David Obura, new Chair of IPBES, denounces the business of those who “fail to acknowledge the limits of our planet”

The Kenyan scientist has been elected to lead the largest organization on biodiversity and ecosystem services for the next three years. He replaces the Colombian Ana María Hernández Salgar.
David Obura. Foto: IISD/ENB – Kiara Worth.

There is new wind in the sails of the IPBES, the intergovernmental scientific-political organization of reference in biodiversity and ecosystem services. The organization, which has 144 member states, held elections this month to renew its leadership positions, including the presidency, which went to David Obura of Kenya.

The elections, held privately in Bonn, Germany, were not covered by the media, indicative of the fact that biodiversity is still not considered a priority issue. Nor did the IPBES itself make any announcement – although they justify the absence with the fact that the election coincided with the publication of their last major report, dedicated to invasive species, which they preferred to focus their communication on.

A Chair who recognizes the root of the problem

Obura will head the IPBES for the next three years, without the possibility of re-election. He currently serves as the founding director of Coastal Ocean Research and Development in the Indian Ocean (CORDIO East Africa), an organization focused on the sustainability of coral reefs and marine ecosystems of the region. 

The Kenyan scientist is also the chairman of the coral specialist group of the Species Survival Commission of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). His fields of interest are oceans, corals, reefs, biodiversity, climate, and building bridges between the developing and developed world.

Although he is still stepping into the new role, David Obura has clear plans: “I hope to help the IPBES do what it was established for: to help resolve the biodiversity crisis, knowing that it is inseparably tied to the climate crisis and that the drivers of both crises are rooted in economic activities that fail to acknowledge the limits of our singular planet,” he tells Climática.

Obura confesses that the opportunity to chair the IPBES initially seemed “very strange” to him. More surprising, however, was how he learned he would be the new leader of the organization: “I could not take part in all the days of the Plenary session in person, so I attended online from a friend’s house,” he recounts. “Delivering an online acceptance speech was a very surreal way to step from the science of evaluations into the role of Chair.” Obura recounts. 

The Kenyan leader replaces Colombian Ana María Hernández Salgar, whose term was extended an additional year, due to the pandemic. “I think it has been a very positive period of growth for the organization, where three high-impact assessments (sustainable use of wild species, multiple values of biodiversity, and invasive species) were carried out,” recalls Hernández Salgar, who admits to being “very proud” of “how the IPBES community has increasingly built bridges between science and decision-making.” Even so, she says, she will always have “a permanent desire to do many more things in the service of this beautiful planet.”

The specialist in international relations and environmental law is leaving the front line of the organization, but does not rule out maintaining her close ties: “If the organization considers my knowledge or experience to be useful….” Asked about her successor, Hernández Salgar defines Obura as “an excellent professional – scientific, rigorous, and at the same time a wonderful person.” “He really is a very wise choice,” she added.

Ana María Hernández Salgar during her last plenary as Chair of IPBES. Photo: IISD/ENB.

Climate and biodiversity, two indivisible crises

The IPBES is often compared to the IPCC. Although they have different ways of working, both are the points of reference in biodiversity and climate change, respectively. Last July, the IPCC also held elections, which did enjoy wider coverage. “The intrinsic relevance of IPBES is as great as that of the IPCC, but for now, governments, companies and the public don’t yet see this,” laments David Obura. 

During Hernández Salgar’s tenure, the two organizations launched a joint workshop that resulted in a publication that detailed the need to address both crises in a unified manner. Now, the Obura leader hopes to expand that partnership so that “the parallel needs of the two organizations are fully understood, and they are seen as necessary for one another, not one as more or less important.” 

However, the newly appointed IPBES Chair is not entirely optimistic: “Unfortunately, I think we’ll only achieve this equity after further crises and suffering incurred by biodiversity loss – unless governments and key actors *major corporations that drive economic activity) rapidly commit to the right actions to show that biodiversity is valued as fundamental to human life and economies.” 

In this regard, Obura believes that, over time, “the IPBES should play a foundational role in international affairs (together with complementary roles for the IPCC and other bodies), providing evidence that governments will use to set appropriate policies that effectively limit resource extraction, damage to natural systems and ensure that benefits are shared by all people, with particular care to assure basic access for the most vulnerable.”

The new IPBES Bureau: 9 men and 1 woman

According to the rules of procedure, the IPBES must hold elections every three years. The chairmanship rotates by region. This time it was Africa’s turn. David Obura was elected by his country, Kenya, and then received the endorsement of the group of African countries without objection from any of the parties (the member countries).

The four vice-presidencies, which are also divided by region, were also elected. All of the elected officials were men: 

  • Asia-Pacific: Bishwa Nath Oli, from Nepal.
  • Eastern Europe: Hamid Custovic, from Bosnia and Herzegovina.
  • Latin America and Caribbean: Floyd Hommer of Trinidad and Tobago.
  • Western Europe and other countries: Douglas Beard from the United States.

Finally, the remaining members of the Bureau were appointed. They are four men and one woman:

  • Africa: Sebsebe Demissew, from Ethiopia.
  • Asia-Pacific: Yongyut Trisurat, from Thailand.
  • Eastern Europe: Erik Grigoryan, from Armenia.
  • Latin America and Caribbean: Bernal Herrera, of Costa Rica.
  • Western Europe and other countries: Eva Primmer, from Finland.

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