side Events

Side events are an important educational and lobbying aspect of COP-13 and COP-MOPs negotiations. Organized before and after the Working Group meetings each day, they are spaces for Party delegates as well as civil society and industry groups to present their positions on issues related to CBD and subsidiary protocols. Side events aim to influence attendees to promote a particular position on an agenda item, report-back on progress taken in the CBD and protocols, and present information that highlights major concerns with items under debate in negotiations.

Participants on both sides of a contentious issue will attend their opponent’s side events in an effort to ask challenging questions or gain information and perspective. CAGJ/AGRA Watch is co-hosting a side event on Friday on the Gates Foundation and Philanthrocapitalism, which we expect to draw a crowd of pro-Gates supporters. Part of our strategy is to attend the industry side events in order to understand their arguments and thus be able to artfully fight back for the rights of farmers and for public health concerns.

In the Corridors

Another important element of the Conference is the face-to-face interaction and conversation passing by in the corridors, lobbies, display areas, dining areas, open meeting rooms, etc. This is where opportunities for networking as well as talking with delegates and representatives for and against (or undecided) on an issue can take place, and potentially influence decision-making. This is also where colleagues can confer and strategize, and also connect and debrief as the long Conference can be quite exhausting.

Some of the country flags displayed outside the main entrance of the negotiations.

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