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"We Can't Live Without Ecosystems"

DW-WORLD.DE spoke with the future head of the United Nations Environment Program, Achim Steiner, about biodiversity issues, the problem of competing interests, and his plans for the future of the organization.

Achim Steiner will take over as director of UNEP in June

German conservationist Achim Steiner will succeed Klaus Töpfer as head of the UN Environment Program (UNEP) on June 15. Since 2001, the Brazilian-born Steiner has been the director-general of the World Conservation Union, the world's largest environmental network with over 1000 members in 140 countries. DW-WORLD.DE spoke with Steiner about the Convention on Biological Diversity currently being held in Curitiba, Brazil, and about his plans for UNEP.

DW-WORLD.DE: You were born in Brazil; what still binds you to the country?

Achim Steiner: One thing, certainly, are my memories of my childhood in the country, because we lived on a Fazenda, or farm, which is a wonderful way to grow up. Since then, I've had quite a lot to do with Brazil in my work in international environment policy, such as the Earth Summit in Rio in 1992, but also just in terms of different networks and friendships.

One of the results of the Rio summit is the Convention on Biological Diversity -- until the end of March, delegates from 187 countries will be discussing diversity issues in Curitiba. What do you expect to come out of this conference?

The big expectation from Curitiba is that many of the ideas, resolutions and goals that were negotiated in recent years and where there is agreement, will now be given concrete measures so that they can be realized. We often find ourselves at such conferences on the edge of the theoretical and not necessarily the practical, which is due to the complexity of the topics and the variety of different interests represented -- something that plays a big role when it comes to the use of natural resources and their sustainability.

You mentioned conflicts of interest, something you have already addressed together with Klaus Töpfer at a discussion at the University of Mainz. Is biodiversity at the mercy of economic globalization?

That's expressing it a little too simply. With that topic, I was trying to make the point that we're still just observing the loss of species on our planet instead of doing anything against it. We can look into all the future prospects we want with regard to economic growth and wealth, but if we continue to lose biodiversity at the current rate, then the future at some point comes to an end, because ecosystems can't survive this development, and we can't survive without ecosystems. The idea that spread at the start of the 20th century, that technological progress would eventually make us independent from nature, has turned out to be an illusion, not least because of things like climate change and the threat to our freshwater resources. That's why we need business and industry to become more engaged with this challenge.

Environmental activists have criticized the negotiations around the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety (which aims to ensure countries can protect their biodiversity from potential risks of genetically modified organisms), saying that they were "hijacked" by agricultural and multinational biotech firms. Do you agree with this criticism?

There is certainly an interest on the side of employers to drag out goals and timeframes for as long as possible. But you also have to accept that the discussion about the use of genetically manipulated products is not just influenced by international companies, but also by very strong national and political interests. Import countries want to know what's in the products, export countries are worried about excessive trade barriers. But this is no reason to abandon attempts to reach a compromise, because this is a further step towards having clear information. It's just happening much more slowly and less concretely than we had wished.

March 21 was World Forestry Day; March 22 was World Water Day. What do such days achieve?

Awareness. I think that's the most important thing. You can only expect politicians and governments to take action when the public is aware of the problem and believes that something can be done about it. Discussions about environmental issues are often accompanied by a sense of disempowerment, and a certain level of frustration that all we do is criticize. But these dedicated days can help establish that, despite all the problems, there are still a lot of examples from all over the world that show how we can make things better.

On June 15, you will succeed Klaus Töpfer as head of UNEP. What goals have you set for your term in office? Will the status of UNEP be enhanced to that of a UN Environment Organization, as many Europeans are already demanding?

It would be nice if that were my decision to make, but I think that the role of the executive director of UNEP is mainly to help bring about consensus on what future the program has in the framework of the United Nations. We have to deal on the one hand with ever increasing challenges and responsibilities, but at the same time, we have to come to terms with the fact that there's no overarching opinion among the member countries about how UNEP should develop in the future. Right now, reforms are in the works that will change the work and the context of UNEP. That's why I think that, in the coming year, important decisions will be made -- decisions which at the moment, before I've taken on my post, I am unable to influence.

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