WOC Diary: Let’s talk about CITES

CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species) is a subject that inevitably provokes orchid growers. No one is indifferent to it. Harold Koopowitz, a university professor and author of many books on conservation, covered the subject in his lecture on Friday, and again moderated a panel discussion on the same topic on Sunday. I attended both sessions; there was no way that I would miss the fun.

Koopowitz is not alone when he describes CITES in no uncertain terms as “a waste of time”. In fact, he’s in good company; Phillip Cribbs describes it as "a pain in the butt". In his Friday lecture, Koopowitz covered the origins of the CITES agreement and the evolution of attitudes towards it.

According to Koopowitz, CITES was originally set up by ecologists who were concerned about the trade in commercial products of endangered species. Along the way this ideal changed, so that CITES became more about the control of movement of species across international borders. It suddenly began to influence things that have nothing to do with conservation by authorities determined to enforce the letter of the law, and not the spirit of the law.

Unfortunately, CITES is subject to interpretation by individual governments. Some simply don’t pay any attention to it, and others, like the United States, take it to absurd lengths. He went on to say that there were at least 50 plants in this show that would trigger arrests and jail if the show were taking place in the United States.

He then went on to outline the evolving attitudes of orchidists towards CITES:

1976 – 1986: Goodwill and Trust. Growers took the regulations at face value, and believed that if a plant was on the appendices, it was actually endangered. This however, was not true. Plants were listed just so that authorities could monitor what kind of plants were being traded. They used the regulations to find out how big the trade market of orchids really was, since they did not know.

1987 – 1996: Antagonism. Paphipedilums and phragmipediums were uplisted to Appendix I based on poor evidence, and based on the rationale that customs officers could not be expected to differentiate between endangered and non-endangered species. It made no sense; hybrids weren’t listed, and customs officers could not be expected to differentiate between species and hybrids either.

CITES started to get in the way of salvage operations. Habitat containing endangered orchids could be destroyed, but no one was allowed to collect the orchids in that habitat because of the very fact they were endangered.

Then Europe, but not the U.S., began to allow the trade of artificially propagated species. However, the required paper trail back to the salvage operation over time made the bureaucracy for growers and buyers unworkable. Endangered paphs started showing up on the black market, proving that CITES was not working.

1998 – present: Skepticism. CITES is widely seen as doing nothing but make rules. Big money is able to get around it. For example, every product containing vanilla should have required a CITES permit, but vanilla products were rapidly deregulated — within just six short months. On the other hand, it took less influential parties ten years to persuade authorities to deregulate the trade in flasks (artificially propagated plants).

Koopowitz left the audience to ponder two questions:

1) Has the money to implement and regulate CITES been well spent?
2) How many of the 30,000 species of orchids in the world have been saved by CITES?

CITES Panel Discussion

On Sunday, Koopowitz moderated a panel discussion about CITES. I’m unsure of the identity of all the participants (the panel was changed after the schedule was printed), but to the best of my knowledge it consisted of:

  • S. Dunand – an expert in ex-situ culture and propagation of endangered orchids
  • Philippe Feldman, Director of Research for CIRAD and active for the past 20 years in orchid conseration in Guadeloupe’s National parks
  • Representative from CITES France or "DIREN" (Regional Department of the Environment)
  • G. Chiron, AFCEV (Association Francaise pour la Conservation des Especes Vegetales)
  • H. Oakley, Trustee of the World Orchid Conference Trust
  • P. Cribb – Curator of the Orchid Herbarium at Kew, and Chairman of IUCAN Species Survival Commission’s Orchid Specialist Group.

What follows is a transcript I took of the questions posed to the panel, and their responses.

Question (Alasdair Morrison): Can the panel give examples of positive achievement by CITES for orchid conservation?

KOOPOWITZ: Yes, it alerted governments that there was a problem and that plants need conservation, so they have enacted internal regulations. I can’t think of an example of a particular plant saved in-situ, because CITES only applies over international borders. Cites does nothing to prevent trade inside country. For example, P. micranthum became very popular as a pot plant in china even though it couldn’t be traded outside country. The other positive achievement is that the government of Peru has recognized that it has to get into trade to save wild populations — two flasks of phrag. kovachii are for sale here at the show that have been licensed by the Peruvian government.

Sometimes there are more plants in cultivation than ever existed in the wild, such as P. rothchildianum.

CRIBB: Phagmipedium besseae is another example. Wild populations have recovered in some localities because better clones have been developed in captivity. There must be ways that a limited number of plants can be supplied to nurseries who are given licenses to sell the plants.

Question (Harold Koopowitz): One of problems is that it regulates
things that it shouldn’t have anything to do with such as herbarium
species, specimens for research, plus garden hybrids. Any ideas on how
this can be deregulated?

CRIBB: people don’t understand how CITES operates. Every two years a “Conference of the Parties” brings together representatives from all countries, including environmental officials and research scientists. The meetings are highly political, and much lobbying goes on before the meeting ever takes place to get governments to agree to push resolutions through. The orchid community not well represented, and has not presented a good lobby and convincing documentation. The American Orchid Society has attended in the past to supply information, and so has the Royal Botanical Garden to an extent. What is successful is good argumentation & gentle lobbying. What is not successful is shouting & aggressive behaviour toward the delegates. CITES by its very nature incites passions and ruins businesses, but we won’t get anywhere by being negative and aggressive. We must adopt a political approach and lobby as a community.

