Address by Erik Solheim, UNEP Executive Director at the seventeenth meeting of the Conference of the Parties

Updated on 28 November 2016


Johannesburg, 24 September 2016


Thank you so very much Edna, Ministers, friends.

UN Environment

You have all made me very happy this morning. Can there be any more beautiful view than 3,000 dedicated people coming together for the great cause of saving the wildlife of this planet? Thank you all for being here.

Let me start by speaking about the black mambas. You may know that the black mamba is the most poisonous snake on the continent of Africa. It moves as fast as the fastest Kenyan marathon runners. So take care. And it is the most poisonous snake. It is so poisonous that until very recently it was seen as 100% deadly. You died within an hour or at the maximum within a day if you were bitten.

But I am not speaking about those black mambas. But about the Black Mamba Anti-Poaching Units.  And you only have to beware of those if you are a poacher. And probably few of you are. Hopefully.

The Black Mamba Anti-Poaching Units are young women from the fantastic nation right here, South Africa. They leave their husbands and children behind. They know that they are taking a calculated risk, because they want to protect the beauty of this nation and, of course, the rhinos and all the other fantastic animals living right here in South Africa. These groups have brought down numerous camps of poachers. They have brought down bush meat kitchens close to the national parks. They have brought down numerous networks of poachers. One of them, one of these very, very brave young women, Laila Mkhabela, she says: "I am not afraid, I know what I am doing and I know why I am doing it. If you see the poachers you tell them not to try, tell them we are here and it is they who are in danger."

I want to celebrate these heroes of this struggle. These are the real people in the front line of our joint struggle. Without them we will never succeed. So, please give them a round of applause.

But by extension, I want to celebrate you. You are not – most of you – heroes of the same order, but you are also all heroes, because without the joint efforts of all of you, we also cannot succeed. I would like to thank John Scanlon and your very dedicated team at CITES. Without you, we would be much behind in this struggle. I also want to thank all those customs officers sitting at harbors and airports all over the world. Without you we cannot succeed. I want to thank all police officers, all the rangers, all the civil society activists and, indeed, all the ministers and officials in the ministries. It is the combined struggle of all of us which may - and should – succeed.

Sometimes people ask me the question: Can I change the world? I always tell them: Who else? Who else will change the world? All the giant struggles of humanity, be it the anti-slavery movement, the feminist agenda movement, the civil rights movement in the United States of America, the environmental struggle or indeed the anti-apartheid movement right here in South Africa, they all started with a small dedicated group of people and they grew over time until finally they were successful. Very few people, frankly, thought that Nelson Mandela, Oliver Tambo, Thabo Mbeki and all the fathers of the anti-apartheid struggle, very few people in the 1960s when they were in prison, thought ultimately that they would succeed. But they did, because of their dedication and their hard work and because they never gave up ad that is the spirit we should work on.

And I wish you all well in the CITES conference. But I also want to make the point that CITES cannot succeed in isolation. Only if we step up can we succeed. What does that mean? It means that we need to start a concerted dialogue with all the people living out there. When I was a Minister in Norway, I was very, very proud to open eight national parks. There was a lesson learned every time. If there was a good process with the local community, it was as easy as putting a hot knife through butter. If there was not such a process, it always became very complicated and much more difficult. So we need to step up and bring to the attention of the local communities all the benefits for them in tourism and so many other ways in protecting wildlife. And we need a constant consultation process with local communities, otherwise we will never succeed.

And we need to step up informing people. Let me pay tribute to Beijing International Airport. It is the second biggest airport in the world. 90 million people travel through it every year, so it is huge. They set aside for half a year a huge part of their commercial space, meaning an enormous economic subsidy to us. They made that space available for a campaign to inform the Chinese and everyone else travelling through Beijing about the danger to wildlife. Thank you to Beijing!

And we have mobilized, as many of you know, a huge number of Chinese celebrities, but indeed also globally well-known people, like - maybe in my view the most well-known - the Brazilian soccer star, Neymar. But if you are not so interested in soccer, there are any number of well-known stars from China or Hollywood or elsewhere who put up their faces to save rhinos, elephants, orangutans, tigers, and rosewood. They are part of the struggle and we need to make this education effort continue. We also need to clamp down on the poachers and those who carry out the illegal trade in species. The Chinese have again stepped up by imposing very severe sentences in Chinese courts on people who have traded illegal ivory.

But we also need to step up in other ways. We need to make the link to energy. We cannot protect the habitats unless people have access to renewable energy and electricity. Who can blame the poor woman who chops down trees for fuel to cook her food and to make a comfortable living, if there is no alternative in solar, wind, hydro or all the others? We need to make this link.

We also need to make the link to productive agriculture. Unless people, unless the smallholder farmer in Africa can feed his or her family – and very often it is women – unless you feed your family from your farm, it is very difficult to keep people out of protected areas. So we also need to step up and make agriculture more productive. And of course, we need to step up to protect habitats. The orangutan lives on just two islands, in Borneo and Sumatra, and it cannot survive outside the rainforest. And it is threatened – yes, by poaching – but it is mainly threatened by the limited living space.

We need to step up and protect that habitat to protect the orangutan.

And finally we need to constantly make the link to the economy. There is hardly a more unprofitable business on the planet than poaching. Yes indeed, a few individuals may gain some revenue, but it is an enormous loss to society, to the next generation and to the taxpayers. And then the vast majority – nearly everyone - loses, and a tiny group of people win. It is an enormous economic loss to society.

And tourism, ladies and gentlemen, is the fastest growing business on the planet. It is a job producer of enormous importance. Just look at this conference centre and hotels in Stanton. They employ many more people than the biggest factories on the planet. And without wildlife and nature, far fewer tourists would come to South Africa and indeed to every other place in the world.  So tourism and ecotourism are of enormous economic importance.

These are the connections we need to make to protect animals and other endangered species through CITES, but also paint a much bigger picture of energy, agriculture, tourism. Then we will succeed.

Finally, may I ask: “Can we win this struggle?” I think that there is one key word for that. The most important word in the world today. And that word is “together”. If we allow politicians and evil forces to divide us, we will fail. But if the United States and China, the two major powers of our era, and India, Europe, Africa and the Americas, if we all come together and work together, there is no limit to what we can achieve on planet Earth.

Divided we will fail. United and together we will succeed and together we will manage to protect the beauty of Mother Earth, this very vulnerable planet, the only one we have. We cannot go to outer space, to the Milky Way or somewhere else, to pick another planet.

Together we will be able to save the planet and together we need to be kinder to each other on this planet, and then our children and grandchildren will experience a much better world.

Thank you for coming.