wpe38.jpg (16702 bytes)


Index Home


What is Biodiversity?

Biological diversity, or biodiversity as it is commonly known, essentially refers to the variety of life on earth. The Convention on Biological Diversity defines biodiversity as "the variability among living organisms from all sources including terrestrial, marine and other aquatic ecosystems and the ecological complexes of which they are part; this includes diversity within species, between species and of ecosystems". It can basically be divided into three major levels, with ecosystems such as rain forests, mangrove swamps, coral reefs and the like situated at the top. Following on from that are all the species like humans, dolphins, butterflies etc. that inhabit these wide array of ecosystems, and then finally completing the hierarchy is the variety of genes that make up the heredity of each of these species. This wonderful web of life that the term biodiversity describes, is the product of over 3000 million years of evolution.

To date scientists have been able to identify an estimated 1.7 million species, although the exact number that exists on earth today is still, however, unknown. Varying estimates place this number from a minimum of 5 million to as much as even 100 million.

The need to conserve this wonderful array and diversity of life on earth has recently become far more urgent, with human activity posing an increasing threat to species and ecosystems. Although species extinction is a natural part of the evolutionary process, biologists have generally come to agree that the rate is now 100 to 1000 times greater than it was before humans came to inhabit the earth. The US National Science Foundation in fact claimed that the decade of the 1980s was "the most catastrophic loss of species in the last 65 million years". Not only has the extinction rate soared, but there has also been a marked decline in the birth rate of new species as more of the natural environment continues to be destroyed.

According to the most recent estimates, predictions based on the current rate of deforestation claim that over the next twenty five years two to eight percent of the Earth’s species will disappear, and that by the end of the 21st century as much as half of the species of plants and animals on this planet will be gone forever.

The United Nation’s Environment Programme’s (UNEP) Global Biodiversity Assessment lists the five major causes for this biodiversity loss as:

  • The fragmentation, degradation or loss of habitats;
  • Over-exploitation of biological resources
  • Pollution
  • The introduction of non-native (alien, or exotic) species
  • Climate change

Biodiversity loss is not only a tragedy for the environment, but has enormous ramifications on social and economic affairs. Presently, 40 percent of the world’s economy and roughly 80 percent of the needs of poor people are derived from biological resources. The greater the diversity of this life, the more opportunities that exist for medical discoveries, economic development, and adaptive responses to new challenges like climate change.

The Value of Biodiversity

Besides the fact that the various forms of life on earth have an inherent value and right to exist, making us ethically bound to conserve them, it is also clear that protecting the rich biological diversity of our planet is very much in our own self-interest. We depend on ecosystems for our survival and the preservation of these ecosystems, in turn, depends on us. The Convention on Biological Diversity has established three main goals: the conservation of biological diversity, the sustainable use of its components, and the fair and equitable sharing of the benefits arising from genetic resources. We will need to fulfil these three objectives in order to continue benefiting from the many goods and services that nature provides for our societies. If we keep on depleting and eroding the resources on which we rely for our development, we will end up transforming the Earth into a far less hospitable place for humans and other species. According to the World Resources Institute, "the current rate of decline in the long-term productive capacity of ecosystems could have devastating implications for human development and the welfare of all species".

Over the last century, human pressure on ecosystems has increased dramatically. While loss of species is a natural phenomenon of evolution, scientists estimate that the pace of extinction has accelerated since the beginning of the last century to at least 1,000 species per year compared to the previous average of merely 5 species per year. According to the Global Biodiversity Assessment more than 31,000 species are already threatened with extinction. "Unless we take extraordinary measures now nature will have been made simpler, duller and less productive by the 22nd century", says Klaus Töpfer, Executive Director of UNEP, or as Ted Turner more graphically illustrates it, "envision a world where cockroaches, rats and pigeons take over from butterflies, tigers and parrots".

