The Global Taxonomy Initiative: Shortening the Distance between Discovery and Delivery

Australian Biological Resources Study
Environment Australia, Department of the Environment and Heritage, 1998
ISBN-10 (printed): 0 642 56803 0
ISBN-13 (printed): 978 0 642 56803 8

3. Implementing the Global Taxonomy Initiative

Implementing programmes with a primary taxonomic focus under the GEF will require some examination and elaboration of the Operational Programme and Operational Strategy of the GEF. It will require, in particular, moving from the purely ecosystem focus of the programmes to embrace taxonomic support as a primary underpinning theme. The CoP to the CBD may also need to reinterpret its instructions to the GEF to clarify this issue, following the detailed study of this issue at the next SBSTTA meeting, to be held in May 1999.

During discussion at the SBSTTA meeting, it is important to recognise that taxonomic efforts:

  • are labour intensive processes, due to the large number of organisms involved, and as such require specialist training of the necessary personnel, and the creation of infrastructures within developing countries where reference collections often do not exist. This problem is amplified by the fact that the taxonomic impediment is most severe in the countries which are megadiverse (containing the richest genetic and species diversity, and with the most complex land- and seascape texture).
  • must be performed on a regional or global basis and not just nationally, as species do not follow national borders.
  • are usually not best performed on an ecosystem-by-ecosystem basis, as many taxa are found in, and are important components of, more than one ecosystem.
  • require cooperative action, in both developed and developing countries, as the existing infrastructure and expertise are concentrated in developed countries, and this expertise needs to be refined and improved in the developing countries. Taxonomic institutions of developed countries have very significant amounts of information from all over the world; these museums and herbaria are essential resources for researchers from all countries.

Framework taxonomic activity, which is necessary to help implement the CBD, and which requires differing levels of support from the GEF, includes:

  • creation of taxonomic infrastructure (collections, equipment, human resources) in countries where it does not yet exist, or is poorly developed or inadequate, and improvement of existing infrastructure especially in developed countries.
  • projects focused on particular priority taxa, especially those with a high number of species or with known or potential impact on humans/human activity, or which are threatened by human activity.
  • projects compatible with the ecosystem approach, as recommended by SBSTTA and adopted by the CoP. For example, such projects might focus on a particular ecological function (e.g. pollination) and examine all taxa involved in that function.
  • inventories of the taxa at a single site or at the regional level, to provide the basis for biodiversity assessments and subsequent monitoring efforts.
  • projects to develop tools that disseminate taxonomic information as widely as possible (e.g., keys for identifying organisms, regional Floras, databases) in a variety of media.

Appropriate infrastructure is needed in all countries. While some developing countries lack infrastructure, even developed countries have institutions which lack modern infrastructure. It would be appropriate to ensure information held within the large collections accumulated by former colonial powers was made available at the same time as building management capacity across the world.

Partnerships are central to the success of the GTI. Partnerships can be bilateral, regional or global, depending on the issues or the problems. It would be useful to develop a list of topic areas for which partnerships could and should be established. Such a list could be compiled under the auspices of the CBD, using the secretariat officer, and funded by a one-year GEF grant.

Training programmes in taxonomy are critical. There is opportunity for mentor or internship projects, in which students from developing countries can spend time in collaboration with taxonomic experts in developed countries. Such experts should also visit institutions in developing countries for short (3–6 month) periods to impart knowledge in that way. Training must be focused on “threatened knowledge”—taxonomic expertise that resides with only a few people. Training also needs to be linked to long-term employment opportunities.

Components of the Global Taxonomy Initiative

The GTI must be implemented at all levels, nationally as well as internationally, to achieve its objectives. Countries must use their National Biodiversity Action Plans to develop their components of the GTI, and integrate them with other elements to implement the CBD, as well as the objectives of all the post-Rio Conventions to which they are signatories (CBD, United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (FCCC), Convention to Combat Desertification (CCD)). The cooperative nature of the GTI will make it particularly effective in enhancing taxonomic capacity in all nations.

The GTI must be a system which encourages communication within the taxonomic community, but also encourages outreach to the wider biodiversity community. The taxonomic community should also be intimately involved in the preparation of material to discuss these issues at all political levels.

Operational Guidelines must be developed which amplify how the CBD requires the GTI to work; the guidelines would then be promulgated through professional societies and institutions for wider acceptance by the taxonomic community. Elucidation of the linkages between different existing activities and groups is an urgent need, so that they can be integrated into a cohesive overall strategy at the global level. Currently the linkages between taxonomy (academic) and the biodiversity community are not adequate and need to be improved.

