Dáil Éireann - Volume 462 - 06 March, 1996

Convention on Biological Diversity: Motion.

Minister for Arts, Culture and the Gaeltacht (Mr. M. Higgins): I move:

That Dáil Éireann approves the terms of the Convention on Biological Diversity done at Rio de Janeiro in June, 1992, a copy of which was laid before Dáil Éireann on the 9th day of February, 1996.

Tá fíor-áthas orm an chaoi seo a bheith agam an coinbhinsiún seo a thabhairt faoi bhráid na Dála. Tá suim faoi leith agam le blianta fada an fhiadhúlra agus tuigim a thábhachtaí is atá sé an ilíocht bitheolaíochta a chaomhnú. Bhí an t-ádh orm bheith i láthair i 1992 ag an gComhdháil Domhanda i Rio faoi choimirce na Náisiúin Aontaithe, áit ar pléadh cúrsaí timpeallachta agus forbartha. Is mór an onóir dom mar sin an coinbhinsiún seo a mholadh don Dáil.

The convention was signed on behalf of Ireland on the occasion of the United Nations Conference on the Environment and Development held in Rio de Janeiro in June 1992. The formal purpose of today's debate is to comply with Article 29 of the Constitution which requires Dáil approval to international conventions which involve a charge on public funds. This approval will allow us to proceed to ratification of this important global convention.

When the United Nations General Assembly decided in 1989 to convene a major conference in 1992 in Brazil on global environment concerns, the conservation of biological diversity was identified as one of the main issues to be addressed.

Biological diversity is defined as the variety of all animals, plants and micro-organisms and the ecological complexes of which they are part. It is the source of all food, much raw materials and genetic resources for agriculture, medicine and [1482] development generally. The significance of the Rio conference was that it brought together, perhaps for the first time, the two major themes of environment and development.

The convention provides the medium through which the global environment can be safeguarded from further degradation while allowing for the use of its biological resources in an environmentally sound and sustainable way.

The main aims of the convention as set out in Article 1 are the conservation of biological diversity, the sustainable use of its components and the fair and equitable sharing of the benefits arising from the utilisation of genetic resources. It provides for access to genetic resources and for the transfer of relevant technologies, taking into account all rights over those resources and to technologies and provides for appropriate funding to be supplied by the contracting parties.

It also has as its aim the development of national strategies, plans or programmes for the conservation and sustainable use of biological diversity and for the integration of conservation and sustainable use of biological diversity into relevant sectoral and cross-sectoral plans, programmes and policies.

Prior to the Rio conference there was a number of conventions concerned with either the conservation of nature in particular regions of the world or with the protection of particular types of habitat or wildlife. For instance, Ireland has ratified the Berne Convention which aims to protect biodiversity in Europe, the Ramsar Convention which is concerned with wetlands and Bonn Convention which seeks to protect migratory species of animals. The Convention on Biological Diversity represents a landmark in the area of environment and development because, for the first time, a comprehensive rather than a sectoral approach to the conservation of the earth's biodiversity and the sustainable use of biological resources is adopted. It recognises that both biodiversity and biological resources should be [1483] conserved for reasons of ethics, economic benefit and human survival. It embodies the concept of “sustainable use”, the principal concept used in Rio, which means the use of components of biological diversity in a way and at a rate that does not lead to the long-term decline of biological diversity, thereby maintaining its potential to meet the needs and aspirations of present and future generations.

I am pleased incidentally that the convention recognises the role women play in the conservation and sustainable use of biological diversity and affirms the need for full participation of women at all levels of policy-making and implementation of biological diversity conservation.

Achievement of the conservation of biological diversity will be a progressive process, which must not be overly delayed, the success of which is dependent upon national and international compliance with both the letter and the spirit of the convention's provisions.

The convention recognises the sovereign rights of all nations to regulate access to genetic resources but requires that countries facilitate access to other convention parties. Countries are, therefore empowered to adopt legislation to stem the unchecked and uncompensated flow of genetic material out of the country but are not entitled to deny access altogether, except in accordance with needs for protection of the resources themselves.

Around the world countries are seeking to develop innovative mechanisms to regulate access. I am aware of a proposal by the Andean Pact countries to introduce a mechanism which would regulate trade in genetic material which would respect the rights of indigenous peoples and so ensure an equitable sharing of benefits. The experience of the Andean Pact is, however, unique being the first welcome attempt by a regional economic union, rich in biological diversity, to deal with national, regional, individual and shared interests under a common regime. Considering the fact that [1484] many resources of the region are common to more than one of the pact countries and that the free exchange of associated knowledge, innovations and practices of indigenous, Afro-American and local communities across frontiers has been going on for centuries makes this a pragmatic as well as an innovative decision.

