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The Darwin Declaration - Workshop on 'Removing the Taxonomic Impediment'

Volume 3 Number 1 - December 1998


Workshop Background

The governments of the world have agreed that there is a need to mobilise resources to improve infrastructure, for training, for research and for access to taxonomic information. This action is required so that the global taxonomic effort can be improved to underpin the conservation, sustainable use and equitable sharing of benefits from biodiversity. This has been expressly recognised by the Conference of the Parties (COP) to the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) through their endorsement of a Global Taxonomy Initiative (GTI) to promote capacity building in taxonomy, proposed by their scientific subsidiary body in September 1996.

Since that time a number of discussions concerning the implementation of the GTI have been held at meetings of the Convention and other international scientific meetings. The Smithsonian Institution, through its National Museum of Natural History, approached the Global Environment Facility after the COP III meeting to propose an international workshop. The aim of the workshop would be to address the taxonomic impediment by trying to develop an action plan for implementing the proposed GTI. In a subsequent meeting in Montreal, Canada in September 1997, the CBD Secretariat endorsed the workshop proposal and requested that the Australian Biological Resources Study join with the Smithsonian Institution as coconvenors. The Australian Government subsequently offered Darwin as the location for the meeting. Support for the meeting was provided by the MacArthur Foundation, the Global Environment Facility (GEF), the U.S. Department of the Interior, Environment Australia, the Government of the Northern Territory, Australia and the Smithsonian Institution.

Several of the major taxonomic institutions, who share a common outlook to the problem, were unable to attend the meeting, including the Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew, the Missouri Botanical Garden, the American Museum of Natural History, the Field Museum and the Komarov in St Petersburg. It was also regrettable that funding and time did not allow representatives from Brazil or from the Arab Region to be present. The organisers have undertaken to inform these institutions and others of the Workshop results so that they, along with those present, can continue their united efforts to provide the knowledge base required to address the critical problems of providing taxonomic support for effective biodiversity management.


The Darwin Workshop was specifically organised. to provide the CBD and the GEF, as the financial mechanism for the Convention, with advice on how to implement the GTI to remove the taxonomic impediment. However, the Workshop organisers acknowledged that there were other funders and interested constituencies who could also benefit from the advice offered. The organisers also recognised that many excellent efforts towards the same ohjectives were already underway around the world, including but not limited to DIVERSITAS, the Organisation of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) Megascience Forum's Biodiversity Informatics Subgroup, and BioNET-INTERNATIONAL. The Endnote has more detail on these and other initiatives.

While the present GEF Operational Strategy does not address taxonomy explicitly it does indirectly address issues through the ecosystem approach, which implicitly requires a sound basis in taxonomy. The Operational Strategy also addresses the need for research, and for appropriate technology for biological inventory and rapid assessment. Information systems are also identified as an important resource. Therefore, it should be interpreted that the GEF Operational Strategy already emhraces taxonomy within its scope. Further, the COP of the CBD has instructed the GEF to include taxonomic activities in its operations. What is needed is a set of actions to enable the GEF to focus on this request.

The Darwin Workshop was designed to allow participants to build upon previous work to identify the key taxonomic issues requiring attention for biodiversity conservation, and to chart an action plan to consolidate existing initiatives into a truly global response to the problems. Four areas of endeavour were recognised as being essential in this process:

  • how to prioritise taxonomic effort;
  • how to develop inter-institutional partnerships capable of addressing problems at the local, regional and global scales;
  • how to ensure taxonomic institutions are seen to more closely address widely held biodiversity concerns;
  • how to mobilise support from a wide range of stakeholders concerned with biodiversity conservation, including; non-government organisations (NGOs) and Industry.

The Role of Biological Collections

The mission of institutions such as museums and herbaria housing biological collections is to collect, document and store safely in readily accessible form specimens of the local, national, regional or global diversity of living organisms. The specimens are a record genetic and morphological variation, past and recent geographical distribution and other biological information. Often they are the only remaining material of extinct species or the only record of species seen only once in the wild.

Despite the importance of these collections, both in developed and developing; countries, we today are witnessing the deterioration of collection standards. The museums and herbaria which have been established l to provide safe storage of specimens and the infrastructure for research and information retrieval now have inadequate resources even to maintain their collections in an active accessible form, let alone expand and develop their potential to contribute to the aims of the CBD and to national, regional and local objectives. There is therefore an urgent need for substantial funding to he made available to museums, herbaria, and relevant living collections to secure their future.

With appropriate funding, the priorities for managing these collections globally are:

  • to extend focussed collections in less studied taxonomic groups/taxa and selected geographical areas;
  • to develop a mechanism for establishing priorities for capturing data in collections, for undertaking surveys and for selecting areas to collect and inventory;
  • to ensure institutional collaboration at the regional level, as the most cost-effective means of addressing the current shortfalls in collections.

The Darwin Declaration

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 he integrated into policies and programs established at all levels of government to achieve sustainable development and conserve biodiversity. These policies and programs include, hut 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 programs for inventory and monitoring of biological resources in ecosystems and requirements for broad-scale environmental assessment.

Building upon the recommendations and resolutions of previous conferences and studies (including those of DIVERSITAS), some leaders of key world taxonomic institutions, policy makers, funders and ecologists/conservation managers, meeting in Darwin, Australia, February 2-5 1998, agree that:

  1. Within existing resources, taxonomic institutions must continue to pursue efforts to conserve biological diversity and achieve sustainable development.
  2. Governments and other multilateral institutions must acknowledge the cost benefits of existing global collections in providing critical biological information to all nations.
  3. Targeted additional funding must be provided to institutions to properly carry out their vital functions of maintaining biological specimens and associated information and to more broadly disseminate information derived from their collections. This must not he at the expense of existing taxonomic programs undertaken by these institutions which deserve continued support.
  4. The taxonomic community must proceed with implementing the G1obal Taxonomy Initiative to harness the collective information of the taxonomic institutions in order to provide a truly global service to assist with the conservation and management of biological diversity.
  5. The specific steps recommended by the participants at the Darwin Workshop for the implementation of the Global Taxonomy Initiative should be communicated to the Conference of the parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity at their meeting in Bratislava in May 1998.