I think that deregulation of hybrids will happen in the next few years except for appendix I species. Phal hybrids have been deregulated; if this causes no problems, the incentive will exist to expand the deregulation because it costs money to support the CITES bureaucracy. I think that the regulation of scientific & herbarium material is anti-conservation. It may take 10-15 years of gentle lobbying to change this, but I believe that common sense will eventually prevail.

CITES FRANCE: Good arguments are needed: I think that CITES is not the best venue for the control of illegal movement of orchids, that individual countries should take care of it. CITES does not limit scientific research, it is exempt if you are working on research that is recognized by the government. If you are doing research, you need to have documents to make sure plants are being removed legally.

UNKNOWN: The application of conventions by individual countries presents problems that are much broader and creates barriers to getting permits. Countries interpret CITES in their own way. Many tropical countries reluctant to provide permits, as they are concerned about the pillage of their resources, or don’t have infrastructure in place to do it.

CRIBB: Botanical materials can be exchanged between institutes that are registered. However, many of the countries where most orchids are found refuse to register their institutes. You can only get an export permit is by bribing. Plus, you can’t get CITES permit for a new species because it hasn’t been named.

Question: Is the commercial sector the main problem in orchid conservation?

KOOPOWITZ: I believe that trade is a minor component, it is mostly deforestation and land conversion that are the real threats, as well as the collection of wild plants for herbal remedies.

Question: Shouldn’t conservation be a requirement for listing for listing a species on Appendix I?  The absense of this seems to be a recipe for extinction.

CITES FRANCE:  We are concerned with the role of trade in the disappearance of species, which becomes a threat as soon as any economic pressure is brought to bear. If we allow orchids to be traded freely, this will lead to extinction. Trade regulation is a requirement for conservation. CITES only works on international trade, and conservation is not always commercial trade. We need to make sure there is sustainable conservation of the species… once an export permit is given, it doesn’t mean that it won’t be hard on the species. We are concerned not with banning trade, but with sustainability.

ME (thinking to myself): Huh?

Question: What about species discovered in future? Does a plant have to stay in the country now until it is described?

Cribb: some countries will allow you to retrospectively list plants. Many countries have ability to describe plants in house, & collaboration. The capability of naming exists in most countries.

Koop: CITES & CBD. The United States does not recognize the CBD (Convention on Global Diversity).
Cribb: I expect the U.S. will have to follow suit and implement it.
Koop: You don’t understand our current president.

Question (Gerard Schmidt – Belgium producer): I wants to answer the lady (CITES France representative) regarding the possible hardships caused by CITES. It has had harmful effects. Before 1982 few amateurs wanted species. The CITES difficulties have now made them more desirable. Now people ignore hybrids and want the rare botanical species even if they can’t cultivate them. To save them, they must be protected in nature and multiplied as fast as possible to satisfy commercial demand.  It is best to develop programs to support local botanical gardens so they can benefit as a natural resource. (murmurs of support from the audience)

CITES FRANCE: CITES Allows some trading in CITES registered nurseries. It is possible to register an establishment at the CITES secretariat, then once they have that it will be easy to do.

SCHMIDT (response): If you wait five years, the natural sites will be pillaged. Registration must be a rapid procedure if we are to be able to respond quickly.

CITES FRANCE: That is all the more reason to make movement subject to a permit with strict controls at borders. CITES is not here to create hassles (audience laughter). You need a certification of legal origin and legal use, and a  “Label of approval” on the specimens.

There are problems in individual countries getting registration because local governments to do not have good systems in place to allow producers to get registered for international trade.

Question (Alaisdair Morrison): The indirect effect of CITES has drawn attention to a problem that individual governments were not aware of. It has taught governments bad lessons in that is has instilled in them a dislike of the trade of orchids. Because the trade and conservation people are at each other’s throats over the documents, they believe the way forward is regulation and bureaucracy. I believe the problem would have come to light anyway and CITES has jogged them. However the heavy emphasis on licensing and bureaucracy has given governments a license to behave in ways that are anti-conservation.

CITES FRANCE: CITES is not enemy of trade. It has listed 96% of species in Appendix II which may be traded internationally. We can’t say that cites is against trade, it is a convention that is trade-centered. If there’s pillaging, orchids will be of interest to collectors. You have responsibility to not collect in a way that is not damaging.

ME (thinking to myself): Say what?

Question (Melissa): This is my first time to a World Orchid Conference. I have a suggestion: Since representatives from all aspects of the orchid world are here together under one roof, it might be useful to get together while the conference is going on, and write recommendations for CITES.  (clapping)

KOOPOWITZ: The are fine sentiments, but unfortunately the Committee of the Parties is like the UN, and it is difficult to get consensus.

CRIBB: I think it’s a good idea, there is an opportunity here. The International Orchid Committee has three wings, and we meet tomorrow morning. I belive that the orchid community needs to “sing from same songsheet” and make a well-argued case for making CITES work. I have another suggestion: I have not seen a nursery or group of nurseries approach a foreign government and make a proposal, such as “if you give us a permit, you will get a royalty back”. I have not seen any initiative from the commercial orchid community. I think that the way phragmipedium kovachii was handled by the Peruvian government might lead to a model that will be widely used.

End of panel discussion.

The audience was well behaved and left the room quietly. They were probably still puzzling over the CITES France representative’s cryptic, drone-like responses. At least her body showed up for the discussion – that’s a positive sign.