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BioNET: a regional approach to capacity building in taxonomy for sustainable development

Richard Smith

Acting Director, BioNET-INTERNATIONAL, Bakeham Lane, Egham, Surrey, TW20 9TY, U.K; e-mail:


BioNET-INTERNATIONAL (BioNET) is a global network of institutions and individuals dedicated to capacity building in taxonomy to meet sustainable development needs. BioNET is organized as a series of regional networks ("locally organized and operated partnerships", LOOPs) of developing country institutions, supported by a consortium of developed country institutions. Through this mix of regional cooperation and international partnerships, BioNET aims to enable developing countries to become more self-reliant in the taxonomy needed to support development, conservation and poverty eradication programmes. LOOPs seek to respond to user-defined and -prioritized taxonomic needs, particularly those such as invasive alien species that have been identified as priority issues by the Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity and other multilateral environmental agreements. The success of LOOPs is attributable to two key factors. The first is local ownership of the process, whereby LOOPs are formed and capacity-building needs are identified and prioritized by member countries themselves. The second is that countries use LOOPs to pool, share and develop capacity regionally to meet the capacity needs of individual countries. Examples of ongoing LOOP work on invasive species and plant health include the needs assessments and follow-up training being conducted by BioNET’s Southeast Asia network and the invasive species information hub established in southern Africa as part of a programme to develop and deliver automated identification support to phytosanitary services. BioNET has been involved in organizing the drafting of a plan of action for demand-driven taxonomic capacity building, an approach that is of relevance to meeting the priority taxonomic needs of national plant protection organizations.

The taxonomic impediment

Whether it is called taxonomy, systematics or biosystematics, this branch of science is concerned with discovering, naming, classifying and identifying organisms and elucidating their relationships. As such, the discipline is fundamental to our attempts to understand, conserve and sustainably use biodiversity, and to assess the biodiversity impacts of our actions, including the identification of when an introduced species represents an invasive or other risk.

The end users of taxonomic information and expertise are many and diverse, ranging from national park authorities to those promoting integrated pest management or undertaking environmental impact assessments and those statutory services, such as quarantine services, that need identification and risk assessment support. Taxonomists and scientists working in fields such as agriculture, zoology, botany, ecology and natural resources management are also important end users. All these users need ready access to taxonomic support in task-specific formats appropriate to their work, such as up-to-date checklists and monographs, or identification support based on molecular analyses, computer-assisted technologies, expert consultations and so on. Identifications, in particular, are needed urgently in ever-increasing quantity worldwide, with one of the greatest areas of need being plant protection, quarantine services, biosafety and other agencies with responsibilities for minimizing and monitoring risks to agriculture and the wider environment from planned and accidental species introductions.

The greatest mismatch between the need for taxonomy and available taxonomic capacity is in the biodiversity-rich but resource-poor countries of the developing world. In those nations where agriculture remains the core of the economy and whose biodiversity is seen to be vital to the world’s well-being and constitutes the earth’s richest genetic resource, there is little, or sometimes no, taxonomic capability. Without access to taxonomic expertise and information, correct identifications are not possible, all access to knowledge pertaining to an organism is denied and the likely ecological impact of a newly occurring species is impossible to predict. The gross inadequacy and inaccessibility of taxonomic capacity, especially in developing countries, has been recognized in the context of the Convention on Biological Diversity as the "taxonomic impediment", a persistent capacity constraint that greatly limits not only our ability to sustainably use and conserve biodiversity but also development itself.