This convention calls upon Governments to maintain and promote the use of the innovations, practices and knowledge of indigenous peoples relevant for the conservation or sustainable use of biological diversity with their approval and involvement. This is an implicit recognition of a property right of indigenous peoples over such knowledge. It also calls for fair and equitable participation by indigenous and local communities in benefits derived from the use of their knowledge, innovations and practices.

Within the Andean Pact it is widely accepted that indigenous and local communities knowledge, innovations and practices are directly linked to the genetic resources to which they relate and, consequently, that access to genetic resources also implies access to this knowledge.

The aims of the convention are to be achieved by three distinct approaches to be adopted by the contracting parties. First, by the development of national strategies, plans and programmes. These will require in-situ conservation measures, both inside and outside protected areas, and ex-situ measures principally to complement in in-situ measures to conserve ecosystems, habitats, species and genetic resoures. These strategic, plans and programmes must also provide for the integration of conservation and sustainable use of biological diversity into relevant sectoral and cross-sectoral plans, programmes and policies. It will be seen, therefore, that the provisions of this convention must be taken into account in planning for all areas of economic life.

Second, the convention covers issues of access and use of genetic resources, technology transfer and biosafety. [1485] Under the convention a Protocol on biosafety is being considered, and would involve regulating and controlling the risk associated with the use and release of living modified organisms from biotechnology which are likely to have adverse environmental impacts that could affect the conservation and sustainable use of biological diversity taking into account the risks to human health.

Third, by the provision of additional funding to meet the agreed full incremental cost incurred by developing countries. Access to and transfer of technology is to be facilitated under fair and most favourable conditions.

The strategies, plans and programmes necessary to implement the convention are being developed by Ireland in accordance with the provisions of the Wildlife Act, 1976, and of various international conventions and EU directives which this country has ratified. However, the need to draw all these strategies and plans into one coherent plan has been recognised and I am pleased to inform the House that this plan is being prepared in my Department at present. This plan will take account of the requirements of sectoral and cross-sectoral integration and will make specific recommendations for national action to conserve biological diversity and to sustainably use its components. As the convention covers many varying aspects of public policy, I am setting up a steering committee, representative of the relevant Government Departments, to oversee and implement this action plan.

My colleague, the Minister for the Environment, has made regulations providing for various procedural matters in relation to the contained use, deliberate release and placing on the market of genetically modified organisms.

Article 16 of the convention which provides for access to and transfer of technology has presented a difficulty for some countries, including Ireland. There has been some debate as to the [1486] precise requirements of this article. The guide to the convention states that the obligation each contracting party undertakes is not the outright transfer of technology which makes use of genetic resources. Rather, it is to create a framework permitting technology transfer to take place — in this case the transfer of technology making use of resources to the contracting parties providing the genetic resources used.

However, it stresses the particular obligation towards developing country parties which provide genetic resources. In view of this, and on the advice of the Attorney General, I have decided to adopt the European Union's position and to make a declaration when lodging the instrument of ratification so as to clarify this country's position in regard to this matter. Essentially the declaration confirms that it is Ireland's understanding that any transfer of technology that will take place between Irish operators and developing countries will be voluntary in nature and will respect the principles and rules of intellectual property rights. The declaration, inter alia, encourages the use of the financial mechanism established by the convention to promote the voluntary transfer of intellectual property rights held by Irish operators, in particular as regards the granting of licences, through normal commercial mechanisms and decisions, while ensuring adequate and effective protection of property rights.

The convention provides for a mechanism to provide financial resources on a grant or concessional basis to developing countries. The Global Environment Facility has been entrusted on an interim basis with the operation of this financial mechanism. The Global Environment Facility was established in 1990 to provide grants to developing countries for projects aimed at protecting the global environment in ways that are consistent with their national development goals. Following a three year pilot phase, the Global Environment Facility has been restructured. At the second meeting of the contracting parties to this convention in [1487] November last, it was decided that the restructured Global Environment Facility should continue to serve as the institutional structure to operate the financial mechanism pending the establishment of a permanent structure by the contracting parties.

The scale of contributions adopted at the second meeting of the contracting parties is based on the United Nations scale of assessments, which in Ireland's case is .18 per cent of the annual cost. The cost to Ireland in 1996 will be in the region of £12,000 per annum. The Government authorised in June 1992 that the cost of complying with the convention would be met from the allocation for Official Development Assistance.

The motion comes before the House because of the requirements of Article 29, sub-article 5.2 of the Constitution under which the State shall not be bound by any international agreement involving a charge on public funds unless the terms of the agreement shall have been approved by Dáil Éireann.

I commend the motion to the House.