The plan of action developed for the GTI must include links with, where appropriate, the principles of the Malawi meeting on the ecosystem approach, and the recommendations of the Mexico DIVERSITAS meeting on the science behind the key Articles of the CBD. The end result must be a plan of action which places taxonomy as a cornerstone within the scientific basis of the CBD mandate, and is particularly focused on outputs at a practical level, within the broader outcome of improved knowledge of biodiversity.

Of course, the GTI cannot be, and should not pretend to be, everything to all people. It needs to focus on the priority issues that it can hope to address in the short to medium term, to build capacity across the range of levels required to rapidly enhance our taxonomic capacity to support decision-making. Priority-setting to speed up relevant regional projects that fulfil the needs of the CBD and enhance taxonomic capacity are key requirements. The GTI plan of action must provide firm recommendations on taxonomy training issues at a range of levels.

While taxonomy is a foundation science it must also meet the changing requirements of society and seek out innovative approaches to meeting these needs. Greater communication with the science community and the wider biodiversity community are essential. Accordingly, the GTI plan of action must elucidate the role of taxonomy in the major elements of the CBD, for example, how systematics fits in with conservation through creation of protected areas, sustainable use and agrobiodiversity, and benefit sharing of knowledge, as well as within the ecosystem themes already identified by the CoP.

The London meeting of scientific experts recognised the need to develop a clear and open mechanism for the implementation of the GTI, as a key component of the ecosystem approach for implementing the CBD. The meeting also noted the linkage between the GTI and the ecosystem approach. The CoP has already identified the GEF as the primary funding agency for these efforts, although the London meeting recognised the possibility and desirability of a range of funding support, covering taxonomic activity in all countries.

Role of the World’s Great Institutions

The world’s largest and oldest Museums and Botanical Gardens have a key role in ensuring the level of taxonomic activity is maintained and enhanced. They are also repositories of significant amounts of taxonomic information, and the potential source of training opportunities for the developing world.

Yet many of these institutions are also resource-poor. Solutions to resolve the taxonomic impediment must address appropriate funding to maintain existing collections as well as providing capacity-building in developing countries, where national collections are absent or poor in quality and maintenance standards.

Role of DIVERSITAS in mobilising the wider community

DIVERSITAS was established in 1991 by a number of scientists from all parts of the world. It is a partnership of international organisations, formed to promote, facilitate and catalyse scientific research on biodiversity-its origin, composition, ecosystem function, maintenance, and conservation. The DIVERSITAS umbrella has a number of key Elements, one of which is “systematic inventory-discovering and describing the world’s species”. This activity aims to contribute significantly to implementation of Article 7(a) of the CBD by stimulating focused scientific, coordinating and training activities that support and further develop the GTI.

As a global non-governmental group, DIVERSITAS has a role in mobilising the wider scientific community to embrace the aims of the GTI, by incorporating taxonomic objectives into the projects it sponsors, and bridging the gap between this community and the decision-makers.

Linkage between the GTI and existing and proposed initiatives

In recognition of the fundamental nature of taxonomy to biodiversity research and management, the GTI must be linked to existing biodiversity initiatives and be incorporated into all proposed initiatives.

As the GTI develops, the establishment of a national focal point for taxonomy may be appropriate for some countries. Such a focal point could link taxonomic information derived from systematic studies, ecological studies, economic perspectives and other sources both national and international. It could be a virtual reference centre, rather than a physical one. The amount of information available will depend of course on what is made available by taxonomic institutions around the world. It is clear that a programme of digitising large collections to aid information sharing may well need to be undertaken. Such a programme, however, needs to be evaluated against other pressing issues in the GTI.

Bioinformatics is essential to enable the GTI to function. At present the Clearing House Mechanism of the CBD (CBD-CHM) is an available, but still developing, resource, and the OECD countries are proposing the establishment of a Global Biodiversity Information Facility (GBIF). This is envisaged as an umbrella facility, which could link regional initiatives, and link with the CBD-CHM. Partnerships between these actual and developing initiatives, and a clear and unambiguous linkage to the GTI as an internationally endorsed process, will be crucial to their success.

Bioinformatics systems must be developed at two levels. First, the basic information on specimen collections must be made available widely, including through the Internet. Internet access facilities in institutions of developing countries are thus also a priority. Second, it is necessary to accelerate innovation in information presentation, such as:

  • Species checklists (the Catalog of Life/Species 2000 at the heart of the proposed GBIF is one example here)
  • Image-based identification keys
  • Automated identification
  • Software to help collection management
  • GIS related applications for biogeographic aspects

Most important is to develop basic protocols for distributed systems. For some categories of information, e.g. mapping protocols, data interchange standards, conservation status of organisms, there are already international standards adopted or endorsed by the Taxonomic Databases Working Group (TDWG), a commission of the International Union of Biological Sciences (IUBS). These standards are being developed de novo by sections of the scientific community as commercial products are rarely appropriate.