There is a sociologist in my plenary! - Some thoughts on IPBES

Tahani Nadim, Museum für Naturkunde Berlin


Tahani Nadim, Museum für Naturkunde Berlin
Tahani Nadim, Museum für Naturkunde Berlin
Museum für Naturkunde Berlin

"Fascinatingly boring and boringly fascinating." This summarises my impressions on the first plenary of the IPBES. From the stakeholder meeting on Sunday to the plenary sessions, working and contact groups to the presentations and lunchtime conversations, the whole affair struck a curious balance between the tedious and the riveting.

 I'm a sociologist of science studying how "biodiversity" is constituted in different practices and settings (in the Museum of Natural History, Berlin) and IPBES offered a fitting context to observe what becomes of "biodiversity" within the explicitly political arena of an inter-governmental plenary. Like science, politics too requires specific set-ups to ensure conditions of, for example, representativeness, validity or transparency. And indeed, Nicola Breier (BMU) of the German delegation, opened Sunday's stakeholder meeting with a reference to the glass and steel architecture of the venue, the World Conference Centre. She suggested that the transparency of the building would ensure transparency for the Plenary and its work.

But a see-through facade doesn't automatically make for transparent politics – just as avant-garde science buildings don't necessarily make for more cutting-edge science. While there was a fairly open debate about who was to become Chair, the nominations for this position were anything but open. Similarly, who makes up each delegation and what they exactly represent (national interests can be broad, oppositional even) are equally obscure. Even the shareholder meeting, while allowing for important issues to be heard, was rather opaque in its organisation.  

Among the more conspicuous features were some material and performative arrangements that caught my attention: the alphabetical seating plan that resulted in unexpected neighbours (Uganda next to the United States, Bolivia next to Bosnia and Herzegovina, Fiji next to Finland); the quaintly mannered and demure tone of diplomatic aAddress ("We are in your hands, Chair"); the row of "NGO" labelled seats at the back of the plenary that looked rather empty; the elaborate translation apparatus (using the 6 UN working languages) that had one worn interpreter exclaim "this is terrible!" as she reached for a cup of tea during one of the breaks;  the representations of biodiversity just outside the plenary in posters, brochures and flyers issued by research facilities, environmental groups and scientific associations; the vigour and exactitude dedicated to minute details of phrasing in the documents up for discussion. These illustrate a number of concerns –  alliances and allegiances across countries and regions, effective political discourse and representation, common (consensual) understanding – that often played out on less visible terms.  

Btw, a "document" in this (UN-convened) context is "a text submitted to a principle organ or a subsidiary organ of the United Nations for consideration by it, usually in connection with item(s) on its agenda" – according to paragraph 2 of the UN Secretariat's "Regulations for the Control and Limitation of Documentation: Addendum, Distribution of documents, meeting records, official records and publications". And this is where the boring starts. Endless haggling over words in the rules and procedures that will govern the organisational, financial and operational structures of IPBES. Biodiversity – the actual issue of and the very reason for this gathering – is nowhere to be found apart from in the pictures (rotating: happy indigenous farmers, grains, a tree, a turtle) projected unto the screens flanking the Chair. But then again, I suspect that while doing biodiversity research such as collecting, analysing or identifying specimens, the term "biodiversity" is not readily used either.

More conspicuous than the (manifest) absence of "biodiversity" was the lack of reason in plenary session but also in working and contact groups. These were debates without arguments: "The US has very strong feelings about this" or "Argentina cannot accept this" or "We don't feel that we can go along with this". Statements of dissent or consent but no context or argument is given. It makes for a strange discussion, if "discussion" is the right word for the exchange of points without rationale. Also striking was the false innocuousness prefiguring many such statements: "For the sake of efficiency, we'd like to propose..." or "To make it simpler, we'd suggest...". While seemingly reasonable, such preambles often obfuscate motivations.    

Lastly, some more significant absences: Women, indigenous people and scientific diversity (e.g. social science, marine biology) remain underrepresented, not just in the Multi-disciplinary Plenary. The diplomatic paternalism ("We are in your hands, Chair") that governs proceedings paired with the above mentioned lack of transparency makes this look anything but democratic. Furthermore, it is indicative of a host of worrisome assumptions – nature as resource, biodiversity as a commercial good, science as happening after politics, assessment as the only relevant form of intervention – that have gotten us into this trouble in the first place.  

It remains to be seen if we can halt the loss of biodiversity because or despite of IPBES. In the meantime, I'm glad that there are a number of engaged natural and social scientists (among them Maud Borie, Chico Carino, Alejandro Esguerra and Esther Turnhout) who'll be accompanying the development of IPBES in all its glory and dread.