CITES Must End its Neo-Colonialism

by Eugène Lapointe, president of the IWMC World Conservation Trust, and Secretary-General of CITES from 1982 to 1990

Panama City, 16 November 2022

The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) faces a crisis of legitimacy.

Since 1975, it has imposed global trade prohibitions or restrictions intended to protect species threatened with extinction. It has largely failed. It has also lost the support of many range states, who view CITES and the international non-governmental organisations that egg it on to be neo-colonialists who disrespect their views and violate their sovereignty.

The 19th Conference of the Parties (CoP) in Panama City should very seriously reflect on Tanzania’s closing statement at the 18th CoP, on behalf of the Southern African Development Community. In it, these 16 countries – home to many iconic species such as elephant, rhino, lion and giraffe – threatened to withdraw from the treaty altogether.

“Today CITES discards proven, working conservation models in favour of ideologically driven anti-use and anti-trade models,” they lamented. “Such models are dictated by largely Western non-State actors who have no experience with responsibility for, or ownership over wildlife resources.”

They argue that CITES operates in violation of its own charter, which recognises that “peoples and states are and should be the best protectors of their own wild fauna and flora”, as well as against the injunction of the Convention on Biological Diversity that states have “the sovereign right to exploit their own resources pursuant to their own environmental policies”.

CITES’s success ought to be measured by whether a listing has indeed protected the species, whether it has stamped out not only legal trade, but also poaching and illicit trade, and whether its management strategy has improved the welfare of the people living with wild species.

By this standard, CITES has a history of serious failure. Wildlife population numbers declined precipitously despite CITES protection, its prohibitions have fuelled illicit trade and made poaching more profitable, and the locals are outraged at high-handed dismissals of their legitimate interests.

It is little wonder, then, that range states, whose people have to live with the listed species, and often rely on them for a living, are rebelling.

Of the approximately 2210 proposals CITES has considered in its 37-year existence, 63% originate with just four countries: the United Kingdom, the United States of America, Switzerland, and Australia. The organisation is dominated by the Global North, yet most of its decisions affect countries in the Global South.

CITES cannot expect to dictate to countries how their people are to co-exist with species that can be a rich resource, an opportunity cost, and a risk to human welfare. If it does, it must expect local people with local knowledge, traditions and management strategies to be alienated by such rudeness.

Comprehensive reform should be at the top of the CITES CoP19 agenda. Instead, its main press release leading up to the event boasts: ‘World Wildlife Conference to rule on stricter trade regulations for 600 CITES species.’

It is steaming ahead, like the colonial empires of old, as if the resounding vote of no confidence issued by southern African countries at CoP18 was just a little awkwardness from uppity natives. This shows that developing countries have no voice and will always be over-ruled by activists and politicians who play to the sentiments of rich-world elites and believe they know what’s best for poor countries.

The neo-colonialism of CITES has to end. Either it must take reform seriously, or range states will, with very good cause, walk away.

– Ends –

While in Panama, Mr. Lapointe can be reached at 41.78. 346-4737

IWMC World Conservation Trust
Eugčne Lapointe, President
Former Secretary-General of CITES (1982-199

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