"envision a world where cockroaches, rats and
pigeons take over from butterflies, tigers and parrots"

It is high time that we start implementing measures for the conservation and sustainable use of our biological resources if we wish to ensure our long-term well-being and leave future generations with ample resources and opportunities to develop. In other words, we urgently need to bring our demands in line with nature's ability to produce. Although industrial and economic development has generated numerous benefits for human societies, it has been achieved at an extremely high cost for our natural environment and is furthermore characterised by massive inequalities amongst the inhabitants of this planet. "While some enjoy better standards of living than at any time in history, nearly half the world's population is unjustifiably poor, making do on less than $2 a day", says K. Töpfer. It is also frequently the poor who depend directly on ecosystems for their livelihoods and who consequently suffer the most from the degradation of ecosystems and the loss of biological diversity. In richer societies, it is often unsustainable economic practices, over-consumption and the pursuit of short-term gains that put unbearable pressures on the environment. For instance, governments around the world spend about $700 billion a year subsidising environmentally unsound practices. Consequently, the price paid for food, water, energy and other goods does not take into account environmental costs and promotes the over-consumption of these same goods. In developed as well as in developing nations, economic growth without adequate environmental safeguards still remains the rule rather than the exception.

"While some enjoy better standards of living than at any time in history, nearly half the world's population is unjustifiably poor,
making do on less than $2 a day"

Ensuring our economic and social development will depend on our ability and determination to preserve the Earth's biological diversity. The conservation, sustainable use and equitable sharing of biological resources is not just a priority it is a condition sine qua non if we want to make sure that our children and subsequent future generations do not live in an impoverished and less productive world.

History of the Convention on Biological Diversity

Negotiations for a Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) started in 1987 under the auspices of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP). Although several international treaties covering various aspects of biological conservation, such as CITES, the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands and the Convention on Migratory Species already existed, it was decided that the complexity of dealing with the conservation and sustainable use of biological diversity required a new, comprehensive, global and internationally-binding agreement.

An Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee (INC) was established with the sole mandate of negotiating a convention on biological diversity. The INC met seven times from November 1990 to May 1992. Right from the start, sharp differences on how to use and protect the world’s biodiversity appeared between developed and developing countries. The North was pushing for a ‘conservationist’ convention that would regard biodiversity as the common heritage of humankind. The South was worried that by proclaiming the world’s biodiversity a common heritage, developing nations would eventually relinquish sovereignty over their own biological assets. Already at that time it was clear that biotechnology companies, mainly based in developed countries, were making profits by exploiting the biologically and genetically-rich resources of the South and that developing nations were getting very little in return. Negotiators from the South were determined to ensure a fair and equitable sharing of the benefits generated by the use of genetic resources and to link access to these resources with technology transfer.

The final text of the CBD, highlights that the conservation of the planet’s biodiversity is a common concern rather than a common heritage; introduces the concept of benefit sharing on a fair and equitable basis; and recognises the sovereign right of nations over their biological resources. The United States unhappy with the outcome of the negotiations refused to sign the CBD in 1992 when it was opened for signature at the Rio Conference and has to this date not ratified the convention. The US felt that concessions made to developing countries were too great and that it gave them too much leeway particularly regarding financial matters. Several European countries also expressed concern about the final version of the CBD, but pressure from public opinion eventually led to them signing and ratifying the convention. Southern countries on the other hand, were worried that article 15 and article 16 dealing with access to genetic resources and technology transfer were weak and vague and therefore did not provide any firm guarantees that benefit sharing and technology transfer would actually occur.

The first Conference of the Parties (CoP-1) to the CBD took place in Nassau in 1994. Very little of a concrete nature happened during this meeting, except for the establishment of a Subsidiary Body on Scientific, Technical and Technological Advice (SBSTTA). The same North/South divide persisted during this round of negotiations. Developing countries wanted to address the role played by local and indigenous communities in enhancing and preserving genetic resources. They were also hoping that rules would be devised with regard to benefit sharing and access to genetic resources. None of these issues received any real support though from the group of industrialised nations. Discussions on a legally binding Protocol on Biosafety were also rather tumultuous and did not receive adequate support from developed countries.

