Conservation Begins with Conversation: A Reflection on the UN Biodiversity Meetings in Geneva

Two people work together to plant a tree

Two people work together to plant a tree

By Amy Echeverria

From March 14 to March 29, 2022, I had the privilege of attending the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity’s (CBD) meetings in Geneva, Switzerland. The purpose of this in-person meeting was to continue the negotiations of the Global Biodiversity Framework (or, GBF) which is intended as a framework to safeguard the planet’s biodiversity from further destruction.

I was there not only as a representative of the Missionary Society of St. Columban and the ecologically vulnerable communities that we serve around the world, but also as a representative for a wider multifaith community. Historically, faith leaders have not had a large presence in CBD’s processes. This was highlighted in Geneva by the fact that my colleague with the Columbans, a representative from the Holy See, another woman representing the Buddhist tradition, and myself were the only faith representatives. Across the world, more than 80% of people identify with a religious or spiritual tradition and yet only four people were bringing that perspective intentionally to these UN negotiations.

Despite this history, however, Columbans understand that it is important for people of faith to be a part of these processes. As a faith-based organization, we believe that the voices of those most impacted by policy, especially historically marginalized communities and the earth itself, offer critical perspectives for developing greater protection for the planet, its people, and future generations. Our experience accompanying these communities have taught us that an economic and social order that collaborates mutually with creation is necessary for the care and protection of all of life.

We also realize that faith communities especially bring a recognition that caring for all of life is a moral imperative, as much as it is an ethical responsibility, and a societal obligation. In Geneva, we joined alongside a small number of nations, as well as many civil society organizations, in making a more holistic and urgent appeal for an ambitious and actionable GBF that could lead to healing transformation of relationships, systems, and structures between and among humans and all of creation.

I know that it is easy to become cynical when it comes to processes like these. We ask ourselves what is the real impact. While it is true that it can be challenging to see the real-life consequences of these intergovernmental negotiations, I was struck by the sincerity with which people interacted. I sensed that there was a desire among most of the people there to genuinely do good for the planet and for people. While there are differences of opinion on what those steps are, I do have hope that good will come from this process. The fruits may not be what we anticipate but if we believe that the Holy Spirit is working in all places and at all times, surely She was at work in Geneva.

As the days went on, one of the challenges I began to notice was how the way the meetings were set up frustrated our ability to have those important conversations.

For one, this was the first time CBD delegates had met since the COVID-19 pandemic began and many of them expressed how frustrated they were by the limits of virtual conferencing. At times the mood in the room was fairly tense as the delegates tried to re-establish bonds of trust among each other. This was a dynamic I noticed among the civil society organizations too.

This tension was not helped by how exhausting the process was. The days were long, with meetings starting at 8am and continuing well into the night, officially concluding at 10:30pm but often going into the wee-hours of the morning. Small countries also had small delegations, and so their delegates were stretched even more thinly. The demanding schedule put an extreme strain on the delegates, and the observers too, leaving some to question the quality of the negotiations.

Finally, the time allotted for non-party observers to make interventions (like NGOs, the women’s caucus, young people, Indigenous communities, and businesses) was reduced significantly to one or two inputs because of the length of time needed to give all governments time to make their interventions. This left little time for governments to hear the diverse voices beyond official national positions.

While the UN CBD process is a critical opportunity for the world to come together to care for our common home, I fear that because the process was unjustly designed in many ways that limited listening and co-creating, that the meetings ended without participants having truly heard the cry of the world. But rather than be discouraged, it confirms for me the importance of reaffirming our missionary vocation to keep dialogue, justice, peace, and care for people and the earth at the heart of living and preaching the Gospel.

In one of my many conversations, I met Ramson, a Maasai leader (a Nilotic ethnic group inhabiting northern, central and southern Kenya and northern Tanzania) who told me that, "When conservation begins with building fences, we are doing something wrong." I have pondered Ramson’s insight over the last several months. I believe that conservation begins with conversation - listening to each other, to God, and to all of creation. When we are attuned to the voices of love, justice, peace, and care it is only natural that conservation and conversion flow.

Amy Echeverria is the International Coordinator for Justice, Peace and Ecology for the Missionary Society of St. Columban and a Co-coordinator of the Vatican Covid Commission Ecology Taskforce.

Publication Date
June 15, 2022