U.N. Environment Assembly calls for yet another report on “the interlinkages between animal welfare, the environment and sustainable development” after ignoring a mountain of others produced at least since 1950
LYON, France––This is not just a fish story, nor just a fish-and-elephant story, nor even just another story about the failures and shortcomings of international regulatory bureaucracy.
Recent developments pertaining to totoaba fish, African elephants, and the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora & Fauna [CITES], however, may help ANIMALS 24-7 to meander to the point that words and substance should never be conflated, especially when lives are at stake.
Bombs & rockets
The goings on at the 74th Meeting of the Standing Committee of CITES in Lyon, France, concluded on March 11, 2022, appear to have echoed realities made more forcefully clear during the same days by the rain of Russian bombs and rockets reducing Ukraine to rubble:
International treaties enforced only by moral suasion and the occasional willingness of some of the signatories to invoke trade sanctions have no more deterrent effect against ruthless aggressors and exploiters than a barrage of rubber bands and spit-wads.
Law without cops
CITES, on the one hand, may justly be considered among the most successful treaties ever brokered by the United Nations in the 76 years that the U.N. has existed.
CITES is certainly the most successful international treaty pertaining to animals, rivaled only by the treaty that created the International Whaling Commission, flimsy as the IWC has been against the determination of Japan and Norway to go on killing whales.
Both treaties are at least nominally honored by most recognized nations. Most nations have domestic laws in place to enforce CITES and IWC protections for endangered species and whales by fining and even jailing violators.
No need to hide dead whales
On the other hand, most close observers of either CITES or the IWC must surely have observed long since that their declarations tend to be effective only when public and political opinion within the home nations of species said to be protected strongly favors saving the species at risk.
Exploitative industries learned long since that unless their own local wildlife cops are willing to bust them, defying CITES is as easy as filling out a customs voucher with bogus information.
Defying the IWC is a little harder than smuggling illegal drugs or powdered rhino horn, since a dead whale is not easily hidden, but where national governments actually subsidize whale-killing with impunity from any possibility of meaningful consequences from the rest of the world, there is no need for the whalers to hide anything.
Totoaba decision dooms vaquita
As of March 11, 2022, totoaba fish, endangered in their northern Gulf of California native habitat but farmed in sea pens at La Paz, Baja California, Mexico for more than a decade, may re-enter legal global commerce, the CITES Standing Committee decreed by a vote of 9-5, with one abstention.
“This decision may seal the fate of the critically endangered vaquita porpoise, which becomes entangled in fishing nets used to catch totoaba for the totoaba bladder (or maw) trade,” warned Animal Welfare Institute and Center for Biological Diversity spokespersons Marjorie Fishman and Alejandro Olivera in a joint media statement.
“There are only an estimated eight vaquita remaining,” Fishman and Olivera said.
“Uncontrolled illegal fishing”
International trade in totoaba has been prohibited for nearly 50 years, initially only to protect vaquita, but totoaba, once common, were also reduced to the verge of extinction in the wild by what Fishman and Olivera called “ongoing, rampant and uncontrolled illegal fishing” to supply demand from China and some other Asian nations.
Fumed Environmental Investigation Agency ocean and climate campaign leader Clare Perry, “Mexico has repeatedly failed to prevent illegal totoaba fishing for the international market for their swim bladders. A legal trade in totoaba, whether it includes swim bladders right now or not, will only complicate enforcement and increase demand for the wild fish that shares the same habitat as the vaquita.”
The Earth Ocean Farms application to export totoaba included some provisions meant to reduce the risk that legal trade in totoaba will provide cover for further poaching, at continued risk to vaquita.
“This is hypocrisy on full display”
Responded Fishman and Olivera, “Although Mexico and Earth Ocean Farms committed to temporarily prohibiting the export of totoaba swim bladders and destroying stockpiled maws, these amendments to its application should have triggered submission of a new request under CITES procedures.”