CoP-2, which was held in Jakarta in 1995, was more productive. Delegates present in the Indonesian capital considered the need for and modalities of a Protocol on Biosafety. In the end it was decided that such a protocol would be negotiated and a Working Group on Biosafety (BSWG) was established. Significant progress was also made on marine and coastal biodiversity (see Jakarta Mandate) and regarding forest biodiversity. Delegates equally reaffirmed their support to the ecosystem approach, which promotes in situ conservation of natural resources. Developing countries pushed for the CoP to consider the relationship between the CBD agreement and the rules of the World Trade Organisation (WTO) dealing with Intellectual Property Rights (IPRs) and to assert the supremacy of the CBD in this matter. They were met with strong objections from industrialised countries and the issue was summarily shelved.

The Third Conference of the Parties (CoP-3) convened in 1996 in Buenos Aires. At this meeting much discussion centred around article 8(j) of the Convention which deals with traditional knowledge, the rights of local and indegenous communities and the need for equitable sharing of the benefits arising from the utilisation of local and indigenous knowledge. Decision III/14 of CoP-3 among other things  requests those Parties that have not yet done so to develop national legislation and corresponding strategies for the implementation of article 8(j) in consultation particularly with representatives of their indigenous and local communities . The Parties also agreed that indigenous communities should be given exclusive rights over their land if they are expected to use it in a sustainable manner. The issue of IPRs also resurfaced at CoP-3 with several developing countries asking for a revision of IPR-based systems with a view to make them more compatible with the goals of the CBD and consequenly with systems that are based on collective and integenerational knowledge. At CoP-3, delegates also adopted decisions on several topics including the interaction between agriculture and biodiversity, forest biodiversity and a work programme on drylands, mountain and inland water ecosystems.

CoP-4 met in Bratislava in May 1998. Delegates discussed how to integrate biodiversity concerns into sectoral activities, such as tourism, as well as the participation of the private sector in the implementation of the CBD. Again the relationship between the IPRs, the Trade-Related aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) of the WTO and the CBD was discussed. Decision IV /15 of CoP-4 « stresses the need to ensure consistency in implementing the CBD and the WTO agreements, including TRIPS, with a view to promote increased mutual supportiveness and integration of biological diversity concerns and the protection of intellectual property rights, and invites the WTO to consider how to achieve these objectives… . This fourth meeting also saw the establishment of a Working Group on artcile 8(j) with the objective of advising the CoP on how to protect the knowledge of indigenous and local communities and to identify measures which will promote the equitable sharing of benefits.

COP-5 took place in Nairobi from the 15 to 26 May 2000. As opposed to previous CoP’s, this latest one managed to avoid significant organisational or procedural problems as well as any major controversy or large-scale divisions on issues. Many of the delegates felt that the CBD had finally settled on its ground-rules, with negotiators aware of each other’s positions on issues. This has therefore allowed for substantive and efficient working group sessions, where the focus can now be put more firmly on the progress of implementation. One of the major issues that were discussed at this Conference concerning implementation was that of the recently agreed Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety. In this regard, many delegates were calling for greater strides being taken on capacity building, information sharing and the Biosafety Clearing House Mechanism (BCHM) so as to ensure an operational Protocol. Discussions were also initiated on another protocol, this time covering the important issue of alien species. While some supported the idea of formulating a protocol on invasive species along the lines of the Cartagena Protocol, others felt that on this issue the negotiations could be even more contentious and difficult to conclude. On a procedural level CoP-5 gave attention to formulating work programmes and synergies with other international institutions. It is clear that on this issue delegates are becoming more willing to integrate the work of the CBD with other conventions, laying the foundation to what some have come to term the "global environmental policy architecture".


Article 8(j)

Each Contracting Party shall, as far as possible and as appropriate; subject to its national legislation, respect , preserve and maintain knowledge, innovations and practices of indigenous and local communities embodying traditional lifestyles relevant for the conservation and sustainable use of biological diversity and promote their wider application with the approval and involvement of the holders of such knowledge, innovations and practices and encourage the equitable sharing of the benefits arising from the utilisation of such knowledge, innovations and practices.

