Wildlife Matters - Biodiversity policy revisited

“MALAYSIA is committed to conserving its biological diversity, promoting its sustainable use and ensure fair and equitable sharing of the benefits arising out of the utilisation of biological resources.”

SO reads the policy statement of the National Policy on Biological Diversity for 2016-2025. Officially launched in February to replace its 1998 predecessor, it has been a much awaited policy document for conservationists and environmental enthusiasts like me. I had written about the anticipated policy in January 2015 and this can be regarded as my follow up. Arguably, it is the aficionado document that drives biodiversity conservation in Malaysia and is hopefully embraced by all government stakeholders.

In a nutshell, the policy incorporates the following prescriptions:

» Five overarching goals, which include empowerment of stakeholders, safeguarding biodiversity, equitable benefit sharing, reducing pressures on biodiversity and improving capacity to protect our biodiversity.

» The goals above are supported by national biodiversity “targets” that we aim to achieve by 2025. There are 17 targets ranging from preventing the extinction of known threatened species to increasing funds for biodiversity conservation from both government and private sector.

» The 17 targets are accompanied by a set of “actions” that detail specific steps to be applied towards reaching the targets. There are 57 key actions, related to the 17 targets and these 57 key actions are further detailed into well over 100 sub-set actions. It is here, in the sub-set regions of the policy that I worry most about implementation feasibility.

The 1998 policy suffered from an overly general action plan framework that did little to spur implementation in a guided and strategic way. In the new policy, while there is validity in the sub-set actions, implementation in its totality is going to be an uphill task. I would think the immediate task ahead for the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment is to conduct a rapid priority, distillation and interpretation exercise against the sub-set actions, to kick things into gear.

The new policy does record some significant changes in approach that have the potential of ensuring implementation success. These include a phasing out of key actions over a period (with reviews in between), a monitoring framework (alongside key indicators) to gauge implementation progress, as well as identification of institutional platforms that guide implementation.

I am happy to see within the policy the intention to actively engage the legislature and judiciary to raise awareness on biodiversity values and thereby increasing capacity to safeguard it. To this end the policy states that an “Environmental parliamentary caucus” will be established to enable lawmakers to “actively participate in biodiversity-related decision making”. I find this exciting but at the same time with no further detailing, it’s difficult to wrap your head around the actual objectives of the caucus. In my view, the level of detail in relation to new institutional structures should be higher than other propositions set forth in the policy as it offers insight into what gaps we are trying to address in the present governance system. Furthermore, the present caucus system is ad-hoc arrangements, and unlike parliamentary select committees, is informal without necessarily having a long-term station within the parliamentary system.

Environmental matters per se are not prioritised by lawmakers. Environment related laws or amendments to laws proceeding to Parliament are few and far between. It is therefore not surprising that lawmakers are generally not fully engaged in environmental matters.

So the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment will not only have to clearly articulate the overall intent and key arrangements envisaged for such a caucus but also ensure that lawmakers are properly educated and appraised on the issues involved in safeguarding our biodiversity. So perhaps before getting lawmakers actively involved in decision making we need to get them ready to be effectively involved. That process needs to be outlined first.

Environmental matters are after all multi-sectoral, geo-politically complex, multi-dimensional and fraught with jurisdictional issues.

The policy also touches on the need to provide our environmental courts with “necessary resources” to effectively handle environmental cases.

Resources aside, some other immediate questions arise. What is really the pith and substance of our environmental courts? How do we measure up against benchmarks/best practices for such courts?

Perhaps it’s not within the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Natural Resources to call for an assessment of the entire working modality of the environmental courts but nevertheless it’s a matter that needs attention.

I am not referring to administrative arrangements and expediency in disposal of environmental cases but rather where we stand in terms of expanding the realm of environmental jurisprudence through adjudication.

Also key in the environmental court discussion is the issue of sufficient expertise within the judiciary on environmental matters. The current environmental court has under its purview (in Peninsular Malaysia) almost 21 pieces of legislation dealing with offences ranging from illegal wildlife trade to pollution. That’s a tall order.

There is consequently a need for judicial officers to be provided with all necessary assistance in terms of training to carry out their tasks effectively. This is no easy endeavour considering that even if judicial officers sitting in the environmental courts are provided with the required knowledge and training there is no assurance that they will continue their tenure in that position as they may, as they often are, be transferred to other courts or other positions within the judicial service.

One way of tackling this issue would be to make legislative amendments to permit experts to preside on environmental cases together with the judicial officer. I acknowledge that this may not be a feasible option in all environment-related legislation but where possible it is an option that ought to be considered.

The action point on environmental courts would have benefited from the inclusion of formulating pathways towards lending scientific and technical expertise to the judiciary in environmental cases.

I wish the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment all the best in implementing the policy.

Preetha is an advocate and solicitor. She has spent many years in the environmental conservation arena. Comments: letters@thesundaily.com