Agreed Animal Welfare Institute biologist D.J. Schubert, “This is the hypocrisy of CITES on full display — agreeing to reduce demand for totoaba to protect the vaquita one day and then authorizing trade in totoaba the next.”
“Mexico angling for totoaba extinction”
Charged Natural Resources Defense Council director of international wildlife conservation Zak Smith, “Mexico’s active disinterest in saving the vaquita was on full display as it pushed the idea that legal trade in smaller, captive-bred totoaba will help limit illegal fishing and trade in larger, wild-caught totoaba. All the evidence shows that larger totoaba swim bladders are the most coveted and lucrative, and can only be found in the wild, where fishing for totoaba kills vaquita.
“Mexico has long been angling for the vaquita’s extinction,” Smith alleged. “It’s a step closer to that goal with this decision.”
Rebuilding population for poachers
Mexican legislation requires totoaba farmers to “release a percentage of fish into the wild to help totoaba repopulation efforts,” explained Victor R. Rodríguez for Hakai magazine on the eve of the meeting of the CITES Standing Committee.
Earth Ocean Farms, said Rodriguez, “since 2015 has released 146,500 totoaba juveniles into waters off Mulegé, almost 500 kilometers north of La Paz, in the southern portion of their habitat.”
But increasing the wild totoaba population in proximity to the last vaquita might only increase poaching pressure.
In effect, CITES, unable to restrain the international totoaba trade in absence of Mexican ability and willingness to stop totoaba poaching, appears to have surrendered to political and economic expediency.
Who voted how
The United States, Argentina, Peru, and Oceania (represented by Australia), opposed the Earth Ocean Farms application to export totoaba, but were not voting members of the Standing Committee.
Members of the Standing Committee voting against the proposal included Senegal, Congo, Peru, Israel and Australia.
Voting in favor were Namibia, Ethiopia, China, Kuwait, Indonesia, Dominican Republic, Poland, Belgium and Georgia.
Namibia sold elephants to United Arab Emirates
The 2022 CITES elephant fiasco, the most recent of many, unfolded earlier.
Explained Keith Lindsay, Adam Cruise and Rosie Awori on March 12, 2022 for African Elephant Journal, “Just one day before [the CITES] meeting, which was to examine the legality of Namibia’s intended [sale of elephants abroad], the Namibian Ministry of Environment, Forestry & Tourism admitted to exporting 22 of the country’s elephants to a zoo in the United Arab Emirates.
“Its intentions kept under wraps since the original auction of elephants was announced in December 2020,” Lindsay, Cruise, and Awori continued, “Namibia always retained the option of exporting an unspecified number of them outside of Africa.
“According to CITES,” Lindsay, Cruise, and Awori explained, “Namibia is allowed to export live elephants only to in situ conservation programs, i.e. within the natural range of the species in Africa.”
Flew elephants out ahead of CITES review of the deal
“The timing,” Lindsay, Cruise, and Awori wrote, “seemed to be aimed at pre-empting the discussion by participants at [the CITES meeting], “who closely examined the legality of Namibia’s interpretation of the treaty.
“Burkina Faso, an elephant range state and member of the 32-nation strong African Elephant Coalition, submitted a legal opinion which demonstrates why these exports were and are carried out in violation of CITES.”
CITES nonetheless took no action against Namibia, having no actual ability to do much of anything more anyway than shake a finger and say “No, no, no.”
Japanese advocate asked for help
Also just ahead of the CITES meeting, Masayuki Sakamoto, executive director of the Japan Tiger & Elephant Fund, issued a furious report entitled Japan’s Tireless Ivory Market: A Trader’s Haven Free of Strict Controls.
Sakamoto detailed at length how the Japanese government, at multiple levels, has almost completely ignored the CITES international embargo on ivory trafficking, in effect since 1989.
What did anyone at the CITES meeting do about it?
Summarized former farmer and taxi driver Lenin Ndebele for News24, serving the southern third of the African continent from Cape Town, South Africa, “The African Elephant Coalition has called for the closure of ivory markets in Japan, saying they contribute to poaching.”