Article 15 : Access to genetic resources

1. Recognising the sovereign rights of States over their natural resources, the authority to determine access to genetic resources rests with the national governments and is subject to national legislation.

2. Each Contracting Party shall endeavour to create conditions to facilitate access to genetic resources for environmentally sound uses by other Contracting Parties and not to to impose restrictions that run counter to the objectives of this Convention.

4. Access, where granted, shall be on mutually agreed terms and subject to the provisions of this article.

Article 16 : Access to and transfer of technology

1. Each Contracting Party, recognising that technology includes biotechnology, and that both access to and transfer of technology among Contracting Parties are essential elements for the attainment of the objectives of this Convention, undertakes subject to the provisions of this article to provide and /or facilitate access for and transfer to other Contracting Parties of technologies that are relevant to the conservation and sustainable use of biological diversity or make use of genetic resources and do not cause significant damage to the environment.

2. Access to and transfer of technology referred to in paragraph 1 above to developing countries shall be provided and/or facilitated under fair and most favourable terms, including on concessional and preferential terms where mutually agreed…. In the case of technology subject to patents and other intellectual property rights, such access and transfer shall be provided on terms which recognise and are consistent with the adequate and effective protection of intellectual property rights.

5. The Contracting Parties, recognising that patents and other intellectual property rights may have an influence on the implementation of this Convention, shall cooperate in this regard subject to national legislation and international law in order to ensure that such rights are supportive of and do not run counter to its objectives.


The Jakarta Mandate on Marine and Coastal Biological Diversity

It was at the occasion of CoP-2 in 1995 that a ministerial segment referred to the new global consensus on marine and coastal biological diversity. This consensus came to be known as the Jakarta Mandate. The impetus for this mandate came from the recognition that marine and coastal areas are coming under increased pressure from threats like alteration and loss of habitat; chemical pollution and eutrophication; climate change; invasive alien species; and over-exploitation of living marine and coastal resources.

The loss of marine and coastal biological diversity also looks set to increase over the coming decades, as more and more people move into the narrow coastal zone. Currently four billion people live in the immediate coastal region, which comprises only ten percent of the world’s total land area. By 2030, this figure is set to increase radically, with 75 percent of the world’s population expected to be living in coastal zones. The reasons for this are obvious, when one considers that over 90 percent of the living and non-living resources are found in this sea-land zone, which extends only a few hundred kilometres from the shore. The conservation and sustainable use of marine and coastal biodiversity can therefore be seen as an essential condition for future life on our planet.

With this goal in mind the Jakarta Mandate called for a panel of experts to be set up, which would be entrusted with the task of formulating a work programme for countries to implement. The work programme that was subsequently adopted at CoP-3 in Bratislava focussed on five major issues, namely:

  • Integrated marine and coastal area management (IMCAM)
  • Marine and coastal living resources (MCLR)
  • Marine and coastal protected areas
  • Mariculture
  • Alien species and genotypes

Each of these different areas address a specific problem related to the conservation of marine and coastal biodiversity. IMCAM for instance, seeks to go beyond the traditional way of managing resources sector by sector and instead details a participatory process of combining all aspects of the physical, biological and human components of the marine and coastal areas within a single management framework. MCLR promotes the adoption of the ecosystem approach (see the SBSTTA and ecosystem box) in achieving the sustainable use of marine and coastal living resources, which in many parts of the world are currently over-exploited and facing depletion. The marine and coastal protected areas issue concentrates on researching the value and effects of such reserves so as to encourage their establishment round the world, which is unfortunately severely lagging behind efforts on land-based reserves. Mariculture refers to the commercial farming of fish, molluscs, shellfish and plants in saltwater, and the work programme outlines a number of recommendations. These are that assessments need to be conducted and a monitoring programme established before any mariculture activities take place; local species should be used; techniques should be developed that ensure more complete containment; and any introduction of alien species should be conducted in accordance with the precautionary principle. On the issue of alien species, the work programme seeks to achieve a better understanding of the causes and impacts of their introduction, as well as identifying gaps in countries’ legal instruments, guidelines and procedures concerning them.

