Three questions to Jolien Venneman, former National Focal Point on Global Taxonomy Initiative (GTI)
1. What does your job entail?
I am working as a scientific program officer for the CEBioS program, which is based at the Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences (RBINS). In this function I also act as the Belgian National Focal Point (NFP) to the Global Taxonomy Initiative (GTI) and as assistant to the Belgian NFP for the Clearing-House Mechanism (CHM) which, like the GTI, is a mechanism put in place under the auspices of the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD).
2. What are the main challenges and opportunities in your daily work?
The expertise needed to perform taxonomic research, i.e., classifying and describing biological diversity on earth, is in short supply and sometimes it proves difficult to gather the necessary information about species that are present in a certain area or ecosystem. With regard to the latter, collections of preserved specimens and libraries with taxonomic literature are concentrated in just a few places in the world, particularly in developed countries, where the conversion of specimen data into accessible digital content has started 20 years ago but is still far from being completed. Many developing, biodiversity-rich countries in the tropics – where urgent action is needed to safeguard and sustainably use biodiversity – cannot afford to maintain large collections of their own fauna and flora, have no or limited access to scientific literature, and often lack resources to describe and monitor the species that live within their boundaries. This constitutes a serious obstacle to the effective implementation of the CBD.
To specifically reduce this so-called ‘taxonomic impediment’, the Global Taxonomy Initiative (GTI) was put in place, and since 2001 RBINS serves as Belgium’s NFP to the GTI. Given that Belgium hosts important natural history collections, libraries, well-equipped research facilities and well-trained scientific/curatorial staff, we would like to ensure that our rich taxonomic patrimony can also serve (para)taxonomists from the developing world. Therefore, the Belgian GTI NFP annually issues two types of grants, one allowing researchers from eligible developing countries to be trained in taxonomy and collection management in Belgium, while having access to the Belgian collections, and another one supporting Belgian experts to carry out taxonomy-based training and research activities in the South. Thanks to these funds more than 230 internships have been organized and centres of expertise have been established in countries such as Benin, Burundi, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Ivory Coast, Vietnam, etc.
3. What are your wishes for biodiversity in the future?
My hope for the future is that the data generated by taxonomic research and biodiversity monitoring can reach the political level more easily, in order to efficiently provide the necessary knowledge base and incentives for decision-makers to take concrete actions to conserve and restore vulnerable ecosystems. Had it not been for the COVID-19 pandemic, 2020 was expected to be a critical year for the environment, with key international meetings setting the agenda for environmental action in the decade(s) ahead (European Green Deal, Post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework that will be adopted by COP15, etc). I hope that the COVID crisis can serve as a wake-up call or at least give new impetus to really commit to this universal agenda and change our ‘business as usual' behaviour. To halt biodiversity loss, we will need all hands on deck, not only implicating scientists and decision-makers, but also our youngsters, local communities and civil society organizations, which should be reached via effective biodiversity mainstreaming.