Meeting the World in Geneva: Attending UN Biodiversity meetings in a Post-Pandemic World

Photograph of the United Nations entrance in Geneva, Switzerland

Photograph of the United Nations entrance in Geneva, Switzerland

By Cynthia L. Gonzalez

After two years of a world pandemic, our perceptions of what the world looks like and how it feels might be different. At least that is how it has been for me. For example, walks by the park in my neighborhood are such a treasure to me now. After several months of spending most of my time at home, those walks by the park have become my moments of peace and comfort. The same happens when I see people gathering, smiling, or having conversations. In a way, I feel like it is the first time that I have seen people doing that. I think the pandemic has helped me recognize things that were there before, but I just didn’t notice or appreciate them. Through conversations with friends and relatives, I have found that many feel the same way. 

A couple of months ago, in March of 2022, I had the opportunity to travel to Geneva, Switzerland, and attend meetings of the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity (UN CBD). It was the first time I had traveled outside the country since the pandemic started. These UN CBD meetings were so important because the discussions we had were meant to help the global community advance the agenda of COP15. 

COP15 is scheduled to take place later this year and the world’s governments will adopt a decade-long strategic plan to conserve and protect the world’s biodiversity. This strategic plan will also help shape action on this issue for decades to come. After a global pandemic, political instability around the world, and the disastrous signs all around us of environmental collapse, the significance of the meetings in Geneva were even more powerful than I anticipated.  

Post-Pandemic World

At the time of my trip, most of the world was starting to lift all COVID-19 restrictions and safety protocols. More people were beginning to travel and attend in-person events but still with great caution. COVID-19 vaccines, testing, and masks were still required by the airlines. It was strange for me to feel surrounded by so many people. It felt like a new experience. 

But once I landed in Geneva, it felt like I was stepping into the old “normal.” People were not wearing masks anymore, and I was able to see people smiling and having conversations in close proximity as if nothing had happened. The day after my arrival in Geneva, I attended our first CBD Meeting. People from all over the world had flown in for this critical meeting on biodiversity. It was the first in-person meeting of the UN CBD in over two years. 

For many delegates, it was the first time that they met their peer delegates from other countries, and for many national delegations, it was also the first time that they met their own co-workers in-person. 

Inside the venue, you could see people greeting and introducing themselves. You could see people from different cultures wearing traditional clothes, while others wore business attire. There were so many people speaking so many different languages. As I walked through the lobby area towards the main plenary room, I could hear people speaking English to my right, Spanish to my left, and French and Arabic behind me. It was the first time that I was in a space with people from all over the world! 

After being isolated for so long, with limited interaction with friends and family members, standing there in the middle of the room meeting all sorts of people felt like I was meeting the world. 

War in Ukraine

The UN CBD meeting began only a few weeks after Russia had invaded Ukraine. As the world was in disbelief and pain, for us attending these meetings in Geneva, the uneasiness of war felt even closer. 

We were all in Geneva as the Human Rights Council was also holding meetings, much of their conversation being about the war. As the UN CBD meetings got underway, most of the countries declared their opposition to the war. Throughout the conference, I saw delegates wearing the colors of the Ukraine flag or wearing a commemorative pin. The conflict was in everyone’s minds throughout the meetings. 

During my second week in Geneva, I had the opportunity to attend the UN Human Rights Council meetings at the United Nations Palace and sit in for their meeting on the Rights of Children during Conflict. Given the situation, sitting there and hearing the live statements from the different delegations, including those of the delegates from Ukraine, was emotional for me. It was difficult for me to process that at that very moment, UN delegates were describing atrocities, crimes against children, and the possibility of a world war. 

Back at the CBD meetings, people continued to show support for Ukraine, even as we got to work on our very different set of problems. But as I was participating in these meetings about biodiversity loss, I couldn’t help but think of Pope Francis’ words in Laudato Si’: 

“Peace, justice and the preservation of creation are three absolutely interconnected themes, which cannot be separated and treated individually without once again falling into reductionism”. Everything is related, and we human beings are united as brothers and sisters on a wonderful pilgrimage, woven together by the love God has for each of his creatures and which also unites us in fond affection with brother sun, sister moon, brother river and mother earth (#92).