The implementation of this work programme is envisaged to take place at a national and local level, where it needs to be integrated into national biodiversity strategies, plans and programmes so as to ensure that this valuable part of the world’s biodiversity is conserved for future generations.


The Politics of a Life-changing Technology

The advent of biotechnology, whereby scientists are able to transplant genes from one organism into another, has brought with it a host of issues and controversies for policymakers to grapple with. Being able to move genes across organisms and species has immense ramifications for life as we know it, bringing into the debate issues surrounding ethics, environmental safety, food security, intellectual property rights, the value of traditional knowledge and the North/South sharing of benefits.

The Science

Over the last few decades there have been major advances in the field of genetic engineering, with recombinant DNA allowing scientists to transfer genetic material between two unrelated organisms that would never have been able to breed in nature. These advances have spurned forth a host of Genetically Modified Organisms (GMO) which have had their genetic structure altered so as to produce one desirable effect or another. Examples of such GMOs include BT corn, which has been genetically modified to produce its own bacterial-based insecticide and rice that has been altered to produce sufficient beta-carotene to meet human vitamin A requirements. It should therefore be evident that this is a powerful new technology with far-reaching implications. Proponents of it, speak of its ability to address the current food crisis by making crops more resistant to drought, salinity, pests and diseases, as well as increasing their yield and improving their nutritional value. There are, however, major concerns and issues to be taken into account when considering the value of such a "life-changing" technology.

Ethics and the Environment

Ethically, a debate has been raised as to whether we as human beings have the right to shape and fashion the fundamental building blocks of life to meet our own needs and desires. In this regard, it should be borne in mind that these new GMOs would never have been brought into existence if it were not for the hands of scientists. Concomitantly, we can not possibly predict the eventual environmental effects of releasing these new GMOs on to the world at large. As it is a relatively new technology, there is currently a great deal of uncertainty and disagreement amongst scientists as to the threat of these new organisms on both human health and the world’s biodiversity. The greatest concern that scientists hold is that of horizontal gene transfer, whereby the new transgenic DNA which has been inserted into one organism may prove to be more unstable and therefore prone to transferring to unrelated species. This could have particularly disastrous effects, including the spread of antibiotic resistance marker genes that would make infectious diseases untreatable, the generation of new viruses and bacteria and harmful mutations that could result in cancer.

The Biosafety Protocol

It was for these potential health risks as well as the uncertainty surrounding the threat that GMO’s pose to biodiversity that a Biosafety Protocol regulating the movement of these organisms across national borders was proposed. Most of the industrialised countries with biotechnology companies have already been able to develop domestic legislation governing the safe transfer, handling, use and disposal of GMOs and their products. For developing countries though, this issue was of particular concern given that their indigenous plant species would be threatened by the introduction of GMOs, whose long-term effects on the environment have not been adequately established.

The first meeting on a possible biosafety protocol therefore took place in Denmark in 1996, where governments listed elements that they thought could be included in a future protocol. Four subsequent meetings then took place in Montreal, Canada, in which these elements and factors continued to be hammered out. Finally, on the 22 February 1999 in Cartagena, Columbia, the first Extraordinary Meeting of the Conference of the Parties (ExCOP) to the CBD was held, in which over 600 participants representing 138 governments, business, NGOs and scientists came together to try and finalise a protocol. Unfortunately, even after ten days of non-stop debate, no agreement could be reached. The main sticking points centered round trade issues, treatment of commodities and domestic versus international regulatory regimes.

Subsequent to that meeting, informal consultations were held in Vienna in September 1999 in an attempt to find ways of resolving some of the issues that had dead-locked the previous negotiations. At that meeting, negotiating groups agreed on a simple set of concepts for commodities and relations with other international agreements, while acknowledging that major differences on those issues and others would still need to be resolved at the Resumed Session of the Extraordinary Meeting of the Conference of the Parties.

