/Chambers's migration takes him to UN 
Bradnee Chambers is the executive secretary for the Convention on Migratory Species for the United Nations. He has held several posts with the organization over his career. Chambers grew up near Minden and attended Haliburton Highlands Secondary School. Photo by Aydin Bahramlouian courtesy of Bradnee Chambers

Chambers's migration takes him to UN 

By Jenn Watt

Published Oct. 13 2016

*Update (Jan. 27 2019): Bradnee Chambers passed away on Wednesday Jan. 23 2019. He was 52. Since his death condolences have been coming in from around the world including from organizations such as the I nternational Union for Conservation of Nature the CMS Secretariat and BirdLife International.

It was partially Bradnee Chambers’s desire to live in Haliburton that caused him to move so far away.

The executive secretary of the United Nations’ Convention on Migratory Species of Wild Animals says part of his motivation to pursue a life of international relations came from his desire to retire in the Highlands.

“I didn’t come from a wealthy family” says Chambers 50 who now lives in Bonn Germany. As a youth he strategized on how to make the money to move back to Haliburton. “I said to myself wouldn’t it be nice to be like that? To have the means to live comfortably in Haliburton.”

Of course that wasn’t the only motivator for the ambitious teenager who already had an interest in politics and world travel.

“I always wanted to explore the world and I always wanted to be involved in international politics” he says.

Chambers grew up near Carnarvon attended high school in Haliburton and worked at a local pharmacy during summers. The son of Joan and James Chambers grandson of Frank and Audrey McIntyre of Haliburton and of Sylvie and James (Jim) Chambers his roots in the Highlands are deep.

“My great-grandparents pioneered the area out there” he says noting his family still mostly lives on Chambers Road off Highway 35. “I have a cottage there. I try to come back every summer when I can.”

Chambers has had an exciting career that has taken him further than he ever expected. He didn’t set out with a plan to work for the United Nations to work on international treaties or advocate for the world’s wildlife. He just followed what interested him and put in the work.

“My first degree is in international relations but I did a lot of law. Then I went on to do a master’s in international relations” he says during a phone interview.

With this rare combination of law and international relations Chambers saw the United Nations as a potential employer and he went for it.

“I went to Geneva. I had a friend who was going to university there. I slept on the floor of his residence [room] and tried to find an internship at the UN” he recalls. “I went around knocking on doors trying to find … someone to give me an internship. I eventually did.”

He started at the UN Conference on Trade and Development then found another internship all the while hoping to land a job. The UN was downsizing back then and so Chambers followed his Japanese girlfriend back to her home country. He got a job as a research associate in the field of environmental governance at the UN University’s Institute of Advanced Study of Sustainability in Japan.

“At that time there was a lot of concern about trade and environment” he says. While there he pursued a PhD in law specializing in environmental treaties. After publishing several books Chambers had become something of an expert on the subject.

He also happened to be in the right place (with the right skills) at the right time to be part of an historic environmental moment in world history.

“The climate change convention had been signed and they were going to negotiate this famous Kyoto Protocol. They didn’t have enough staff to run the meeting so I was seconded from UN U to the climate treaty to work for this meeting” he says. “It was a tremendous experience. It was a really cool thing.”

In his early 30s just starting out in his career Chambers watched as world leaders and serious negotiators worked around the clock on one of the most iconic climate change agreements in history. Chambers was up for 72 hours straight.

“I remember being this young impressionable person trying to find my way in the world and I remember seeing these negotiations thinking they were going to fail.”

Then American vice-president Al Gore arrived and made the bold statement that he was releasing his negotiators to do what was right for the world.

“Just being a few metres away from him and seeing all that was fantastic” says Chambers.

After working at the UN University for many years he decided a change of scenery was in order and headed off to Nairobi for five years working on a process to strengthen the UN Environment Program or UNEP.

The goal was to bring the funding and influence of the environment program up to the level of other large UN institutions such as the World Health Organization. About every decade someone would lead the charge to upgrade UNEP to something of higher stature and prestige. It was about the time to try again when Chambers arrived.

