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Revitalizing a Forgotten Treaty on Nature Protection

Natural Resources

In the autumn of 1940, as war raged in Europe and Asia, representatives of 17 democracies of the Americas met in Washington, D.C., to negotiate the Convention on Nature Protection and Wild Life Preservation in the Western Hemisphere. Nineteen countries, including the United States, have ratified the Convention, which if revitalized could provide a strong framework for enhancing the conservation of the hemisphere’s remarkable shared natural heritage. 

Leading such an effort could partly reverse the Biden administration’s tepid showing at this June’s Summit of the Americas, furthering not only conservation but also economic integration and stability in the hemisphere.

The 1940 Convention endorses a comprehensive, modern approach to its goal of protecting and preserving “native flora and fauna, including migratory birds.” It calls on each party to establish national parks and other protected areas; protect plants and animals generally; take measures to protect migratory birds; and restrict the hunting and capture, as well as the export and import, of certain listed species. The parties also agree to collaborate in scientific conservation-related research and to share equally the benefits of that scientific research.

Due in no small part to the Convention, national parks and other protected areas now dot the Pan-American landscape, providing both ecologic and economic benefits. Areas of vital habitat, as well as areas of unique scientific or scenic value, have been preserved for humanity. Under the Convention, countries from the United States to Costa Rica, to Chile and Argentina, have taken steps to protect nature and conserve species in national parks and protected areas, with derivative benefits for battling climate change and building a dynamic ecotourism industry. 

Yet, conservation efforts under the Convention, and in the Western Hemisphere more generally, suffer from a lack of international coordination and institutional support. Separate treaties and a variety of less formal networks, partnerships, and collaborations address the hemisphere’s migratory birds, sea turtles, marine mammals, monarch butterflies, and coral reefs, but these efforts are under-resourced and isolated, lacking a comprehensive coordinating policy or institutional framework.  

The Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wildife (CMS) could in theory provide an effective framework for cooperation on nature conservation in the Americas as it has for Europe, but relatively few countries in this hemisphere are parties. The United States and Mexico, for example, are parties to the Western Hemisphere Convention but not the Convention on Migratory Species.

While the Western Hemisphere Convention enjoys greater acceptance, the parties have not held a formal meeting since the treaty was ratified in 1940. The Convention also lacks a functioning secretariat (a professional office to support implementation). Since the 1940s, we have learned that regular meetings and a well-funded, full-time secretariat are essential for the effectiveness of environmental treaties, and in this case could help governments and the entire conservation community to do the following: 

  • Share scientific knowledge and policy initiatives.
  • Mobilize public and private resources for more effective science-based conservation, which targets the most critical points in the life cycles of migratory species.
  • Set hemispheric priorities for conservation, including for climate mitigation or reducing drivers of immigration.
  • Bring collective attention to specific transnational threats to nature.

A Threatened Heritage

Our hemisphere’s shared natural heritage is one of the most visible and tangible wonders that bind us together. The annual bird migration between wintering grounds in Central and South America and summer breeding grounds in North America is one of the great wildlife spectacles on the planet. Sea turtles, whales, dragonflies, and monarch butterflies are all “citizens” of the hemisphere. 

Whether it’s the Amazon or the Grand Canyon, Patagonia, or the boreal forests, Niagara or Iguazu Falls, the Great American Reef or Caribbean beaches, the hemisphere’s natural riches are places of national pride and of international destination that contribute to our collective sense of being from the Americas.

This shared heritage is also threatened. 

Former President Donald Trump’s climate denialism and Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro’s deforestation campaign, for example, have caused unprecedented harm to vital ecosystems and demonstrated the need for more effective regional forums for expressing collective concerns. The Convention offers an opportunity for the region to address conservation in a spirt of partnership and cooperation, while enabling international pressure to be brought on those national actions that threaten extreme environmental damage to the region. 

In sum, the Convention is a low-risk, high-reward pathway for the Biden administration to strengthen our strategic relationships in the hemisphere. Because the United States has already ratified the treaty, the administration can use its executive authority to convene the parties and other countries in the hemisphere to set out a roadmap for enhancing cooperative conservation. 

Not only would a revitalized Convention provide essential protections for our shared natural patrimony, but it would also strengthen our relationships in the Western Hemisphere generally, with critical spillover effects for economic cooperation, peace, and security in the region. 

This post is a collaboration of Member Scholar David Hunter, and William Snape, III (Practitioner-in-Residence, Environmental and Energy Fellow, American University Washington College of Law) and Shade Streeter (Juris Doctor (expected 2024), American University Washington College of Law).

Natural Resources

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