This resumed session took place in the city of Montreal, and after nine days of intense negotiations the world finally saw the successful adoption of the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety in the early hours of the morning on 29 January 2000. One of the major sticking points of earlier negotiations, namely the relationship between the Protocol and other international agreements was resolved by making the Protocol mutually supportive of them. This means that signatory countries will have to abide by the regulations of the Protocol, but at the same time the Protocol can not affect the rights and obligations of governments under any existing international agreements.

The final point of contention in the drafting of the Protocol, however, actually proved to be identification and documentation. In terms of the final agreement, governments will now signal to the world community via an internet-based Biosafety Clearing House (BSCH) whether or not they are willing to accept imports of agricultural commodities that include GMOs. On the exporters’ side, shipments of commodities that may contain GMOs have to be clearly labeled. In the case of seeds, live fish and other intentionally introduced GMOs, exporters are forced to provide detailed information to the importing country before the shipment can be authorised by them.

The adoption of this protocol, which was opened for signing at the fifth Conference of the Parties in Nairobi, is merely the first step towards achieving biosafety in developing countries. The real challenge now lies in the implementation of it. Developing countries have already indicated that they lack the capacity to fully implement such a protocol. This is related to the fact that the onus lies on the receiving country of these GMOs to scientifically justify health and safety issues to the BSCH before being able to refuse importation of a specific GMO. This in turn demands that a country possesses trained experts in various fields of science who are able to fully analyse the risk of different GMOs. One solution that has been proposed to overcome this problem of capacity is to create regional centres, which build on different countries’ scientific expertise in the field of biotechnology.

Intellectual Property Rights and Biopiracy

It is not only in the area of biosafety that GMOs have generated immense debate and drawn lines along a North/South divide. Developing countries, and in particular the Africa Group have taken great exception to the fact that the Trade-Related Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) Agreement in the World Trade Organisation has explicitly allowed for the patenting of life forms. Article 27.3 (b) of this agreement states that while countries may exclude from patenting plants, animals and essentially biological processes, they are forced to patent micro-organisms, microbiological and non-biological processes. Under TRIPS, genetically modified organisms would qualify for patenting in the same way as a mechanical machine that has been invented by someone. The Africa Group, however, maintains that in combining different genes you are not inventing something, but merely reorganising what already exists in nature. In their view, while the actual process employed to combine two unlikely genes could be patented, the genes themselves can not.

This argument takes on direct relevance when one considers the issue of biopiracy. This term has come to describe the industrial practice of using traditional knowledge or genetic resources that communities have produced and conserved throughout the years to develop and patent a product, thereby effectively excluding the community from receiving any benefits. A particularly noteworthy case in this regard is that of turmeric, which the University of Mississippi Medical Centre patented for the healing of wounds, despite the fact that turmeric had been used for centuries as a well known folk remedy in India. The Council of Scientific and Industrial Research of India finally managed to have the patent revoked though, when it provided documentation proving that turmeric had been used for those purposes long before the patent application. Amongst other things, this case proved the need for communities and countries to document their traditional knowledge, so as to avoid industry from coming at a later stage and claiming it as their own. A number of proposals have therefore been made to create national, regional or international registries of traditional knowledge, which could then provide a solid foundation for benefit sharing arrangements between industry and indigenous communities.

Bioprospecting, Benefit Sharing and Traditional Knowledge

It should be borne in mind, that the whole concept of benefit sharing needs to be analysed in a broader context, taking into account the point of view and value system of the communities concerned. In many cultures, the idea of patenting life forms or utilising traditional knowledge for private financial gain is simply anathema to their spiritual values. It is of vital importance then, that local communities are viewed by the international community as the true owners of their ecological knowledge, and that any outsiders wishing to gain access to it have to do so in accordance with both their local laws and inherent value systems. Prior and informed consent to any bioprospecting activity consequently needs to be enshrined as a fundamental right of every community.

