Biodiversity Talks Bog Down over Genetic Resources

Aprille Muscara

HAVANA TIMES, Sep 22 (IPS) — While officials meeting in Montreal, Canada failed to finalize a key protocol to the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) Tuesday, biodiversity is scheduled to be at the top of Wednesday’s agenda of the U.N. General Assembly in New York.

Some 140 world leaders have gathered here this week to reaffirm their commitment to achieve the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) by their 2015 deadline. Goal seven, environmental sustainability, includes a target to “Reduce biodiversity loss, achieving, by 2010, a significant reduction in the rate of loss.”

But experts say that the loss of biodiversity is occurring at an unprecedented rate. As a result, the MDG7 target aim to substantially curb this trend by the end of this year will not be met.

“Tropical forests continue to be felled, destroying valuable endemic species and disrupting local, regional and global climates,” U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said earlier this year. “Climate change and ocean acidification are destroying coral reefs. Fisheries are increasingly overexploited, condemning millions of the world’s poorest people to unemployment and malnutrition.”

Ban designated 2010 as the ‘International Year of Biodiversity’ to raise awareness of this issue. And the MDG summit’s last day, Wednesday, will coincide with the world body’s first-ever high-level meeting on biodiversity.

The U.N. estimates that species are disappearing at one hundred times the natural rate of extinction. Twenty-one percent of mammals, 30 percent of amphibians, 12 percent of birds and 27 percent of reef-building corals are in danger of dying off, says the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), which compiles a ‘Red List of Threatened Species.’

“Communities everywhere will reap the negative consequences [of biodiversity loss], but the poorest people and the most vulnerable countries will suffer most,” Ban said. “Seventy percent of the world’s poor live in rural areas, and depend directly on biodiversity for their daily sustenance and income.”

Meanwhile, a three-day meeting meant to iron out the details of a CBD draft protocol on Access and Benefits-Sharing (ABS) finished in Montreal Tuesday with important issues still outstanding.

“Money will flow if we can reach an agreement on this, so we’re calling on governments to show real leadership and try to get over their differences and come up with something they can agree on,” Jane Smart, global thematic director of the Biodiversity Conservation Group of IUCN, told IPS. “It’s become very politically a hot issue.”

Entered into force in 1993, the CBD is a legally-binding international treaty aimed at conserving biodiversity, ensuring the sustainable use of resources and the fair and equitable sharing of benefits.

The latter objective, referred to as Access and Benefit-sharing, has become a contentious topic in discussions among member states. According to the Secretariat of the CBD, ABS “refers to the way genetic resources – whether from plants, animals or microorganisms – are accessed in countries of origin, and how the benefits that result from their use by various research institutes, universities or private companies are shared with the people or countries that provide them.”

Next month, the tenth meeting of the Conference of Parties (COP10) to the CBD is scheduled to take place in Nagoya, Japan. It was hoped that the ABS protocol, which has undergone heated negotiations since last March, would be ironed out at this week’s Montreal meeting.

“It’s very, very critical for the Nagoya COP that the ABS regime is finalized, because then the convention can come together with its three objectives.  On the way to being now fully implemented,” Cyriaque Sendashonga, director of program and policy of IUCN, told IPS.

At the last meeting to negotiate the ABS protocol, held in Montreal in July, Canada objected to generalized ABS requirements, instead favoring contractually negotiated terms depending on the parties and resources involved. But developing countries and rights groups worry that this approach might result in inequitable outcomes for indigenous and other minority peoples.

“We go to Nagoya with a number of key issues to finalize,” said Timothy Hodges of Canada and Fernando Casas of Colombia, the co-chairs of this week’s meeting, in a statement. Governments have agreed to conclude negotiations as soon as possible and no later than the COP10, they added.

“What we’re really hoping is that the final outcome, the final regime is one that is fair and agreeable to all parties involved and is able to achieve the objective it’s meant to achieve: To facilitate or encourage access to genetic resources, ensure that there is fairness in those agreements, ensure that the indigenous people, the local communities, the women. who have a primary role, a key role in protecting those resources are rewarded for that effort,” Sendashonga told IPS.