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Conflicts over Biopiracy Could Endanger Biodiversity Conference

Negotiations over access and benefit sharing already underway ahead of tomorrow's opening ceremony

IMG_2618Winnie Bird Mattias Ahren, representative of the Saami people from Northern Europe, gets ready to start ABS negotiations.

Six months ago, the marine activist group Sea Shepherd issued a press release calling for a boycott of COP 10, the UN conference on biodiversity that begins tomorrow and runs through October 29 here in Nagoya, Japan. "[T]he conference will focus on equitable use and not on protecting species from diminishment and extinction . . . on exploitation of species and not their . . . conservation," it read. At the time, I thought that message was overly cynical. It seemed to undermine a crucial chance for governments, scientists, and activists from 193 countries to create a new 10-year Strategic Plan for halting the rapid loss of biodiversity that is impoverishing the natural world and threatening our own future.

On the eve of COP 10's official start, however, those words from Sea Shepherd seem worryingly prescient. The opening speeches have yet to be given, but behind closed doors, delegates are already battling – not over how to protect wild plants and animals, but over how to regulate corporate access to them and split up the profits they generate.

This Wednesday, while the pre-COP 10 biosafety conference was still mid-stride, a negotiating session began down the hall to finalize an Access and Benefit Sharing (ABS) Protocol to the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD). The Protocol deals with genetic resources and associated traditional knowledge that's collected in one country and used in another (for example, the DNA of a plant from Brazil used to develop medicine in Canada). The press corps immediately moved camp to the hallway outside the meetings, which were cordoned off on the grounds that they were "highly sensitive." I followed, because those negotiations could very well determine how talks over protected areas, overfishing, and sustainable forestry turn out.

"Developing countries – and some developed countries – have been saying again and again that ABS, the Strategic Plan, and financing are an indivisible package," said Christine von Weizsacker, an NGO representative at this week's ABS negotiations. Officially, Strategic Plan negotiations and those on ABS will proceed on parallel tracks. In reality, they are linked. Think of it this way: If one of your neighbors had been sneaking onto your property, digging up your tulip bulbs, and selling them at the corner store, would you be in the mood to work with that same neighbor on a project to turn part of your backyard into a nature park?

Two weeks and twenty pages of controversial text to go

photo of people talking at a conferenceWinnie Bird CBD Executive Secretary Ahmed Djoghlof consults with Timothy Hodges of Canada and Fernando Casas
of Columbia, who co-chaired this week's ABS negotiations.

The draft ABS text delegates are currently picking apart is meant to fill a gaping hole in the CBD. The 15-year-old treaty has three objectives: conserving biodiversity, using it sustainably, and providing "appropriate access to" and "fair and equitable sharing of the benefits arising out of the utilization of genetic resources." However, Parties to the Convention remain divided over the treaty's third leg. Resource-rich countries like Brazil and Malaysia want an end to biopiracy and fair compensation for any genetic material or traditional knowledge they supply. Meanwhile, many of the countries that transform these materials into profitable medicines, cosmetics, and industrial products want a framework that will make bioprospecting legal worldwide, but not rules that could slow research and innovation or reduce corporate profits.

As I loitered in the hallway outside the meeting room earlier this week, flipping through a draft text littered with bracketed phrases that indicate lack of consensus, a handful of participants stopped to chat about how the talks were going. Slowly, it seemed. A key conflict revolves around how to make potential users of genetic resources comply with rules for getting the prior informed consent of providers; another involves whether or not countries will get "back pay" for resources and traditional knowledge taken before the protocol goes into effect. One observer reported a delegate having said, after suffering through a lengthy negotiating session, "Give me back ten years of my life," then correcting himself and saying, "Give me back my soul."

At times, the fights over the complex 20-page draft text seem dismally far from the forests that are being chopped down, the ocean that is growing ever more acidic, and the polar ecosystems that are melting away. Of course, as Chee Yoke Ling of the Third World Network reminded me in a recent interview, the outcome of the ABS talks will likely impact how people in resource-rich countries use the wild plants and animals around them. "A country can be rich in biodiversity but poor economically, and therefore have an incentive to degrade its resources in order to develop. We must capture as much benefit [from genetic resources] as possible for the provider country. This gives an incentive to conserve biodiversity," she said. That makes sense, but I hope over the next two weeks concrete commitments to protect oceans, forests, and their myriad inhabitants don't get lost in the shadow of ABS.

Winifred Bird
Winifred Bird is a freelance journalist and translator focusing on the environment and architecture. From 2005 to 2014 she lived in rural Japan, where she covered the 2011 tsunami, earthquake, and nuclear disaster for publications including the Japan Times, Environmental Health Perspectives, and Yale Environment 360. When she’s not writing she can usually be found in her vegetable garden. She currently lives in the northern Illinois.

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