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

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Report from a meeting at the Linnean Socienty, London, September 10–11, 1998, convened by DIVERSITAS, Environment Australia and the Global Environment Facility’s Scientific and Technical Advisory Panel

The views and opinions expressed in this document are not necessarily those of the then publisher, Environment Australia, Canberra.


1. Introduction

In February 1998, The Darwin Declaration began by stating that:

“The governments of the world that recognise the Convention on Biological Diversity have affirmed the existence of a taxonomic impediment to sound management and conservation of biodiversity. Removal of this impediment is a crucial, rate-determining step in the proper implementation of the Convention’s objectives. There is an urgent need to train and support more taxonomic experts, and to strengthen the infrastructure required to discover and understand the relationships among the world’s biological diversity.

Information derived from biological collections held in the world’s taxonomic institutions underpins the global, regional and national efforts to conserve biological diversity. The collections, staff and associated information serve as an essential resource for countries in fulfilling their obligations under the Convention on Biological Diversity.

Accordingly, a taxonomic perspective should be integrated into policies and programmes established at all levels of government to achieve sustainable development and conserve biodiversity. These policies and programmes include, but are not limited to, agriculture, forestry, fisheries, habitat management (including protection of threatened species), biological resources for medicine and human health, energy production, land use planning to accommodate human population growth, use of traditional knowledge, environmental education and training, ecotourism and bioprospecting. In addition, taxonomy should underscore all national, regional and global programmes for inventory and monitoring of biological resources in ecosystems and requirements for broad-scale environmental assessment.”

Taxonomy is the science of discovering, describing and naming the individual species of plants and animals, including microscopic forms, that make up the biota, and of elucidating their relationships to provide a classification. Taxonomy provides the reference system for all organisms, and the framework on which the skills to identify and specify the elements of biodiversity are based. As such, it has been recognised by the Conference of Parties (CoP) to the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), in their Decisions II/8, III/10 and IV/1, as being fundamental to the CBD and needing support by the Global Environment Facility (GEF) (Decisions III/10 and IV/1). The CoP therefore endorsed the Global Taxonomy Initiative (GTI) to promote capacity-building in taxonomy.

A great deal of extra work has been done on implementation of the GTI, outside of the CBD framework although complementary to it. The Darwin Declaration was the report of a workshop held in Darwin (Australia) in January 1998, under the auspices of the Smithsonian Institution and Environment Australia, to develop an action plan for implementing the GTI. A second meeting was held in London in September 1998, at the Linnean Society, under the auspices of DIVERSITAS, the Science and Technical Panel of the GEF and Environment Australia. While this meeting addressed the further steps required to implement the GTI, a key feature was seen to be the need to shorten the path between discovery and documentation of living creatures and the delivery of relevant outcomes in the context of the CBD.
This document reports the outcomes of that meeting, and provides additional documentation to help policy makers in the CBD, UNEP and the GEF family to assist in the delivery of outcomes to hasten the removal of the taxonomic impediment identified in The Darwin Declaration.


Some history

The Global Taxonomy Initiative is a response to a recognised taxonomic impediment to conservation and management of the world’s biodiversity. The taxonomic impediment is a term that describes the gaps of knowledge in our taxonomic system (including knowledge gaps associated with genetic systems), the shortage of trained taxonomists and curators, and the impact these deficiencies have on our ability to manage and conserve our biological diversity.

The present level of taxonomic resources is inadequate for the proper documentation of taxa whose existence is known, let alone for the discovery and identification of the taxa whose existence is suspected.

The GTI aims to provide the impetus to address the taxonomic impediment at a variety of levels:

  • Gathering of facts: collection of specimens and the maintenance of those collections.
  • Development of information: compilation and organisation of basic data from the collections into databases, regional checklists, maps, etc.
  • Development of knowledge: synthesis of those data, into monographs, floras, faunas, keys etc.Each level of increasing complexity delivers information crucial to effective implementation of the CBD.

