Africa has, over a long period, recognized the importance of controlling the introduction of alien species that can be potentially damaging to ecosystem:

Box 10: The need for vigilant phytosanitary measures

Imported plants, including those for research and agricultural use, may introduce exotic pathogens or parasites if adequate phytosanitary checks are not undertaken on imported plants. For example:

  • A new high-yielding maize variety imported into Senegal in 1948 brought in a new strain of rust which killed off local maize.
  • In 1971, a Ugandan university lecturer brought back a new variety of cassava from Brazil and planted it on a university field station. Unfortunately there was a new strain of mealie bug on the imported cassava and this spread to all the cassava growing area in Central Africa.
  • FAO introduced sweet varieties of cassava from South America to replace the bitter varieties used in Africa. Unfortunately, with these varieties they also introduced a mite pest of cassava which has since spread widely.

Imported plants should therefore be held in quarantine and checked for parasites and disease before the crop is released into a new environment.

Source: TAA 2000

  • The African Convention on the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources, adopted in 1968, requires Parties to prohibit the entry of “zoological or biological specimens, whether indigenous or imported, wild or domestic” that may cause harm to protected areas.
  • The Protocol concerning Protected Areas and Wild Fauna and Flora in the East Africa Region (1985) calls for the adoption of appropriate measures to prohibit the intentional or accidental introduction of alien or new species which may cause significant or harmful changes to the sub-region.
  • Other protocols developed by sub-regional bodies also address some aspects of controlling IAS. Examples include the treaty for the Establishment of the Eastern African Community (EAC), the treaty of the Southern African Development Community (SADC) and the treaty establishing the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (COMESA).

The African Convention on the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (ACCNNR) – which revised the 1968 convention and was adopted in 2003 – requires parties to strictly control the intentional and accidental introduction of alien species, including modified organisms and to endeavour to eradicate those already introduced where their consequences are detrimental to native species or to the environment in general (AU 2003).

Sanitary and phytosanitary measures focus primarily on import and export regimes and provide for quarantine periods to ascertain safety as well as for the destruction of specimens. Relevant instruments and institutions include:

  • The World Health Organization’s (WHO) International Health Regulations;
  • The International Plant Protection Convention (IPPC);
  • The World Trade Organization’s (WTO) Agreement on the Application of Sanitary and Phytosanitary Measures; and
  • The Inter-African Phytosanitary Council, which was established in 1954.
Box 11: The WTO Agreement on Sanitary and Phytosanitary Measures 1995

This agreement seeks to promote free trade and thus provides for:

  • Internationally-determined standards for SPS measures;
  • Risk assessment based on scientific principles and evidence;
  • Consistency in the application of appropriate levels of protection;
  • Least trade restrictive alternatives;
  • Acceptance of equivalent measures; and
  • Transparency through notification of trade measures.

Source: Shrine and others 2000

Under the IPPC, special measures have been adopted for the importation and release of alien biological control agents. However, with globalization, and the legal dominance of the WTO, managing these threats in a way that is compatible with environmental concerns, national interests and unfettered or free global trade is an increasingly complex challenge. The WTO has 148 members and creates a binding, and enforceable, set of rules designed to ensure that governments extend free market access to each others’ products and services (Shrine and others 2000). Box 11 sets out the essential aspects of the WTO approach.

However, as IUCN has noted: “Customs and quarantine practices, developed in an earlier time to guard against human and economic diseases and pests, are often inadequate safeguards against species that threaten native biodiversity” (IUCN/SSG/ISSG 2000). New challenges include addressing the relationship between environmental change and trade, as well as growing problems of uncertainty.

Important lessons can be learnt from the legal regime developed to deal with the impact living modified organisms (LMOs) will have on biodiversity, ecosystems and human health, livelihood systems and development opportunities, as these organisms present many of the same challenges. Sanitary and phytosanitary measures historically have focused on protecting people, plants and animals from pests and diseases. However, the challenge of IAS goes beyond this to include uncertainty about possible impacts and potential conflicts between environmental, social and economic concerns.

The Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety, which entered into force in 2003, sets out the first comprehensive regulatory system for ensuring the safe transfer, handling and use of LMOs. The focus is on regulating the movement of such organisms across national borders. It is concerned with both intentional environmental introductions and LMOs that are to be used as food or feed, and for processing. Such organisms are also alien species and currently the extent to which these will threaten biological diversity, ecosystem and habitats is poorly understood – much remains uncertain and there are fundamental areas of ignorance and gaps in knowledge. In addressing this, the Protocol:

  • Adopts a precautionary approach; and
  • Establishes an advanced informed agreement system.

These approaches could be replicated to deal with IAS more widely, and are increasingly recognized as key components of a response strategy (McNeely and others 2001). The essence of this approach lies in the right to notification and prior informed consent. It includes the right to undertake risk assessment and to refuse entry of organisms due to their biological, environmental and socioeconomic impact or due to insufficient information. The African Union (AU) has developed a regime for biosafety in its Protocol on Safety in Biotechnology based on these principles. This and how to develop responses to deal effectively with scientific uncertainty are considered more fully in Chapter 9: Genetically Modified Crops.