At Japan biodiversity meeting, access to resources divides rich and poor

As talks on halting the global loss of species got underway Monday in Japan, long-standing disagreements over how to split up the economic benefits those species generate are threatening to stall negotiations.

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    Some delegates to the 10th meeting of the Conference of the Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity, or COP-10, huddle during lunch break on its opening day in Nagoya, Japan, Oct. 18.
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Representatives from 193 countries gathered in Nagoya, Japan, Monday for the opening of a two-week United Nations Conference on Biodiversity described as a “Kyoto Protocol for all living things.”

As talks at the Conference of the Parties (COP-10) on halting the global loss of species got underway, longstanding disagreements between rich and poor countries over how to split the economic benefits those species can generate loomed large. Think genetic resources rather than physical products like bushmeat or timber.

For example, under a benefit sharing agreement, a Canadian biotech company that collects plant samples in the Amazon and develops a medicine from them would, in principal, be required to share the profits with the Brazilian government and any local people who traditionally used the plant. The company would also need to get permission from the government before taking or using a native plant.

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National laws governing such transactions exist in some countries. But so far, members of the convention have not been able to agree on an international system to ensure fair benefit sharing. Resource-providing countries say that’s allowed widespread “biopiracy."

Fair use?

One well-known biopiracy case occurred in 1996, when a South African research organization patented an appetite-suppressing compound found in a local plant called Hoodia, then signed licensing agreements with several pharmaceutical companies to market the product without compensating the San people who had used the plant for centuries to prevent hunger during hunting trips (the San were eventually compensated, after a public outcry over the case).

Now, representatives of resource-rich but financially poor countries say it’s time to address fair use. Seventeen such “mega-diverse” countries including Brazil, Kenya, and China are home to 70 percent of the planet’s species. They are pushing for the adoption of a “Protocol on Access and Benefit Sharing,” or ABS, at the 10th meeting of the parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity underway in Nagoya.

That could interfere with the delegates’ other task at the meeting, which is to agree on a 10-year strategic plan to slow loss of species.

The environmental picture

Scientists warn habitat loss, climate change, and other pressures are causing the sixth mass extinction event in earth’s history.

With a fifth of all mammals already endangered, according to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, delegates are discussing a plan to protect up to 20 percent of the world’s land and sea, end overfishing, and significantly increase funding for conservation projects.

In theory, these sets of negotiations will proceed on parallel tracks. But delegates from many developing countries say a conservation deal will be impossible without an agreement on benefit sharing and more financial support.

"They are inextricably linked,” said Brazilian delegate Maximiliano Arienzo.

Developed countries also want to conclude an agreement in Nagoya, because that would ensure legal access to genetic resources in other countries. However, while developing countries want strictly-enforced regulations that apply to many resources, richer countries like Canada and Japan argue that cumbersome rules will slow innovation, research, and trade. (The US is not a member of the Convention on Biological Diversity, but does have observer status).

National governments vs. indigenous people

The negotiations pit national governments against native people who hold much of the traditional knowledge and resources bio-prospectors are after. Indigenous representatives say they are often left out of state decisions concerning those resources.

“The current draft protocol reinforces states’ control over genetic resources and gives free access to our traditional knowledge. We’re talking about human rights,” said Armand MacKenzie, who is representing Canada’s indigenous Innu Nation at the negotiations.

Benefit sharing isn’t just a question of ethics or fairness, say observers. It could also give poor countries and indigenous groups the financial means to protect wild places.

“The resources under discussion aren’t just plants for cancer cures and beauty products. There are a number of important enzymes being considered for industrial use that could be huge potential sources of income for developing countries,” said David Ainsworth, a spokesperson for the Convention’s secretariat.

Nearly all developing countries say poverty and a lack of funding for conservation prevent them from adequately protecting their plants and animals.

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