At a national level, there is an urgent need for developing countries to formulate a regulatory framework that would stipulate the rules and conditions under which bioprospecting may take place. It is furthermore vital for those communities to be given maximum sovereignty over their knowledge and biological resources, if the benefits are to be shared in an equitable manner. This is in accordance with one of the principles of the ecosystem approach developed by the Subsidiary Body on Scientific, Technical and Technological Advice (SBSTTA) of the CBD (See box on the ecosystem approach), which is premised on the fact that the closer management is to the ecosystem, the greater the responsibility, ownership, accountability, participation, and use of local knowledge. Control over their natural resources is but only one side of the coin though, as indigenous communities also need to be capacitated in terms of information, training and the formulation of institutional structures that will allow them to effectively negotiate collaborative agreements with outside entities and legally prevent the licensing or sale of knowledge which was unjustly acquired from them.

Food Security

The patenting of life forms is also expected to have enormous negative repercussions on issues such as development, food security and the well being of small-scale farmers. This fact becomes evident when one places it within the context of the last decade that has seen a prevalence of large-scale mergers of multinational companies in the life sciences industry. Currently, it is only a small number of these multinationals that dominate and control this important industry of food, seeds, pesticides and pharmaceuticals. Control over such essential products concomitantly translates into them having control over the fundamental rights of access to food, health and nutrition. Only four corporations, for example, control 85% of the world trade in cereals. Seen within this context, it is clear that the patenting of life forms would merely exacerbate this situation by allowing the private monopolisation of life and biological resources by these multinational companies. This is turn will further compound the real food security problems of the world which are not caused by food shortages, but by inequity, poverty and the concentration of food production.

Another worrying trend amongst these multinational biotechnology companies, which indicates their underlying desire to gain monopoly control of food production in the world, is their research into terminator technology. This technology goes one step further than patents in exerting ownership rights over biodiversity, by using genetic engineering to create sterile plants with infertile seeds that farmers will not be able to replant. This will therefore mean that farmers will be completely dependent on these companies, in that every new season they will have to repurchase all their seeds again at prices, which these companies will determine.

With all the uncertainties currently surrounding biotechnology, one thing that we can be sure of in the next few decades is that this life-changing technology will have a profound effect on all aspects of our existence. The challenge for policy-makers is therefore to keep ahead of these gigantic scientific leaps and to consider all the possible areas that they could impact on. In this regard, it is important to always place this technology within the context of the world’s existing power relations and pose the question as to whom will stand to benefit most from it. It is only from this standpoint that one can formulate appropriate legislation that ensures these advances in technology are used to truly benefit the majority of the world’s population.

The Subsidiary Body For Scientific, Technical
and Technological Advice & the Ecosystem Approach

The Subsidiary Body for Scientific, Technical and Technological Advice (SBSTTA) was set up at the first Conference of the Parties to the CBD, and was entrusted with the job of briefing members about various scientific and technical issues pertaining to the implementation of the convention. It is a multi-disciplinary body, open to all Parties and comprised of various government representatives skilled in different fields of expertise. During the five sessions that it has held from its inception the SBSTTA has produced recommendations on a number of issues including amongst others, sustainable use of coastal and marine biological diversity, practical approaches to taxonomy, biosafety and the ecosystem approach.

The ecosystem approach has been adopted by the CoP as the primary framework for action under the convention. Essentially it consists of twelve fundamental principles that are used to inform the activities member countries undertake in implementing the decisions of the convention.

