I have been in Nagoya attending the U.N. biodiversity confrence, COP10, for nearly a week now (two if you count the pre-COP10 meeting on biosafety, MOP 5), and I think it’s safe to say I haven’t heard mention of an actual animal or plant yet.

Socio-economic production landscapes, extinction rates, access and benefit protocols, and strategic plans — yes. But bees, elephants or whales? No.

To be fair, the Convention on Biological Diversity (which is what the 7,000 participants currently at this two-week conference are here to talk about) isn’t about protecting specific species. That’s dealt with in other international agreements such as the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species.

This Convention is about protecting the whole grand picture of life on Earth by safeguarding habitats, encouraging sustainable agriculture, and educating government officials and ordinary people about why biodiversity matters.

Nevertheless, the bland carpeted halls of the Nagoya Congress Center can feel remarkably isolated from the natural world outside. Consequently, there follows a quick guide to one of the world’s most unique ecosystems, the U.N. environment conference, and its native species, Homo sapiens meetingus.

Many of the substantive discussions at COP10 take place in “Working Groups,” the large meetings of delegates where specific texts are debated. Working Group meetings are surprisingly similar to a high-school English class, except that the students are the countries of the world and the topic of debate is the future of life on Earth.

Representatives from each country sit at rows of desks in a large hall, each with a headset that delivers simultaneous translation in six languages and a placard before them identifying their country. Facing them on a stage is the Chair of the meeting.

Delegates take turns stating their position on a particular topic — say, whether or not a new expert group on marine protected areas should be set up.

The Chair moderates this discussion, calling on the delegates, commenting on their comments, and guiding the group toward (often elusive) consensus, which must be reached for every decision.

Sometimes all that’s required is a classic reprimand (“African Union, are you listening?”), but sometimes the Chair must decide when to continue a discussion and when to move on.

Is Mexico’s preference for the term “scientific study” over “peer study” an unimportant semantic detail, or is it a small but key point that will shape laws in 193 countries or even hold up adoption of the text?

The Chair must make that call.

Next week, Japan’s brand-new environment minister, Ryu Matsumoto, will take on this key role of Chair at the ministerial meetings where most of the final decisions are likely to be made (or not made). It remains to be seen how the new teacher will fare at his crucial task of managing the global classroom.

Even an environment ministry bureaucrat can’t live on words alone, of course — and luckily, Japan is an excellent host, famous for providing lavish banquets to conference attendees (sometimes too lavish, as in the case of the lunchtime feasts at the 2008 Hokkaido G8 leaders summit on poverty and hunger, which some journalists declined to partake of in protest).

This time around, at the opening reception we enjoyed persimmon tiramisu, cheese fondue and seafood mousse, among other delicacies. Since then, a steady supply of tea, sandwiches, fried chicken and cupcakes has been provided to keep delegates going.

We have also been treated to biodiversity-themed entertainment, including a performance by fourth-generation animal mimicry artist Edoya Nekohachi, who tweeted several songs, such as the Japanese classic “Furosato” in the voice of various birds at a show on Monday night.

Monday’s opening ceremony also included an extraordinary shadow-play show, in which hands projected onto a screen transformed themselves into squirrels, birds, crabs, sea anemone, octopuses and fish.

Delegates have had scant time for carousing, however.

For the past several days, negotiations over contentious issues such as access and benefit sharing continued until five in the morning. The rest of us are waiting to see whether the exhausted negotiators will be able to accomplish something within the conference center by next Friday — something that makes a difference beyond its walls, that is.

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