25 March 2006

Who Has Access to Biodiversity?

Mario Osava*/IPS

RIO DE JANEIRO, Mar 23 (Tierramérica) - Biologically mega-diverse countries, including Brazil, Mexico and Colombia, are calling for a binding global policy to regulate who has access to biodiversity. The proposal is up for discussion at an international environmental meeting this week in the southern Brazilian city of Curitiba, but the goal remains far out of reach.
"The negotiation has been difficult and this process could take a couple more years," Hesiquio Benítez told Tierramérica. He is a member of the Mexican delegation to the 8th Conference of Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity (COP8), which will include a draft policy among its agenda priorities. Limited progress is expected during the conference, but not an agreement, given that the issue tends to exacerbate the North-South disputes. In February, during the last preparatory meeting for the COP8 in Granada, Spain, the parties were only able to produce a document full of parentheses -- proof of the lack of consensus.
The policy regime would establish rules for the use of genetic resources derived from traditional knowledge and for the fair distribution of the benefits, as established under the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), signed at the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro. Most of the developing countries that are rich in biodiversity are advocating for an obligatory regime -- an idea that many industrialised nations reject.
Negotiations are slow because they involve "economic interests," acknowledged Eduardo Vélez, director of genetic heritage at the Environment Ministry of Brazil, the host country and chair of COP8. Though he did say he is optimistic that "in Curitiba there will be important steps forward." According to Vélez, the United States, Japan and the European Union have not said they oppose such a regime outright, but they have adopted "delay tactics", calling for more studies on its possible effects on the chain of production.
These countries also have suggested a voluntary approach, "which is unacceptable because it is nothing. What we want is a binding agreement with sanctions," said the Brazilian official. Millions of dollars in trade are at stake in the debate, and business in this sector is expanding rapidly in pace with the development of biological sciences and technologies.
In recent years, bacteria inserted into plants in order to fix nitrogen from the air have helped Brazilian farmers save tens of billions of dollars in fertilisers and biologically control several kinds of crop pests. But despite biodiversity's fundamental role in maintaining life on Earth, exploitation of this natural wealth lacks regulations.
The CBD opened the way, but there is a long way to go to put rules into concrete practice. The Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety, approved in 2000 and in force since 2003, is among the first positive results. Fewer than 20 countries have passed national laws on access to biodiversity, says Vélez. The Brazilian government is preparing to send a related bill to its National Congress. Much of the access by foreigners to a country's biodiversity still occurs illegally. Patents and products are coming from genetic materials used without the permission of the country of origin, said Vélez.
Without an international policy, the CBD is dead letter, he stressed. "We want to prevent biopiracy," added Mexican delegate Benítez, head of international affairs for his government's National Commission for Knowledge and Use of Biodiversity, CONABIO. Genetic resources, said Benítez, often come out of the traditional knowledge that is not recognised when the resulting products are patented in the industrialised countries. "Mexico wants to regulate legal access, and, if necessary, require the consent of the indigenous communities involved," which implies royalties and other benefits for the country of origin of the biological resources, he said.
At the COP8, Mexico will propose "a clear mandate so that an inter-governmental negotiation group can push the international regime as quickly as possible," he said. The Mexican government, under President Vicente Fox, also proposes a "certification of legal origin" as a requirement for patents that are based on biodiverse genetic resources. The fact that the United States would grant a patent for ayahuasca, a hallucinogenic plant considered sacred by indigenous communities in the Amazon, proves that "today biopiracy is a reality," said Juan Mayr, former environment minister of Colombia. The industrialised nations want easy access through "a lax system that doesn't protect our natural heritage, and much less our traditional knowledge," said Mayr.
Brazil, Colombia and Mexico stand to benefit from a binding policy regime, as they head the list of 17 mega-diverse countries in the world, which concentrate 70 percent of the known plant and animal species. Also on the list are Ecuador, Peru, Venezuela, United States, China, India and several African and Asian nations. Brazil, with 200,000 registered species -- 10 percent of what is estimated to exist in this South American country -- holds 15 to 20 percent of the Earth's total. Colombia and Mexico, with around 10 percent each, are also among the four most biodiverse countries, along with Indonesia.
In Colombia, plants -- the greatest source of the country's biological wealth -- include 45,000 to 55,000 species, with one-third being endemic. The stars of the Colombian world of flora are the orchids, with some 3,500 species, or 15 percent of the global total. Brazil is the world leader in endemic species and champion in biodiversity. Its 3,000 species of freshwater fish are triple the total of any other country. Its main farm products -- coffee, sugar, soybeans, rice and oranges -- originated in other places, but many other economically important plants are native, including peanuts, pineapple, manioc, cashews and chestnuts. Numerous products and byproducts derived from Brazil's massive biodiversity have been patented in other countries. Five Amazonian plants have each generated around 20 of these patents, which are of questionable legitimacy, according to Vélez.
Because of these shared problems and interests, Latin American countries tend to unite in favour of an international biodiversity regime. Even Argentina -- like Chile, hesitant on this matter -- surprised many when it decided to support the proposal at the last preparatory meeting for the COP8. Argentina seeks to build common strategies within the Latin American and Caribbean group, Homero Bibiloni, deputy secretary of natural resources of the Secretariat of Environment and Sustainable Development, told Tierramérica. "Even though we aren't mega-diverse like Brazil or Mexico, we want to be in harmony with the region's position and reach a consensus proposal. We don't want our natural resources to be patented," he said.
(* Mario Osava is an IPS correspondent. With reporting by Marcela Valente in Argentina, Yadira Ferrer in Colombia and Diego Cevallos in Mexico. Originally published Mar. 18 by Latin American newspapers that are part of the Tierramérica network. Tierramérica is a specialised news service produced by IPS with the backing of the United Nations Development Programme and the United Nations Environment Programme.)

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