Why a “clarion call” sounds like a loud fart
Echoing the hyperbolic language with which CITES observers and participants typically announce having said something while doing nothing, Ndebele called this a “clarion call.”
A clarion, for the unaware, is a long trumpet, plastic versions of which are commonly used at sporting events to produce an amplified version of the sound also known as a Bronx cheer.
Continued Ndebele, “In 2016, a recommendation was adopted to close ivory markets in ivory-consuming countries such as Singapore, the United Kingdom, China, the United States and Japan. A resolution was then passed in 2019.”
In other words, not a thing has been done to specifically target the Japanese ivory trade that Sakamoto exposed at great personal risk.
Unfortunately, not a thing can or will be done to any effect until, and unless, Sakamoto and friends persuade the majority of their fellow Japanese citizens to stop buying ivory and demand that their governmental agencies actually enforce laws restricting ivory sales that are already on the books.
Resolution passed to do what?
Just before all of this happened, or more precisely nothing positive happened at the CITES meeting in Lyon, France, in Kenya on March 2, 2022 something called “The Resumed Fifth Session of the United Nations Environment Assembly” adopted an “Animal Welfare, Environment and Sustainable Development Nexus Resolution.”
This resolution called upon the executive director of the United Nations Environment Program “to produce a report on the interlinkages between animal welfare, the environment and sustainable development, in close collaboration with the [U.N.] Food & Agriculture Organization, World Health Organization, World Organization for Animal Health [OIE], the One-Health High-Level Expert Panel and other stakeholders.”
Why restate Livestock’s Long Shadow?
In other words, the delegates to the “Resumed Fifth Session of the United Nations Environment Assembly” asked other United Nations agencies to draft a document restating points already made many times.
For example, there was the 2006 U.N. Food & Agriculture Organization report Livestock’s Long Shadow: Environmental Issues and Options, which discussed animal welfare in an extensive review of the effects of animal agriculture on climate change.
There was also the 2011 FAO report Legislative & Regulatory Options for Animal Welfare.
Barbara Ward & Lester Brown
Long before publication of either of those reports came any number of others making similar points, going all the way back to the British economist Barbara Ward’s role as a U.N. advisor, both formally and informally, beginning in 1950.
Ward (1914-1981) presented her film Survival of Spaceship Earth to the first United Nations conference on the human environment in 1972, a year after founding the International Institute for Environment and Development.
Following up Ward’s work, Worldwatch Institute and Earth Policy Institute founder Lester Brown, now 87, was in 1987 honored by the United Nations Environment Program for his many years of producing annual reports focused on “the interlinkages between animal welfare, the environment and sustainable development.”
(See Full Planet, Empty Plates: The New Geopolitics of Food Scarcity, by Lester R. Brown.)
“Monumental, ground-breaking, watershed”?
Some of these many reports have profoundly but informally influenced generations of journalists, scholars, environmentalists, and even some public policy makers.
None though, by themselves, have turned the direction of the world around, for either humans or animals; and each had to exist, first, before it could influence anyone at all.
Following the “Resumed Fifth Session of the United Nations Environment Assembly,” Africa Network for Animal Welfare founder Josphat Ngonyo sought to persuade ANIMALS 24-7 that the “Animal Welfare, Environment and Sustainable Development Nexus Resolution” asking others to produce yet another report is “a monumental achievement,” “ground-breaking,” and a “watershed moment for the animal protection movement.”
Learning from Ronald McDonald
Yet in reality it means no more than the 1994 promises that enabled the McDonald’s restaurant chain to get away for 28 years with repeatedly issuing vague statements about “animal welfare,’ while doing precisely nothing of actual benefit to animals.
Meanwhile many of the biggest animal welfare organizations worldwide repeatedly celebrated “victories” when McDonald’s restated animal welfare shibboleths, and even honored McDonald’s with awards, without actually looking at what was, and is, going on at the barnyard level.
