Join forces to share biological resources equitably

Providers and users of biological resources need partnerships to share them fairly Copyright: FlickrF. de la Cruz/Bioversity International

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Countries must put aside cynicism and differing opinions to make the Nagoya protocol a success, say Suneetha Subramanian and Govindan Parayil.

The Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), adopted at the Rio Earth Summit of 1992, has been open and transparent to the concerns of various stakeholders — including those considered less powerful.

During the Tenth meeting of the Conference of the Parties (COP-10) to the CBD in Nagoya, Japan, several developing countries clearly indicated that decisions would go through only if the protocol on access and benefit sharing (ABS) of genetic resources was finalised. 

It took six years of negotiations to develop an international agreement on ABS, with the biggest challenges among them surrounding the rights of indigenous and local communities, defining terms relating to the use and development of genetic resources and measures to ensure compliance with the protocol’s provisions.

The protocol represents a compromise between a range of stakeholders, including countries that provide biological resources, countries that are primary users of these resources, indigenous and local communities, researchers, and the business sector. That it was accepted shows the desire for agreed ground rules.

But some are cynical, and providers and users of genetic resources have different opinions on how the rules are implemented, and the obligations and rights of other parties.

This sets the stage for the challenges ahead. Effective implementation hinges not just on policy but on good practice — and to accomplish this, all stakeholders will have to come on board.

Towards implementation

Moving forward is not going to be an easy task. First, stakeholders must have a clear and uniform understanding of their rights, responsibilities and obligations under the protocol. We simply can’t spend more time resolving differing interpretations.

And countries must ensure that appropriate and adequate policies are drawn up, complemented by regulations that can be implemented effectively.

For example, Prior Informed Consent permits issued by indigenous and local communities for the use of biological resources must be recognised by biodiversity and intellectual property laws.

To mitigate conflicts about who has the rights to benefits from biological resources, mechanisms for transboundary cooperation must be explored and actively pursued.

For example, the Bangladesh Draft Biodiversity law specifies that Bangladesh would enter into a cooperative alliance with any country that shares the same resources or traditional knowledge.

Such mechanisms would also enable countries to streamline regulations, making laws clearer and enforceable. 

Countries must have the capacity to develop and implement these all-important policies, and needs for capacity building will differ between them. Ideally, the CBD would facilitate a comprehensive assessment of these needs from the outset.

Raising awareness

No policy can be successful without being widely known and adopted by stakeholders, including consumers, who may have strong objections to unethically sourced and traded products.

This means that countries need to invest time, talent and resources in raising awareness of the physical and ethical impacts of consumer choices.

To design an appropriate campaign, the CBD secretariat would do well to explore how international campaigns with socio-environmental messages have achieved high visibility. One example is the climate change campaign to reduce carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases — a concerted effort in which the UN and several stakeholders are actively involved.

Training programmes can also help to motivate people to action. These must be designed appropriately, with sensitivity to the culture of different societies.

The Institute of Advanced Studies of the UN University has taken a small step in this direction by designing a Master’s programme, due to begin in October 2011, which focuses on biodiversity governance.

Moving ahead

Capacity assessment and awareness raising must begin now, before the ABS protocol comes into effect. Other activities, such as ensuring compliance and transboundary cooperation, will be encountered during implementation. 

In either case, funding will be needed to ensure that the protocol is implemented effectively. The Global Environment Fund is contributing US$40 million for ABS-related activities — a sum that should be handled with due process and diligence.

The CBD secretariat should ready itself to provide clear assessments and evaluations on progress in different countries.   

But progress isn’t only directly related to the CBD. Most governments also have obligations to other international processes that overlap with benefit-sharing concerns — REDD-plus, for example, or commitments related to land use, trade and intellectual property rights.

Several countries need support to navigate the synergies offered by inter-related policies. But they should also explore mechanisms to raise money, such as the biodiversity offsets approach, which provides credits or allows conservation measures in one location to make up for biodiversity losses in another. These could also serve as incentives for meeting targets for biodiversity management.

Far-reaching decisions were adopted during COP-10, and as the Decade of Biodiversity begins, the global spotlight has turned to biodiversity.

Getting here has not been an easy task. The path ahead will see whether the CBD can successfully bring countries together for equitable partnerships that benefit the environment and enhance human well-being.

Suneetha Subramanian is research fellow at the UN University-Institute of Advanced Studies (UNU-IAS), Japan. Govindan Parayil is vice-rector of the UNU and director of UNU-IAS.

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