Mr. R. Burke: On behalf of Fianna Fáil, I strongly recommend that Dáil Éireann ratify the Convention on Biological Diversity. In Government, Fianna Fáil took an active part in the Rio Summit which led to this convention and other important measures.

Ireland's participation in the policies of the global environment, however, predate the Rio process. Under the last Irish Presidency of the European Union, the Dublin Declaration on the Environment was negotiated and signed. That historic agreement committed EU member states to the principle of a shared responsibility among countries for the world environment. It further committed the EU to solidarity with the developing world and stressed that action, to be meaningful, must be now.

Ratification of this convention is a valuable step forward in the process of all countries accepting a communal [1488] responsibility for the global environment. Recent years have witnessed a growing awareness of the fragility of our environment. Global consumption and the manufacture involved to satisfy that consumption are the chief pressures on the environment. Overwhelmingly, the consumption is in the wealthy industrialised north while the worst of the environmental degradation is confined to the Third World. This convention seeks to deal with the effects of pollution of various kinds.

We must not lose sight of the broader picture, however. World patterns of trade and finance are at the root of environmental problems. Last November, as my party's spokesperson on Foreign Affairs, I published Fianna Fáil's position paper on my remit entitled, “Our Place in the World”. In that document, the party set out its world view. Prominent among the national policy concerns expressed was the global environment. Fianna Fáil's starting position is that no foreign policy can credibly ignore the living conditions of most of the world's population.

We live in a world where 1.7 billion people have no access to proper sanitation and where 170 million people in urban areas lack a clean drinking water source close to home. In rural areas, that number is 855 million people. In Latin America, less than 2 per cent of all sewage is treated. Conversely, and hugely exceeding all aid given to it, Latin America pays £50 billion a year in debt repayments. Huge populations, often only subsisting and sometimes starving, are exerting a devastating pressure on the environment and the species that depend on it. It is only right that we are critical. We have absolutely no room, however, to be censorious.

The reason the rainforest is disappearing is because Ireland and other developing countries insist on having huge chunks of it parked in our homes and offices. Our consumption patterns are driving entire species out of existence. This convention seeks to implement part of a wider strategy for sustainable development. We are all [1489] familiar, through the media, with the problems facing exotic animals in Africa and elsewhere. The key to a meaningful role for Ireland in saving the rainforest or wildlife is economic.

As a member state of the European Union, we are in a disproportional powerful position to influence the terms of world trade and finance. In the last round of GATT, Fianna Fáil in Government signed up for a major loosening up of trade terms with the developing world. We were considerably criticised for doing this by some special interest groups.

Fianna Fáil remains convinced that ultimately, sustainable development on a global scale can best be instituted by free and fair trade. Until developing countries pull out of the destructive cycle of exploitation of primary resources, the problems that this convention seeks to tackle will remain. Our contribution to global biodiversity must, in the main, be confined to influencing macroeconomic trends. Fianna Fáil's position paper on Foreign Affairs has clearly set out its intention to work with the other forward looking countries in developing the global economy on a sustainable basis.

Biodiversity is not intrinsically a Third World issue. When we are told that species numbers have declined by over 90 per cent in many cases, we might well associate such figures with the destruction of the rainforest. That is not so. Those figures tell the story of an appalling decimation of Irish wildlife species over the past two decades. Studies carried out by the Irish Wildlife Conservancy show the extent of the problem in Ireland. The numbers of some species have declined by up to 96 per cent. Ireland has nothing like the range of wildlife in most tropical countries. Correspondingly, each species must be much more precious to us. We are at risk of going down as the generation that destroyed an irreplaceable part of our heritage.

The lofty sentiments of the Government in posturing on the world stage about saving the whale are not followed [1490] up by any meaningful action at home in relation to our own wildlife problems. Important regulations which Ireland was bound to have in place over one year ago have not yet to be introduced. Under EU agreements, Ireland is obliged to introduce special areas of conservation. Although the legislation has been written the Minister responsible, Deputy Higgins, who I am glad is present in the House, has not approved its publication.

In bringing forward this convention for ratification before it has put its own house in order the Government is being grossly hypocritical. There is a biological diversity crisis in Ireland. The Government has had the natural habitat regulations drawn up for months and still will not move. These regulations will, if the Government ever brings them forward, protect a small number of sites of particular national importance.

Far more damaging for biodiversity is the financial crisis in the rural environmental protection scheme. Under this scheme, which is 75 per cent EU funded, farmers are paid on an acreage basis to conform with eco-friendly farming. The allocation of £42 million in the budget, 75 per cent of which has come from the EU, is less than half what is required to fund the 14,000 applicants who want to join.

