Guest Article #13

CITES: From Stockholm in ‘72 to Rio+20 - Back to the future

Travelling from the Odeon Cinema in downtown Rio de Janeiro – where we launched our film Rhinos under threat, to Riocentro in Barra de Tijuca – where the Rio+20 negotiations took place, can be a long trip. Several hours in a bus gives one a lot of time to think about a longer journey: the one that the international community has made from Stockholm in 1972 to Rio in 2012.

For a small Secretariat of a global convention with a focused mandate, and with an externally funded delegation of two, we had modest but well defined ambitions.[1] And while our experience of Rio+20 took us from one end of Rio to the other one thing was constant – and that was our focus on the importance of national level implementation.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon describes The Future We Want [2] as having provided “a firm foundation for building a sustainable future” with “many highlights.”[3]

The early foundations for building a sustainable future can be traced back to Stockholm in 1972, which, amongst the 109 recommendations found in the Action Plan for the Human Environment, included a call for the preparation and adoption of an international treaty to regulate international trade in certain species of wild plants and animals.[4] CITES was adopted the following year.

And 40 years later in Rio de Janeiro, CITES reappeared amongst the 283 paragraphs of The Future We Want, raising little controversy and remaining “under the radar” for most commentators.[5] Paragraph 203 reads:

We recognize the important role of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, an international agreement that stands at the intersection between trade, the environment and development, promotes the conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity, should contribute to tangible benefits for local people, and ensures that no species entering into international trade is threatened with extinction. We recognize the economic, social and environmental impacts of illicit trafficking in wildlife, where firm and strengthened action needs to be taken on both the supply and demand sides. In this regard, we emphasize the importance of effective international cooperation among relevant multilateral environmental agreements and international organizations. We further stress the importance of basing the listing of species on agreed criteria.

This is a ground-breaking acknowledgment by the more than 100 Heads of State or Government who were represented at Rio+20 of the importance of CITES to achieving sustainable development. Such recognition of CITES, as a “pre-Rio convention”, reinforces its contribution towards the conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity and demonstrates that CITES is as relevant today, if not more relevant, than when it was adopted in March 1973 in Washington, DC – at a time when the world's human population was just four billion.[6] And it shows the value of one of our earliest multilateral environmental agreements (MEAs) for taking us into the future.

“…an international agreement that stands at the intersection between trade, the environment and development…We further stress the importance of basing the listing of species on agreed criteria”

CITES is an action-oriented convention that sets clear rules of the game to ensure that international trade in CITES-listed wildlife – close to 35,000 species of plants and animals, both terrestrial and aquatic [7] – is legal, sustainable and traceable. It marries law and science in the pursuit of sustainability, with proposals to list species under CITES being based on agreed biological and trade criteria, the importance of which has been further reinforced at Rio+20. And CITES has harmoniously worked alongside the World Trade Organization (WTO) (and its predecessor) since coming into force on 1 July 1975.

“…promotes the conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity, should contribute to tangible benefits for local people”

Through its key-requirement that international trade in wild fauna and flora only take place when it is not detrimental to the species concerned, CITES has been at the cutting edge of the debate on the sustainable use of biodiversity. It has put the concept into practice on the ground, such as with the vicuña in South America, with significant benefits for local communities and the global environment, and continues to promote scientifically sound, sustainable management of wild species by its Parties. CITES implementation is also critical to achieving the Aichi Biodiversity Targets, the importance of which was further reinforced in paragraph 198 of “The Future We Want.”

The CITES primary trade data, currently holding details of 12,000,000 trade transactions and growing by over 850,000 records a year, provides the basis for monitoring the effective implementation of CITES, including through the Review of Significant Trade process. E-permitting is being rolled out through a wonderful example of south-south cooperation in partnership with the Amazon Cooperation Treaty Organization (ACTO) [8] and others, utilizing Brazilian technology – with the CITES e-permitting toolkit now being included into the World Customs Organization (WCO) data model. This is a first for a MEA, which the WCO has said “paves the way for other multilateral environmental agreements to make use of the framework provided by the WCO data model.”[9]

“We recognize the economic, social and environmental impacts of illicit trafficking in wildlife, where firm and strengthened action needs to be taken on both the supply and demand sides”

Today we are also confronting organized criminals who are involved in the illegal trade in wildlife, estimated by some to be worth anywhere between US$ 5 billion and US$ 20 billion per year [10] - and Rio+20 provides the first recognition at the highest political level of the threat it poses to people and wildlife.

