CONVENTION WATCH BROCHURE ON BIOLOGICAL DIVERSITY
What is Biodiversity?
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 Earths 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.
Nations Environment Programmes (UNEP) Global Biodiversity Assessment lists the
five major causes for this biodiversity loss as:
|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 DiversityIt 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 worlds total land area. By 2030, this figure is set to increase radically, with 75 percent of the worlds 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:
| 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.
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 worlds 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 GMOs 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 worlds 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 worlds population.
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.
|RESOURCESUN Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD)
Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD)
IUCN - World
Agriculture Organisation (FAO)
Unit for Conventions (IUC)
Third World Network
International Environmental Law (CIEL)