A series of limitations on payments recently introduced may save the Government the embarrassment of having the scheme fall apart but will, effectively, retard the scheme. An emasculated scheme will do nothing to ensure that species and flora threatened by extensive agriculture will survive. Our vanishing wildlife species may not have the fame or cachet of a blue whale or snow leopard, but right now many indigenous species once common all over Ireland are in more immediate danger than their more exotic cousins.

The danger to our wildlife is nowhere more present than in the Irish Sea. The disaster of the Sea Empress demonstrates the awful biological carnage which can result on our shipping lanes. [1491] Vast areas of the Welsh coast have been destroyed, perhaps for decades. No area demonstrates more clearly the cavalier and opportunistic approach taken by the Government to the environment.

Last November, amid huge media coverage, the Minister of State at the Department of the Marine, Deputy Gilmore, announced that his efforts had secured a special meeting of the International Maritime Organisation to discuss the code governing the transport of irradiated nuclear fuels. I congratulate him for this. This was to be Ireland's chance to secure safeguards on the transport of nuclear fuels in the Irish Sea. This is an important issue, but the problem is that the meeting which started on Monday finishes today and the Minister of State failed to show up. He left the field to his British counterpart, Viscount Goschen. Given the threat posed to this country and the Irish Sea by Windscale-Sellafield the British interests do not coincide with ours. It is a disgrace that the Minister of State was not present.

Unfortunately, the Government prefers to preach on what should be done thousands of miles from home rather than face home truths. I reject what is, at best, an opportunistic and, at worst, a dishonest policy. I want the same policy standards applied to this issue of biodiversity at home as the Government is so eager to see applied abroad.

Let us ratify the convention on biological diversity today and also proceed with the implementation of the special areas of convention. Most importantly of all, if we are to make an impact on the problems surrounding biodiversity in Ireland, the Government must kick start the REP scheme again.

I welcome the opportunity to have a short debate on this important issue. I strongly recommend that Dáil Éireann ratify the convention.

Mr. O'Malley: I am perfectly happy to support the motion that the convention be ratified, but do not think it will make much difference either to us or [1492] anybody else throughout the world when ratified. Looking through it, there is no enforceability, it is full of precatory statements and admirable desires that we would all like to fulfil in the same way as we all support motherhood, apple pie, democracy and all the other beautiful concepts in the world.

What struck me about the Minister's speech, which was full of technical jargon, was that he succeeded in delivering it with the same passion as a speech on the arts. It was a feat to deliver it in the tone of voice he usually reserves for an appropriate stage. This suggests, perhaps, that he has a public speaking persona——

Mr. M. Higgins: That is a compliment coming from the Deputy.

Mr. O'Malley: ——which he is not able to adapt when dealing with the somewhat drier concepts of this convention.

The convention refers to the need to support Third World countries encountering difficulties in sustaining their environment and natural habitats. That is a commendable objective, but, as Deputy Burke said, it is hypocritical for us to be concerned about Africa when we succeed in destroying much of our own natural habitat and do not seem to do much to stop it.

In the past few days I saw a list of ten birds and animals which were common in Ireland 20 to 30 years ago and are now on the verge of extinction, most, if not all, because of the change in agricultural practices. The only way to offset this is through the REPS which, unfortunately, has run into great difficulties where finance is concerned. This is the subject of many questions at Agriculture Question Time. There are huge arrears of payments due to thousands of farmers throughout the country. Many farmers who joined in good faith have not received the grants to which they are entitled. As a result there is a danger the scheme will collapse. If it is not implemented properly, biological diversity will be seriously damaged.

[1493] Parts of the country, particularly in the west, have a unique biological diversity. Our efforts to support them have been mixed and limited. The prime example is the Burren. The Minister seems to be coming up with what we are told is a solution agreeable to all parties. I have heard this before. I would like to see the Burren left as nature created and developed it. I do not know why this cannot be done. Other parts of the west — Connemara, Kerry and Donegal — are also progressively being interfered with unnecessarily.

This is one of the least densely populated countries in Europe. That this country is so sparsely populated by comparison with the land area under our jurisdiction should mean that we should carefully plan the protection of these large areas of natural habitat.

Flying at low level or by helicopter over most western European countries, one of the noticeable features, if one is in any way observant, is the small village clusters in the countryside and the virtual absence of buildings outside those village clusters. On the other hand, flying at low level over Ireland one would notice how small and straggling the villages are, the ribbon development and the number of individual houses built all over the place. Our planning laws and policies in this area have failed. We have interfered unnecessarily with the countryside and the natural habitat of many species. While officially frowned on, this element or ribbon development is rampant and it is only when viewed from the air that one realises the damage it is causing. It does not make sense from a conservation, biological, traffic, safety or environmental point of view. The extraordinary anxiety of Irish people to want to live all over the place, rather than in the manner in which most European citizens live, is causing great damage and, consequently, we are rapidly losing the advantage that could be gained from our sparse population.