(See also Hearts out of place: transplants, pigs, chickens, “victories” & McDonald’s.)
In general, when ANIMALS 24-7 reviews the progress made on behalf of animals during our lifetimes, and especially on our news beat, in all parts of the world, we see a great deal to be encouraged about on almost every front, despite the reality that more animals are tortured on factory farms and eaten than ever before.
Yes, we’re barnyard thinkers
The biggest threat we see to animal advocacy progress is the tendency of both individuals and organizations, as they grow in stature and influence, to increasingly mistake words for goals and accomplishments; to proclaim “victory” in response to buzz words, and try to persuade activists, donors, and credulous media that mere resolutions asking other people to do something are a substitute for tangible action.
We here at ANIMALS 24-7 are barnyard level thinkers, because if change is not happening in the barnyard, what the suits in the offices say is only hot air.
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Mark Caponigro says
Slowly, slowly, we’re beginning to learn the hard lesson, that “mere resolutions asking other people to do something” do no good for animals in themselves. These days I am following the predicament of the gray wolves of the Northern Rockies, endangered by the laws and regulations of Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming, all three states now governed by arch wolf-haters. Conservation organizations have been soliciting donations in view of this crisis, but what exactly are they doing about it? Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland has got the message that wolves require the protections afforded by the Endangered Species Act, and perhaps even President Biden has got it as well — and now they’re taking their time to respond (the failure to respond being a response too). So what are the organizations going to do in the meantime?
The sad story of the catastrophic demise of the vaquita deserves a great historian. Hopefully one will rise up soon, or better yet, is already at work. A large part of the story is how the conservation organizations alerted us already a number of years ago that the vaquitas were in trouble — I remember the sequence of reports coming in every so often: “Only 120 vaquitas left”; then “only 80 vaquitas left”; then “only 40 vaquitas left”; then “fewer than 20 vaquitas left”; and now they’re down to eight, mein Gott. So the organizations were producing words on the subject, and raising money, and yet nothing effective was done. Oh right, the Sea Shepherd people staged a brief intervention of sorts, but it was unsustainable and they had to desist — which however did not stop their flunkies from boasting about how much more effective they were than anybody else. The dead vaquitas and totoabas ask to be pardoned if they don’t join in the celebration.
Mary Finelli says
Mark, the vaquitas’ demise certainly is sad and catastrophic (as is the totoaba’s). Sea Shepherd does deserve credit, though, for their considerable efforts to protect them. Seems it was a pretty hopeless undertaking given all they were up against. Futile(?) as it was, they may well have been much more effective than anybody else. See: https://seashepherd.org/2019/12/31/sea-shepherd-removes-over-1000-pieces-of-illegal-fishing-gear-from-vaquita-habitat/
Hopefully the Northern Rockies gray wolves will fare better but as long as ranchers and other wolf-haters are allowed to rule I don’t hold much hope for them, either.
Mark Caponigro says
The Sea Shepherd crews deserve much credit for all their time and effort. Nevertheless, Operation Milagro, their project to save vaquitas by removing the fishing gear in which vaquitas are caught and left to drown, is ill-conceived, and its several editions can’t be considered successful, in spite of short-term rescue for many animals. They failed to unite in a common practical mission the many conservation organizations that were studying the situation. And they failed to appreciate the sociology of the region. Activism that involves assaulting business interests in which a lot of capital is invested, e.g. the Japanese whaling fleet, is fine. But disrupting the livelihood of poor, sometimes desperate working people is another matter. Obviously the activists want to save the marine animals, and they’re right to work toward that end. But their efforts will be unsustainable and fruitless if they don’t also sit down with the killers of those animals and peacefully persuade them to stop. And it’s much more than a matter of enforcing a law against putting out nets; it has to include some kind of compensation. That’s where a coalition of all the conservation orgs could have made a difference.
Annoula Wylderich says
While our words can sometimes help influence others to respond, it is largely by our actions that animals can be helped. The outcome is the bottom line. Thanks for this reminder.