The Rio Earth Summit opened my eyes to the socioeconomic context of biodiversity issues.”
Just two decades ago, millions of tapir-nosed saiga antelope roamed the Central Asian steppes, their vast numbers stretching out to the horizon. But with the collapse of the Soviet Union came the collapse of the herds: local people, thrust into abject poverty, shot the goat-sized saiga to harvest their horns for a traditional Chinese medicine sought by a booming Chinese market. By 1992, fewer than 40,000 saiga remained, and extinction loomed.
Enter Lyle Glowka, agreements officer of the United Nation's Convention on Migratory Species of Wild Animals (CMS). It took four years of persistent work, but one day in 2006, Glowka gathered at one table representatives of the "range countries," international NGOs, and individual scientists. The result was a memorandum of understanding and action plan in which the range countries agreed to ban Saiga hunting and conserve habitat. In exchange, they received money to train and equip wildlife wardens. International NGOs have redoubled their efforts since the agreement was concluded and China has promised to work with the range countries. Today, the numbers of Saiga have stabilized.
The case is emblematic of Glowka's career: he is skilled at creating international agreements among countries to conserve biodiversity and fairly distribute the benefits. "I like looking at scientific and technical issues to craft legal and policy approaches by which they can be addressed," he says. He has ferreted out major issues: in 1995, for example, he wrote a seminal paper pointing out that the most lucrative deep-seabed resources are not mineral but genetic—the micro-organisms brewed in the extreme environment of undersea volcanoes—and he advocated international accords to ensure their fair and equitable use. Today, the issue is on the agenda of the UN General Assembly.
Glowka studied botany and microbiology at Connecticut College, pursued molecular genetics at the University of Connecticut, and worked three years for the Army Corps of Engineers on dredging and wetlands regulation before heading to VLS. "The VLS program was innovative and the student body was motivated—and living in South Royalton was idyllic, quiet, and focused," he says. While working toward his JD, he took advantage of an opportunity to go abroad and spent one year in Nairobi working pro bono for the United Nations Environment Program on the negotiations of the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) global treaty concluded in 1992 at the Rio Earth Summit: "It opened my eyes to the socioeconomic context of biodiversity issues, which captivated my interest," he says.
Two weeks after graduation he joined the International Union for the Conservation of Nature's Environmental Law Center in Bonn. In 1994, he wrote a straightforward guide to the CBD. It was printed in seven languages with 25,000 copies in circulation; even today, lawyers and scientists tell him how important it is to their understanding of the convention's implementation.
During six years at CMS, his next job, Glowka forged agreements to protect the whales and dolphins of the Pacific and the migratory water birds of Central Asia, among other species. In 2007 he became senior legal advisor to the CBD Secretariat, based in Montreal. He is currently supporting the negotiation of a complicated and politically contentious international treaty facilitating access to and guaranteeing fair and equitable benefit sharing from genetic resources.
Glowka and his German-born wife, Petra, a home economics teacher, enjoy cross-country skiing, kayaking, and hiking. Living in the Montreal area gives him the opportunity to visit nearby Vermont. He recently lectured at VLS and was impressed by its size and sophistication and how course offerings have exploded compared to his years there. "If you can get to where I am from a much smaller start, VLS students today will be able to have an even greater impact," he predicts.