The Minister did not deal with the medical aspects of genetic resources. While this is not the primary function of the convention, it is a very sensitive [1494] matter. Spectacular developments in this field will take place in the next few decades. In expressing concern that particular species of plants and animals may become extinct, we must also face the prospect of new species being created by man which will raise many ethical as well as biological questions. We are on the threshold of many new developments but we should not stumble into them. We should think through our approach to developments that are possible for this generation to achieve but which were not possible for the countless generations before us. It is more incumbent on us than on previous generations to get matters right. Even with the worst will in the world, there was a limit to the extent to which previous generations could damage the environment and natural habitats, but there is almost no limit to the extent to which this and the next generation could do so.

In drafting, signing and ratifying international conventions which are important to the future of mankind and this planet, every effort should be made to have a greater degree of enforceability and not simply consider them a litany of wishful thoughts.

Mr. Gallagher (Laoighis-Offaly): I welcome the opportunity to support the motion. It is obvious from the wide-ranging issues addressed by the three previous speakers that this matter, although it may appear esoteric, touches on fundamental questions that relate to the use of our environment at home and abroad.

I am particularly interested in the impact of this convention on developing countries. Deputy O'Malley correctly referred to the fact that these conventions tend to opt for the lowest common denominator rather than the highest common factor. When operating on an international level it is important to grasp every opportunity, irrespective of how weak it may appear, to advance the principles contained in the convention. For that reason, we should support ratification of the convention and seek [1495] to improve it, particularly as regards developing countries and enforcement.

Prior to the Rio conference and subsequently there was a great deal of debate about large international chemical companies going into developing countries and taking materials, traditional cures and other resources for their massive economic benefit, frequently at the expense of the indigenous population. On the other hand, a strong lobby group argued that such indigenous populations should have property rights over those types of resources. I am pleased the Minister addressed this issue and I was particularly interested in his reference to the work of the Andean Pact countries, which we should support. I am also pleased that in lodging the Instrument of Ratification it will be confirmed that it is Ireland's understanding that any transfer of technology between Irish operators and developing countries will be voluntary in nature and respect the principles and rules of intellectual property rights. As an individual State or a member of the European Union we should grasp any opportunity afforded us to strengthen this aspect of the convention.

There is a paradox in this type of convention. We have forced an exploitative model of development on Third World countries which causes the destruction of habitats, over harvesting, pollution and in some cases the introduction of foreign plants and animals. We claim to have learned from our mistakes but enforce our solutions on the Third World. In other words, we will continue to reap the benefits of that development model but not allow the Third World to do likewise. This is causing great tension between north and south of the globe. From a position of massive comparative advantage built up through a particular development model, we are limiting the ability of developing countries to develop and provide for the social and economic well-being of their people. There is an element of hypocrisy in this. Of course, we should learn from mistakes but we should not force solutions [1496] on the Third World countries which we are not prepared to adopt. The provision in the convention to financially assist developing countries should be strengthened. Most of the world's biological diversity is located in developing countries. They cannot be expected to carry the full cost which conservation, sustainable development and compliance with this convention will entail. This fund, therefore, is being set up through the global environment facility which is supposed to provide developing countries with the additional finance which compliance with this convention will require.

Our initial contribution has been assessed by the United Nations at £12,000. That will not do much for anybody. It is calculated as our statutory contribution, as it were, and is to be paid from the overseas development assistance budget. With the massive increase in the overseas aid budget in recent years we have seen decisions by the Government to make additional voluntary contributions to such funds and I urge the Minister and the Minister for Foreign Affairs to make the maximum possible contribution from our overseas development budget to this global environment facility. Otherwise we will condone the paradoxical elements of this convention whereby we are imposing burdens in a pharisaical fashion on many developing countries but we are not prepared to life a finger to support them.

I welcome the Minister's commitment to introduce a coherent plan to look at the various instruments, strategies and measures being adopted in Ireland to comply with this convention and to meet our international obligations in the area of environmental and wildlife protection, sustainable development and so forth. It was a little rich to hear Deputy Ray Burke refer to the cavalier efforts of the Government in this area. For the first time we have a Minister who is trying to ensure that our efforts in this area are anything but cavalier. I compliment the Minister on his commitment to introduce a coherent plan.