The overall objectives of the GTI were considered by the Subsidiary Body on Scientific, Technical and Technological Advice (SBSTTA) of the CBD. That body, in its recommendation II/2, found an extraordinary level of agreement among delegates that enhanced taxonomic capacity is a sine qua non for the implementation of the Convention and recommended that the CoP consider the following:

“There is a scarcity of taxonomists, taxonomic collections, and institutional facilities, and there is a need to take measures to alleviate this situation worldwide, to facilitate and assist countries in implementing the Convention on Biological Diversity. In particular, national institutions and regional and subregional networks should be established or strengthened and linkages enhanced with taxonomic institutions in developing and developed countries. In strengthening the taxonomic base, consideration must be given to the information needs for bioprospecting, habitat conservation, sustainable agriculture and the sustainable utilisation of biological resources.

Capacity-building for taxonomy should be linked to the effective implementation of the Convention on Biological Diversity, particularly the national identification of areas of high diversity; improving the understanding of ecosystem functioning; giving priority to threatened taxa, taxa that are or may be of value to humanity, and those with potential use as biological indicators for conservation and sustainable use of biological diversity.

Development of guidelines and programme priorities for funding, including for the financial mechanism under the Convention, should take account of the specific needs for capacity-building in taxonomy to serve areas such as bioprospecting, habitat conservation and the sustainable use of biological diversity. Such support should recognise the need for adequate, long-term housing of collections and records and long-term research.

For new taxonomists to be recruited, there is a need to provide employment opportunities. It is urgent that Parties take this need into consideration and integrate it into the programme of capacity-building.

Where appropriate, national taxonomic needs assessment and action plans should be developed by setting national priorities, mobilising available institutional resources, and identifying available funds. Countries could benefit from regional and subregional collaboration.

The importance of establishing regional and subregional training programmes was recognised. Attention should also be given to the training of specialists, parataxonomists, and technicians in this field. The field of taxonomy must be integrated with training activities such as biological monitoring and assessments. Maximum use should be made of existing institutions and those organisations active in these fields.

There is an urgent need to make the information on existing taxonomic knowledge, including information about the taxa in worldwide collections, available to countries of origin.

Taxonomic information to assist capacity-building in taxonomy should be included within the clearing-house mechanism. The taxonomic work embodied in existing archives and inventories, field guides and publications needs to be updated and readily accessible through worldwide services and the duplication of work already conducted should be avoided. The dissemination of information should further the objectives of the Convention and be linked to user needs. This sharing of information will require greater international collaboration. It should also be recognised that traditional taxonomic systems offer a valuable perspective on biological diversity and should be considered part of the total taxonomic knowledge base at national, regional and subregional levels.

Since taxonomy generally involves the use of biological collections, those concerned should consider the adoption of mutually agreed upon material transfer agreements or equivalent instruments in accordance with the provisions of the Convention on Biological Diversity for exchange of biological specimens and information relating to them.

The Conference of the Parties should consider instructing the Global Environment Facility to support a Global Taxonomy Initiative, providing the necessary funds for the following actions related to capacity-building in taxonomy:

(a) developing national, regional and subregional training programmes;

(b) strengthening reference collections in countries or origin including, where appropriate, the exchange of paratypes on mutually agreed upon terms;

(c) making information housed in collections worldwide and the taxonomy based on them available to the countries of origin;

(d) producing and distributing regional taxonomic guides;

(e) strengthening infrastructure for biological collections in countries of origin, and the transfer of modern technologies for taxonomic research and capacity-building; and

(f) disseminating taxonomic information worldwide, inter alia by the clearing-house mechanism.”

The CoP of the CBD subsequently endorsed the GTI, agreeing to a number of specific actions (Decision IV/1). Specific advice to the GEF was also contained in this decision viz:

“CoP stresses the urgent need for adequate financial resources to implement a Global Taxonomy Initiative and requests the institutional structure of the financial mechanism of the Convention to provide financial resources, particularly to assist in implementing, through country-driven activities within the context of the operational programmes of the GEF, the suggestions for action annexed to the present decision.”

The Political Decision is in place – now we need action!


The views and opinions expressed in this publication are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of the Australian Government or the Minister for Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities.

While reasonable efforts have been made to ensure that the contents of this publication are factually correct, the Commonwealth does not accept responsibility for the accuracy or completeness of the contents, and shall not be liable for any loss or damage that may be occasioned directly or indirectly through the use of, or reliance on, the contents of this publication.

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