Trip Start May 25, 2005
351Trip End Ongoing
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The conference was a mass of minds, all thinking about the concepts of health and biodiversity. It was the first meeting of its kind, and brought together over 150 people from 52 countries, many of which were from the developing world. I felt privileged to be taking part.
The meeting opened with a plenary session, and a statement from the Head of the United Nations, Kofi Annan. It read:
'The Millennium Development Goals embody the hopes of all people for a world without hunger and poverty, where all live in freedom, with dignity and equity
As the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment reported earlier this year, human activities are fundamentally changing the planet, perhaps irreversibly. Over the last fifty years, pollution, climate change, degradation of habitats and overexploitation of natural resources, led to more rapid losses of biological diversity than at any other time in human history. Such losses put the livelihoods and health of current and future generations in jeopardy.'
It was a sobering thought that over the next two days we would divide into groups and discuss the intricacies of these issues. I was going to be taking a role in the 'Disease Ecology' seminar, although I planned to dip into the other groups as appropriate. They included 'Food Security, Nutrition and Sustainable Livelihoods', 'Natural Products and Drug Discovery', and 'Systemic Approaches to Population Health'. All worthwhile discussions.
It felt like a heavy burden but also a great opportunity to get to the bones of the issues. Only by discussing and deciding upon the problems that had prevented previous efforts to prevent further biodiversity change would any future plans be successful.
And so we split.
As I entered the room I felt an air of apprehension. I didn't know a soul, but I walked forward to the front row so I wouldn't miss a thing. The chair of the session arrived and the presentations began. He we were faced with unmistakeable evidence from around the world; hard scientific facts that showed not only were new pathogens being found for many species, but older lethal diseases were spreading to new locations as the climate changed.
Understandably, this was a cause for concern. So little investigation has been done on where disease will most likely proliferate should climate change advance dramatically over the next fifteen years. Some areas would get warmer whilst others would get wetter. In fact, over 80 species of frog have disappeared over the past through years alone. This is due to a fungus that prefers wet conditions, and has followed the geographical location of the rains. As the rain pattern altered and spread to new regions, so did the fungus. Bye bye frogs!
But what could we do? The questions went back and forth as people documented their own experiences with trying to link stakeholders together.
'You have to have community support if the projects are involving a lifestyle change, otherwise as soon as you leave it is bound to fail.'
'Poverty is the problem. A lot of the simple and effective disease prevention measures involve a cost, an outlay that is simply not affordable. If you can't buy fuel wood, you can't boil water and milk. Simple!'
'Education is a key factor, and there are cases where it has proved to be the difference between success and failure.'
These were all valid points, but I'd heard them all before. The Millennium Development Goals and the '2010' statements had been analysed before. I felt frustrated. Here were all the big guns, the knowledgeable intelligent people, but yet we were still facing the same problems.
I put up my hand and waited to be acknowledged by the chair. The room was filled to the brim and my heart started to pump.
'Yes, Claire.' He said pointing at me. How did he know my name?
I waited as the person wielding the microphone walked towards me.
"Claire Geoghegan, University of Pretoria, South Africa. This is a question for the panel of speakers who opened the floor this morning, and for anyone else who would like to comment.
We have heard a lot today about the ways in which we can make a difference to the success of biodiversity, conservation and health issues, and it has been a very interesting debate. However, I would like to know in your opinion, whose responsibility is it to take the next step? Which bodies do you think have the capacity, international recognition and capability to be charged with that task?"
I swallowed. Had I really said all that?
The panel responded saying it was a good question, and really the crux of what was needed - an agreed and established way forward for the future.
And so as we broke for lunch I felt that I had begun to make a contribution to the event. Each question inspired another, and a collective progress was felt throughout the participants.
As I put up my poster that described the problems of disease I had in mind, I felt gratified to be included and comforted that to many people here it would not considered a waste of time. I was proud to state my corner of responsibility, a problem I had vowed to investigate and hopefully address.
Sometimes in life we are given the opportunity to participate, but so often it is easier merely to stand and watch. But without the contribution of every philosophy so many proposals are doomed to failure. I felt impassioned and relieved to be an actor within a community of people who cared enough to make a difference - or at least try. It was the motivation I needed; the support and inflection that would help carry me through the tougher days of my project that were sure to arise.