[1497] I also welcome the fact that his Department is in the process of drafting a new Wildlife Bill. Many of the obligations which have been imposed on us in this area cannot be met unless there is proper legislation to do so. I offer as an example the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species. The sub-committee on development co-operation held a series of hearings last year on this important convention. The Minister's Department made a presentation in the course of those hearings. The convention limits trade in and movement of endangered species, particularly between the developing and the developed world. We are already bound by the European Union ratification of the convention but I would like to see Ireland ratify this convention — CITES — in its own right. The Minister has assured me that the convention will be ratified once the new Wildlife Bill is passed and I urge the Minister and his Department to proceed with all speed in bringing that legislation before the House. The Irish Woodworkers for Africa led by Mr. Tom Roche has made particular efforts to encourage us as legislators in this direction.

I agree with Deputy Ray Burke and Deputy O'Malley on the need to ensure that we support biodiversity at home as well as abroad. However, REPS is a contentious issue, and not just from a financial point of view. That scheme was hurriedly introduced prior to the last European election to give farmers another sweetener, as it were, but the implications of the scheme were not thought out properly. A number of examples could have been looked at — one in Northern Ireland and two pilot areas in the Republic, in the Slieve Bloom area and the Slyne Head area of Galway. Lessons that could have been learned from those pilot projects were not learned.

I would like to see an element of local negotiation being introduced in the REPS. It has worked in the Burren and it can work in areas such as the Slieve Bloom. If elements of policy and the content of REPS are addressed rather [1498] than just finance we will have a far better scheme which will help us meet our obligations in this area in a more efficient fashion.

Mr. E. Ryan: I welcome the opportunity to speak on this motion and I support this important convention. The convention is a result of the Rio conference, the most important conference ever held on the world's environment. The debate on our environment has been ongoing for many years and the convention tries to deal with some of the problems that have arisen.

The main aim of the convention is the conservation of biological diversity, the sustainable use of its components and the fair and equitable sharing of the benefits arising from the utilisation of genetic resources. It also covers access to genetic resources and the transfer of relevant technologies. Access to genetic resources is an extremely important part of the convention. A number of speakers have mentioned our attitude towards the third world. Access to genetic resources and the transfer of relevant technologies will play a vital part in the future in protecting and cleaning up our environment.

The general aim of the convention is good. Conserving our ecosystems comprises such a variety of issues that it is a subject on which one could speak endlessly. Before the Rio conference many of the environmental problems highlighted and much of the environmental work carried out related to one specific mammal or creature, such as the whale, the turtle and other creatures, in addition to varieties of flora and fauna. That was and is important but what we are discussing now is a much wider issue which involves our ecosystems and the diversity of those ecosystems which is so important.

A number of speakers have mentioned environmental problems in Ireland. There is a problem in Ireland and we cannot ignore our idigenous birds, flora and fauna. To a certain extent we are hyprocritical in this regard but there is a general understanding [1499] now that these are important parts of our environment and should be protected. As I have told the House on previous occasions, the REPS is extremely important. The Minister in answering some of my questions has committed himself to the scheme and recognises its importance. It is an important factor in preserving many species of birds throughout the country and I ask the Minister to ensure that the scheme is maintained and that its problems are resolved. I represent an urban constituency but I have received many letters and telephone calls outlining concerns about how the scheme is being administered. People believe it is not being run properly and in the meantime some bird species are under threat because of its ineffectiveness.

The importance of an ecosystem is measured by its diversity. For example, the ecosystem along the Amazon basin is very complex and survives through its diversity. If this ecosystem was simple it would die during long droughts or heavy rain falls, but because it is so complex certain organisms come to life during dry periods while others come to life during wet periods, thereby helping other species and parts of the ecosystem to survive. We have only touched the tip of the iceberg in terms of the diversity and complexity of ecosystems and as we discover more about them we will be able to benefit from them. It is very important, therefore, to maintain ecosystems as much as possible.

I agree with Deputy Gallagher that it is hypocritical of us to try to impose very stringent environmental legislation on Third World countries. They are trying to attain a standard of living similar to ours, yet we tell them they cannot do certain things for various reasons. Nevertheless, it is correct to highlight the importance of the environment and to ensure that aid is not used for purposes which will give rise to an environmental nightmare in the future, as happened in the past.

One of the best examples of the environmental problems in the Third [1500] World is the destruction caused by oil companies in Nigeria. We have done nothing about this problem because we want the oil and Nigeria needs the revenue generated by this industry. When the reserves run out and the oil companies leave the local people will have to clean up this huge mess and live with the damage caused to their environment. This is an area where action should be taken but we have turned a blind eye to it because we need the resource.

There are many examples which show that people are learning lessons in this area. When I visited Hong Kong a year and a half ago I was staggered by the level of economic growth achieved by countries in the Pacific rim. However, in achieving this economic success immense damage was caused to the environment. While in Hong Kong I visited the most environmentally friendly land fill site I have ever seen. There were approximately one and a half feet of lime under this enormous dump and all the liquid was put through a treatment plant before being pumped into the bay where the water was almost the same quality as drinking water. Obviously Hong Kong is a very wealthy country but many other countries have also started to realise that they will have to do something about the environment. There has been much controversy about land fill sites but if they were as well run as the one I saw in Hong Kong I believe communities would be only too happy to have them in their areas.