Constraints to development and poverty reduction programmes are both immediate and long-term. They are immediate in terms of limitations to trade and agricultural production: for example, poor pest control and an inability to comply with the requirements of the SPS Agreement and quarantine regimes. Constraints are also long-term with respect to the core contribution to knowledge resulting from comprehensive taxonomic work, for example, and the fundamental need for expert taxonomic inputs when undertaking and regulating bioprospecting activities. Only approximately five to ten percent of species have even been named and described. Further investigations are certain to result in immeasurable knowledge and benefits both from these discovered species and from the remaining 95 percent of species awaiting discovery. Unlocking this potential and addressing immediate development concerns require measures that overcome the taxonomic impediment, especially those that address the imbalances that mean that approximately 95 percent of expertise, information and collections are in the developed world, while 95 percent of the biodiversity remaining to be discovered is in the developing world.

Since its launch, BioNET-INTERNATIONAL (BioNET) has worked to promote awareness of the critical role that taxonomy plays in underpinning sustainable development. A number of welcome policy and strategy level developments have recognized and responded to the taxonomic impediment and it now falls to taxonomists and end users of taxonomy to forge partnerships to seize these new opportunities:

These recent developments have established a foundation for capacity building in taxonomy that is demand-driven and more strongly linked to policy processes. BioNET is organized as a series of regional networks ("locally organized and operated partnerships", LOOPs) of developing country institutions and individuals with a focus on capacity building in applied taxonomy to meet policy needs. These government-endorsed LOOPs are widely recognized as a valuable approach to capacity building for the developing world.

BioNET and the LOOPs

BioNET was launched in 1993 as a response to the increasing need for, but declining availability of, taxonomic services in the developing world. Until the early 1990s, many taxonomic services were provided free of charge by expert institutes in Europe and elsewhere. Since this time, however, expert institutions have typically needed to charge for their services. Formerly dependent on outside assistance, many developing countries have been left with inadequate and poorly resourced local taxonomic capacity and an inability to pay for the expert taxonomic services they need. In many regions there are no trained taxonomists or the required infrastructure to deal with economically and ecologically important organisms. One means to overcome the taxonomic impediment is to enhance technical cooperation through mechanisms whereby developing countries can pool, share and optimize their taxonomic capacity on a regional basis. The BioNET LOOPs (figure 1) are such mechanisms and are being established by countries with the goal of achieving greater self-reliance in the taxonomy needed for sustainable development in the most cost-effective and technically appropriate way possible.

Fig. 1: Distribution of the BioNET LOOPs.

Further detail in table 1.

BioNET’s secretariat works with local partners to assist countries in the establishment of LOOPs. Nine developing country LOOPs have been established to date by government endorsement of a formal proposal and work plan (table 1). EuroLOOP, a consortium of expert institutions, was established by inter-institutional agreement. BioNET is working with champions to help establish LOOPs in the remaining regions, with the intention of completing the global network by the end of 2005.

Table 1: Established (shown in bold) and planned BioNET LOOPs.


LOOP name

No. of countries

Year established












Southern Africa





Southeast Asia





East Africa





West Africa





South Pacific





East Asia





North Africa





Andean Community





South Asia



proposed 2003


Meso and Central America



proposed 2003


South America - Southern Cone



North America



North Eurasia



West Asia


The LOOPs are permanent, government-endorsed structures formed by intergovernmental agreement to address national and regional taxonomic priorities. Membership is open to all interested institutions and individuals. Operation of each LOOP is supported by national and regional coordinators nominated by each country, together with working group leaders for priority thematic areas. A key aim is to integrate taxonomic capacity building into the many biodiversity-, agriculture- and trade-related activities that depend for their immediate and long-term success on the availability of taxonomic expertise and information in appropriate forms. A regional approach to such capacity development is not only highly cost-effective, it is also the only viable approach to many issues, such as invasive alien species, that are entirely dependent on coordinated regional and international action.

LOOPs work by using the government mandate for capacity building in taxonomy provided by the formal establishment of a LOOP as the basis for defining, developing and implementing projects that meet priority national and regional needs. Each LOOP provides an endorsed cooperation structure and communication channels to support the development and implementation of any activity, whether initiated by a LOOP or partner initiative, that includes taxonomic capacity building as a significant component.