The fact that the UN Human Rights Council and UN Conference on Biodiversity Diversity meetings were happening simultaneously didn’t feel like a coincidence. It reminded me how greed and our “throwaway culture” are at the root of both our social and ecological problems. 

Challenging Negotiations 

Although prior to the meetings in Geneva, delegates to the UN CBD participated in virtual meetings, this was the first time that delegates had the chance to engage in deep discussions regarding the strategic plan that they were tasked to produce for COP15. Despite the challenges caused by the pandemic and the stress caused by war, everyone had high hopes for this meeting, especially knowing how important it is for the future of biodiversity.

The meetings were long, technical, and intense. Even strong delegations with more than six representatives (the maximum number of delegates allowed at the same time in the venue) found it difficult to keep up with the discussions on many critical agenda items. These larger delegations often had part of their team following the discussions from their hotel room or even from their home countries. 

For the majority of the delegations, however, I saw how the same one or two delegates participated in all meetings, which started at 8:00am and often went into very late at night, sometimes until 3:00am. In the corridors, I heard some voice their concern on the highly technical discussions and how the meetings required a high level of dominance of the English language. This meant many countries were at a clear disadvantage. 

As time passed, the frustrations continued to increase: people claimed that the draft framework did not have ambitious enough targets, that there no consensus among delegations, and that some of the conversations were overall technical, slow, and ineffective. By the end of the process, while the delegates made progress, theyleft knowing that there was much more still to be done. 

Indigenous groups, Local communities, Youth, Women and girls, and NGOs

Advocates representing Indigenous groups, local communities, youth, women and girls, and civil society organizations, of which the Columbans were a part, were present throughout the meetings. We were all there asking for ambition during the negotiations and shared the same sense of urgency. 

The voices of indigenous groups and youth were particularly powerful. Indigenous groups currently protect 80% of the world’s biodiversity. Their voices as the experts at conservation were critical, especially because many conservation actions could impact their ancient traditions and lifestyle. They’re also great teachers at showing us how to take care of Mother/Sister Earth, as they often refer to our planet. They’ve also been some of the groups more severely impacted by the current degradation of our forest, land, and sea. I was inspired by their tenacity and commitment to protect our common home. 

The Youth group was also powerful. Their statements were very clear and direct. What they were advocating for was simple: the right to enjoy a clean and healthy world for themselves and future generations. Being a young adult myself, I identified with their concerns and fears because I too wonder about the future hospitality of our planet. Will I be able to grow old comfortably? What will my children’s future look like? These are the existential questions that young people bring into these conversations, which the global community has a duty to answer. 

Hope & Action

As the UN CBD meetings started coming to a close, the delegations decided it was important for them to hold another set of meetings from June 21-26, 2022 in Nairobi, Kenya. The goal of these meetings is to continue to work of developing the strategic plan that will be presented and adopted at COP15. The fact that they had to add another meeting to their calendars gave me a clear sense of how enormous the work ahead is. 

And yet, after months and months of isolation, after what felt like a never-ending series of crises from COVID to political unrest to the war in Ukraine, attending these meetings in Geneva (at the epicenter of international action) was an incredible and life changing experience for me. 

I am privileged to have been given an opportunity to see first-hand how interconnected our world is. I am grateful that I got to hear the testimony from developing countries, who are more severely impacted by ecology degradation even though they contributed the least to the problem. Their presence reminded me that what we do in the United States and in other rich nations, ripples across the planet and impacts people far from our homes.

The many conversations and interactions I had during my visit to Geneva made me feel more motivated to work on environmental action. There is just so much that we should be doing, especially as people of faith. Through our baptism as Christians, we are called to be “a sign of new life [because] encountering God does not mean fleeing from this world or turning our back on nature” (LS #235). Each of us has a small part to play in caring for one another, defending the oppressed, and giving aid to the most vulnerable members of creation, which includes our common home itself. 

As Pope Francis reminds us, “All it takes is one good person to restore hope!” (LS #71).

Cynthia L. Gonzalez is the Advocacy Coordinator for St. Columban Mission for Justice, Peace and Ecology. 

Publication Date
June 14, 2022