There is a strong commercial aspect to this issue and as we learn more about the environment we can apply our knowledge to particular problems. One problem which can be tackled is pollution. The following is the position according to genetic research:

The successful use of micro-organisms in bioremediation depends on the development of a basic understanding of the genetics of a broad spectrum of micro-organisms, many of them not yet isolated or studied in any detail. Micro-organisms adapted [1501] to degrade specific pollutants have been found among populations growing naturally at polluted sites. However, the genetic mechanisms underlying specific adaptations are poorly understood.

In the past, researchers have been unable to conduct genetic studies on these hard-to-culture organisms, but recent developments in molecular biology now make it possible to isolate and study the genes of almost any organism. Scientists can now analyse genes that govern a wide variety of metabolic processes, including the degradation of environmental pollutants.

Some companies, for example, Interbio Laboratories Limited, screen bacteria for their ability to break down pollutants, and the convention will be of help to these companies. It is very important to allow access to technology and genetic resources. I very much welcome the convention and would like to know if it could be referred to the Joint Committee on Sustainable Development which would have much interest in it.

Mr. Nealon: I welcome the convention which arises from the Rio conference on the conservation of our biological diversity. While there has been some destruction, we are fortunate that we became aware of the importance of the environment and conservation before too much damage was done. The same applies in cities in so far as old buildings are concerned.

I wish to alert the Minister to practices of which he may not be fully aware. As much of the land in the west is suitable only for forestry, there has been a huge level of afforestation in recent times. While this is welcome it gives rise to certain difficulties. I understand that the Department of the Environment and the Department of Agriculture, Food and Forestry are engaged in consultations on the planning permission required for forests. I would like the Minister to have an input to this issue. [1502] One problem is that only one species of tree, the sitka spruce, is planted and this leads to an imbalance. There is very little planting of broad leaf species as the land is not suitable for this purpose. Another problem is that in order to maximise income forests are being planted in unacceptable locations, thereby damaging scenery and wildlife habitats and giving rise to knock-on effects.

Planning permission should be required for all forests, irrespective of their size. A person who wants to build a porch onto his house has to obtain planning permission, yet no planning permission is required for the planting of a 500 acre forest which can be located in the most scenic of areas. An effort was made to plant a forest in the only area around Lough Gill from which one could obtain a good view of the Lake Isle of Inisfree, which is famous throughout the world. Perhaps he will name other lakes in his area which are equally famous when he gets time from his duties as Minister for Arts. Culture and the Gaeltacht to concentrate on his poetry writing. As of the moment, the lake isle of Inisfree on Lough Gill is probably more famous than anything on Lough Corrib or the other great lakes in Galway.

There are good effects of forestry, but heritage areas are being gobbled up by forests. It is important, therefore, that there should be control. Naturally, there are vested interests and, probably, conflicting interests between the Department of Agriculture, Food and Forestry and the Department of the Environment. As a person particularly sensitive in this area, who wants to see a balanced result, the Minister should have an input, and the way to do this is to require that planning permission should be obtained in respect of all forests regardless of their size.

Another difficulty, not particularly related to what we are discussing now, is that forests can be planted to within 30 metres of a dwelling. The planting of forests right up to laneways in isolated [1503] parts of the country creates huge difficulties for people living there in that these forests provide ideal cover for criminals casing a house, seeking to commit a burglary or cause injury to the people there. While I very much welcome and support the convention under discussion which arose out of the Rio conference, I ask the Minister to watch what is happening at home and make sure there are no further difficulties. We have been fortunate in that we have not done very much damage. However, the potential for damage is there and that potential is now cloaked by the fact that most people think forestry is a good idea. It is in its proper place, limited and controlled by planning permission.

Minister for Arts, Culture and the Gaeltacht (Mr. M. Higgins): I thank the Deputies who contributed. I very much appreciate the concern expressed on a number of different themes and I hope to take up as many of them as I can in the few minutes available to me.

The reason I exhibit more than usual interest in this is that I was in Rio in another incarnation making a documentary, and the person who showed the most vitality at that conference was Deputy Harney, whom I interviewed in Rio about these issues. It was while I was covering the conference that I became interested in a number of these issues in detail. My memory of that conference and the background to what we are doing today is that there was tension between ecological groups on the one hand, particularly Greenpeace who had a secretariat there, and a group called Business Council for Sustainable Development on the other hand, who were announcing to the world that they had been converted to responsibility in relation to the environment and the balance between the environment and development.