The twelve principles are:

  1. The objectives of management of land, water and living resources are a matter of societal choice.
  2. Management should be decentralised to the lowest level.
  3. Ecosystem managers should consider the effects of their activities on adjacent and other ecosystems.
  4. Recognising potential gains from management, there is a need to understand the ecosystem in an economic context.
  5. Conservation of ecosystem structure and functioning, in order to maintain ecosystem services, should be a priority target of the ecosystem approach.
  6. Ecosystems must be managed within the limits of their functioning.
  7. The ecosystem approach should be undertaken at the appropriate spatial and temporal scales.
  8. Recognising the varying temporal scales and lag-effects that characterise ecosystem processes, objectives for ecosystem management should be set for the long term.
  9. Management must recognise that change is inevitable.
  10. The ecosystem approach should seek the appropriate balance between, and integration of, conservation and use of biological diversity.
  11. The ecosystem approach should consider all forms of relevant information, including scientific and indigenous and local knowledge, innovations and practices.
  12. The ecosystem approach should involve all relevant sectors of society and scientific disciplines.

Besides these twelve principles, the ecosystem approach has also devised five operational guidelines that should be borne in mind when trying to implement this approach.

  1. Focus on the functional relationships and processes within ecosystems.
  2. Promote the fair and equitable access to the benefits derived from the functions of biological diversity in ecosystems and from the use of its components.
  3. Use adaptive management practices
  4. Carry out management actions at the scale appropriate for the issue being addressed, with decentralisation to lowest level, as appropriate.
  5. Ensure inter-sectoral co-operation.

A call was made at COP-5 for all Parties, governments and organisations to apply the ecosystem approach, by implementing pilot projects and identifying case studies that can be passed on to SBSTTA. They will then be entrusted with the task of collating all the lessons learned from these experiences and, before CoP-7, devise practical guidelines on how it can be fully implemented.



  • Sustaining Life on Earth, Secretariat of the Convention on Biological Diversity, April 2000.
  • "Appreciating the Benefits of Plant Biodiversity", John Tuxill, State of the World 1999, Worldwatch Institute, 1999.
  • Our Planet Magazine, United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), Vol 10, No 5, 2000.
  • 'Vanishing before our Eyes', Edward O. Wilson, Time Magazine, April-May 2000.
  • Cultural and Spiritual Values of Biodiversity, United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), 1999.
  • Parks for Biodiversity, Policy Guidance based on experience in ACP countries, IUCN - The World Conservation Union & European Commission, DG - Development, 1999.
  • Green Politics, Global Environmental Negotiations 1, Centre for Science and Environment (CSE), India, 1999.
  • Integrating Implementation of the CBD and the Rules of the WTO, David R. Downes, IUCN -The World Conservation Union, 1999.
  • Convention on Biological Diversity, Text and Annexes.
  • Using Intellectual Property as a Tool to Protect Traditional Knowledge, Discussion Draft, David R. Downes, Centre for International Environmental Law (CIEL), November 1997.
  • International Institute for Sustainable Development, Earth Negotiations Bulletin, Vol 9, No 137, January 2000 and No 160, May 2000.
  • A Guide to World Resources 2000-2001, People and Ecosystems, The Fraying Web of Life, World Resources Institute, 2000.
  • Third World Network Briefing Papers, No 1, 2, 3 and 4.
  • Open Letter from the World Scientists to All Governments concerning GMOs, Institute of Science in Society, May 2000.
  • Solving the Puzzle, The Ecosystem Approach and Biosphere Reserves, United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO), April 2000.
  • Bio-prospecting and Benefit Sharing, report of a UNED-UK/Novartis Workshop hosted by the Rockefeller Foundation New York, April 1999.

21-22 September 2000: GLOBE Southern Africa Conference: Partnerships for Sustainability II, Environmental Security in Africa, Cape Town, South Africa.

4-11 October 2000: Second IUCN World Conservation Congress, Amman, Jordan.

12-13 October 2000: International Conference on Forests and Sustainable Development, United Nations University (UNU), Tokyo, Japan.

20-25 November 2000: Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) Council, Rome, Italy.

11-15 December 2000: First Meeting of the Intergovernmental Committee on the Cartagena Protocol, Montpellier, France.













UN Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD)


International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD)


IUCN - World Conservation Union


Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO)


UNEP Information Unit for Conventions (IUC)


World Resources Institute (WRI)


Third World Network


Global Biodiversity Forum (GBF)


Centre for International Environmental Law (CIEL)