LOOPs typically have partnership-based work programmes in the following five areas:

The work programmes serve as a framework for activities. Funding is sought to implement work programmes, if possible in their entirety, although securing the necessary support is an ongoing challenge.

An important part of the BioNET model is the mobilization of existing capacity in the developing world. In a number of regions there are great imbalances in existing taxonomic capacity, much of which is highly relevant to other countries in the region. LOOPs are therefore able to enhance cooperation both within regions and between LOOPs. Equally, there are potentially significant global benefits to be realized from more effective mobilization of existing developing country capacity. The LOOPs, through their membership in BioNET’s wider global network, are used to do just this, for example through the development of training materials, identification tools, species distribution data, databases of expertise and collections information with partners.

LOOPs, the IPPC and invasive alien species

There are many areas where LOOPs could support or are already supporting implementation of the International Plant Protection Convention and invasive species programmes. Taxonomic support is required to provide the identifications that underpin pest reporting, quarantine certification and surveillance. Similarly, taxonomic expertise is required for pest listing and risk assessment. Activities in these areas vary from LOOP to LOOP. However, past and ongoing activities demonstrate the potential for LOOPs to provide support: training of phytosanitary Officers using regional expertise; undertaking needs assessments in plant health; coordinating regional pest listing; information sharing with a regional invasive species information hub; development of automated identification systems for phytosanitary services.

Two following chapters report on these and related activities carried out by two LOOPs: ASEANET and SAFRINET. Such work demonstrates the potential for greater cooperation between LOOPs and regional and national plant protection organizations.

BioNET, the CBD and the IPPC

BioNET is particularly focused on assisting countries in implemention of the various multilateral environmental agreements such as the IPPC and the CBD, especially the latter’s taxonomic capacity-building component, the Global Taxonomy Initiative. The GTI work programme includes a significant emphasis on regional approaches to capacity building and the LOOPs have been recognized as appropriate structures through which many components of the GTI can best be implemented, for example needs assessments, awareness-raising, regional cooperation and coordination and implementation of capacity building.

At the global level, BioNET took the lead in organizing the Third Global Taxonomy Workshop with the secretariats of the CBD, UNESCO’s Man and the Biosphere Programme and the IPPC. The objectives were to fulfil the call for a global-level needs assessment in the GTI work programme by:

Participants from 95 countries at the first meeting in Pretoria, South Africa, in 2002, agreed on a partnership-based strategy for capacity building with the following nine strategic elements:

At a subsequent meeting in Paris, France, in 2003, the strategy was used to agree a draft plan of action for demand-driven taxonomic capacity building. To date, the plan has commitments from 36 organizations and has been reported to the CBD (CBD, 2003). The plan of action is available for use by all engaged in taxonomic capacity building, both as a reference and fundraising resource and as a tool for agreement on the comprehensive, partnership-based actions that are required if taxonomic capacity is to be strengthened to meet demands from national- and international-level policy commitments. BioNET hopes the plan may also be used to promote greater cooperation between the IPPC and CBD on taxonomy.


CBD. 2000. Fifth Conference of the Parties, Nairobi, Kenya, 15 - 26 May 2000: Decision V/9: Global Taxonomy Initiative: implementation and further advance of the Suggestions for Action (available at

CBD. 2002. Sixth Conference of the Parties, The Hague, the Netherlands, 7 - 19 April 2002: Decision VI/8: Global Taxonomy Initiative to which is annexed Programme of work for the Global Taxonomy Initiative (available at

CBD. 2003. Ninth meeting of the Subsidiary Body on Scientific, Technical And Technological Advice, Montreal, Canada, 10 - 14 November 2003. Global Taxonomy Initiative: progress and implementation of the programme of work (document UNEP/CBD/SBSTTA/9/16, available at

WSSD. 2002. World Summit on Sustainable Development, Johannesburg, South Africa, 26 August - 4 September 2002: Plan of implementation (available at

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