It is reasonable for Deputies to say there is a huge gap between enforceable provisions and what we are doing today. In some senses ratification of these agreements is at the rhetorical end [1504] rather than the implementation end. When one thinks back to UNCED and the forces and interests represented there, I remember distinctly there was a possibility that some of the major countries would not turn up. The approval by the Dáil of today's motion will allow us to proceed with the ratification of the convention at an early date. It is important that this should be completed before Ireland takes up the Presidency of the European Union in July as we will have the role of co-ordinating European Union policy in the months leading up to and during the third meeting of the parties at Buenos Aires in November this year. The convention establishes an obligation on us at a national level in terms of planning sectorally and cross-sectorally. It does not really deal with other matters — many of the other matters raised are outside the terms of the signing of the convention. However, I accept that they are all still relevant.

The latest information we have is that 133 countries have ratified the convention, including all the other European Union countries with the exception of Belgium. The United States of America has not yet ratified it, and that weakens its effectiveness to some extent.

I was asked specific questions by Deputies about our international agreements. Since I was given responsibility for heritage, Ireland has ratified the agreement on the conservation of European bats, and we are about to sign the agreement on the protection of African-Eurasian migratory water birds.

Mr. O'Malley: Did the Minister sign that?

Mr. R. Burke: Late at night?

Mr. M. Higgins: I am delighted to share this information with the small group of enthusiasts who are with me this morning in the wetlands of our concern. We should realise this is not exciting the whole world at the moment, but it is important that we make progress. I appreciate that on all sides of the House and in all parties there has been an [1505] increased and welcome commitment to issues on which we were perhaps a bit cavalier before.

I disagree with Deputy Nealon that we have done little damage yet. We have done quite a good deal of damage. I understand his concerns in relation to the integration of our different policies in relation to afforestation. REPS was mentioned by Deputies Burke and Ryan. In the area of my responsibilities we have made some progress in having meetings between, for example, the National Parks and Wildlife Service and REPS and farming organisations, and we have reached models which badmix some of the balances.

I mentioned the number of signatories, but the conservation and effective management of migratory species of wild animals requires the concerted action of all states within the national jurisdiction of boundaries where such species spend any part of their life cycle. The two I mentioned were obligations that we share simply because of the migratory patterns of the species concerned. It is important not only that we care for the species of wildlife and habitats within our own jurisdiction but that we join with other countries in actions to protect them. The issues with which this convention is concerned are crucial to the future of humankind and of this planet.

Another memory I have of the atmosphere at this convention was of countries and people who were not directly represented, including some of the Pacific countries. An issue which has arisen in contributions here today is that some of the actions are in the provenance of multinationals who are not necessarily accountable to any one jurisdiction. There is the impact of an internationalised globalised form of economic activity, and intergovernmental discussions. Some people are outside the remit even of governmental concerns, for example, some of the Pacific countries and some of the islands, the most controversial of which include [1506] Muraroa and others which were not represented directly. That was one of the legacies of colonisation in the world.

The loss of biodiversity is one of the greatest threats of our time. Biological diversity at all levels, habitats, species and genetic, is being reduced in virtually all parts of the world. Irreversible losses have already occurred. Many species have become extinct, and more will follow. Impending extinction rates are likely to be greater than in the past. The kind of thinking that led to us not only to believe in a single model unilinear development but that it is the only model available to the south countries as well will require considerable revision. We cannot implement these conventions without changing our assumptions on the balance between economic development and the environment. The convention stems from a recognition of the serious state of the environment and the urgent need to take action. The conservation of biological diversity cannot wait and ratification of this convention underlines Ireland's commitment to the urgent task of conserving our national and global heritage.

Deputy Burke raised the issue of the designation of national heritage areas. Some say the proportion of the country that will be designated is too high whereas Deputy Burke thinks a small number of sites will be involved. His support will be appreciated when the areas are designated. There will not be any undue delay with the legislation which is at an advanced stage. One of the difficulties any Minister will have in relation to DHAs and SACs is not so much getting over the technical thresholds but making good legislation fit within the constitutional restraints on private property and the balance between it and the public good.

I thank Deputy O'Malley for complimenting me on my delivery, from him that is a great compliment.

Mr. O'Malley: The Minister sounded as if he were taking about a Tom Murphy play.

[1507] Mr. M. Higgins: We must be holistic. The Deputy is more than a lawyer. I thank him for his good wishes for the Burren. I dealt with the issue of enforceability. As regards the international dimension, I share most of the views expressed. I will follow up the point raised by Deputy Nealon which relates to cross sectoral co-operation.

I have dealt with most of the points raised and welcome the thoughtful contributions of those who spoke.

Question put and agreed to.