For four years he built a case for an upgrade intending to bring it to Rio de Janeiro for the 20th anniversary of the Earth Charter.

“I spent three or four years preparing for that discussion” he says. He had travelled the world convincing nations to support the upgrade with 130 governments supporting a World Environment Organization. But Brazil and the U.S.A. weren’t interested.

Chambers called the negotiations at Rio “hardcore” and “tense” and in the end there was no World Environment Organization –  but there were upgrades.

“We got a doubling of the budget of UNEP” he says. They “created the first universal body under the general assembly” now called the UN Environment Assembly.

With that accomplishment under his belt Chambers decided to tackle a new challenge. A few twists and turns within the UN ended up bringing him to Bonn where he now works on the Convention on Migratory Species also commonly referred to as CMS.

“It deals with all species all the wild animals that migrate between international boundaries from cheetahs to lions to blue whales to dolphins to sharks to monarch butterflies to wild dogs to saiga [antelopes] to hundreds of bird species. Everything that moves: in the water in the air on the ground” he says.

Nations in Europe Latin America Asia and Africa are signed on to the CMS and by negotiating agreements about migratory animals those animals can be better protected.

They need it.

“Most of the migratory species are very vulnerable because in order to survive they need to migrate” he explains. Breeding grounds and food supplies are two of the main motivators of migration.

“If it’s migratory sharks [for example] they’re moving in international waters and they’re being targeted by over-fishing or by illegal fishing or sometimes they’re bycatch: you’ll be fishing blue tuna and you catch sharks” he says.

With birds a major problem comes up with songbirds being caught in massive netting erected on the northern coast of Africa. Songbirds are considered a delicacy for some. They are also sold as ornaments. Raptors are sold to Arab countries for the sport of falconry.

There’s poaching in Africa to feed the demand for ivory in China Vietnam and the Philippines. The saiga antelope was killed almost to extinction in central Asia. In North America the migratory bird population is dropping dangerously.

The CMS includes appendices that list endangered or threatened populations of animals.

For animals listed under Appendix 1 or the endangered species “countries signed on must ensure there’s no killing or taking of that species whatsoever.”

In North America it’s been a struggle to get the U.S. and Canada to join in as both countries have a history of protected areas and parkland. In recent years however those countries have begun joining in unofficially.

A recent report came out noting a steep decrease in migratory birds over the last decade in North America.

“So they’re saying what are we going to do? When our species are in North America it’s fine. But when they’re in Latin America they’re vulnerable and they’re being illegally killed. They’re suffering from pesticides or barriers to migration” says Chambers.

Working through the CMS which has many Latin American and Caribbean countries signed on would allow for multilateral negotiations which are much quicker and easier than doing many bilateral agreements.

Over the years Chambers’s perspectives on the world –  and his personal world –  have changed.

Being a part of major international work has made him realize how slowly things change and how much effort is needed to make small progress. He says a bit of the idealism he came to the United Nations with has slipped away and been replaced with dogged tenacity.

“It’s very slow moving to get countries to agree on some things” he says. “It’s not like getting one or two countries to agree. You have to get 125 countries to agree.”

It can mean a lot of travel and a lot of talk to get agreement but it’s worth it.

“There’s no alternative. We need international co-operation to protect the environment and protect migratory wildlife. That’s what’s at stake” he says.

Back in Haliburton his perspective has shifted many times over the years. One of six siblings Chambers is the only one who ended up on the world stage. It took time for everyone to adjust.

“I found it hard coming back after having lived that life – to be calm and settled in Haliburton.” He says he was restless in his 30s and 40s when he came back having difficulty finding commonalities when he was talking about treaties and COP (conference of parties) meetings.

But that’s changed.

“All these places I go still aren’t as nice as Haliburton. Also my family has got more used to me. Now when I’m home I’m much more comfortable and I feel at ease.”

Married to Elisa with daughter Ena (who is interested in becoming an illustrator) Chambers is starting to think seriously about his plan to come back to Haliburton. He’s been all around the world and done exciting things but home is still the Highlands.

“It’s the greatest place in the world” he says. “I’ve been everywhere but I think Haliburton County is still the best.”