This illegal trade is: driving some species towards extinction, such as the rhino and the tigers; depriving local people of legitimate development choices, and governments of potential revenue; corrupting local officials; and injuring and killing enforcement officers in the field. It is robbing States of their natural resources and cultural heritage, and undermining good governance and the rule of law – it must be stopped. And paragraph 266 on combating corruption addresses one important aspect of related law enforcement efforts.

The “economic, social and environmental impacts of illicit trafficking in wildlife” were very graphically portrayed in the film, Rhinos under threat, released in Rio de Janeiro on 18 June as a part of the GoodPlanet Film Festival. This film moves from the massive parks in South Africa and Swaziland, to the crowded streets of Hanoi in Viet Nam, and shows the brutality of the current spike in illegal killing of rhinos and the impact it is having on local communities. The film also investigates what is driving the demand for rhino horn in Asia and the powerful measures being taken by national authorities to fight this crime – and it can be viewed on the CITES You Tube site.[11]

“...we emphasize the importance of effective international cooperation among relevant multilateral environmental agreements and international organizations”

Efforts to tackle these serious crimes have been significantly enhanced internationally through the International Consortium on Combating Wildlife Crime (ICWWC), a consortium of the CITES Secretariat, INTERPOL, the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), the World Bank and the WCO, established in late 2010 to provide support to national enforcement authorities and regional bodies to combat illicit trade in wildlife. While still in its infancy, ICCWC is ushering in a new era where perpetrators of serious wildlife crimes are facing a more formidable and coordinated response with strong high-level political impetus to this collective effort being provided by Rio+20.[12]

The encouragement made in paragraph 265 in relation to the GEF “to take additional steps within its mandate to make resources more accessible to meet country needs for the national implementation of their international environmental commitments” is also seen as promising as CITES explores the possibility of requesting the GEF to serve as a financial mechanism. And GEF has recently approved its first CITES-related enforcement project.[13]

“We have the tools. Let us use them to make this world sustainable for all.” Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon [14]

Sustainability is not achieved through one action but through the accumulation of multiple actions. International agreements take an enormous amount of time, effort and resources to negotiate and adhere to, not to mention putting into place the national measures for implementation.[15] If we can make best use of the very good instruments we have, with a stronger focus on national implementation than on international negotiations, we may help pave a path to the future we want one stone at a time.

And as we departed the beautiful City of Rio de Janeiro a colleague reminded us of Nick Cave's lyric, "in the end it's only beauty that will save the world now”,[16] which opened up another rich debate as we made the long trip home.


[2] The Future We Want (A/CONF.216/L.1)

[4] Not a direct quote - see recommendation 99. Negotiations commenced in the early 1960s with significant impetus being provided by an International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) resolution adopted in 1963.

[5] But it was not missed by everyone. See the Rio+20 blog of Frank Vorhies

[6] Not to mention changes in consumption and production patterns, global and regional trade, and the technology that is now available to harvest from nature. And the world population now stands at seven billion – that is seven billion people consuming biodiversity every day, including in the form of medicines, food, clothes, furniture, perfumes and luxury goods.

[7] With international commercial trade generally prohibited for 3% of these species, and with international commercial trade for the remaining 97% regulated to ensure the trade is legal, sustainable and traceable.

[10] Excluding marine and timber species.

[15] The UNEP World Congress on Justice, Governance and Law for Environmental Sustainability, held from 17-20 June, in partnership with the CITES Secretariat and others, served to highlight the indispensible role of judges, Attorneys General and prosecutors in tackling the illegal trade in wildlife at the national level; see IISD summary

[16] Nature Boy - the line first coming from the 19th Century Russian author Fyodor Mikhailovich Dostoyevsky in The Idiot