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by GRAIN[*]


Maybe peoples' expectations are just too high in regard to the Convention on Biological Biodiversity (CBD). This became clear in many ways during the Fourth Conference of the Parties (COP4) held last 4-15 May in Bratislava, as most of the issues brought forward by many Third World country governments, indigenous peoples, local communities and NGOs found their way into watered text in ambiguous resolutions. While many -quite conveniently - would like to keep CBD development mostly in the realm of purely environmental concerns, this clashes with the stark reality that biodiversity management is inherently political.

Most biological or genetic resources of major human importance are the result of some sort of intelligent management by those who have nurtured them in the first place. Measures to conserve, use and share the benefits derived from those resources and associated knowledge lead to matters of control and equity, and that is simply political. Below we take a brief look at some of the discussions related to livelihood biodiversity that went on during COP4.

One of the main concerns peoples have is that the CBD ends up loosing the capacity to implement its conservation and sustainable use objectives due to the great pressure the liberalisation of global markets has on the commercialisation of biological resources. Many delegates expressed that intellectual property rights (IPRs) and the TRIPS regime are detrimental to achieving the objectives of the Convention, and the CBD was requested to exert supremacy over WTO in matters pertaining to biodiversity. The final resolution did not go all the way in requesting that WTO decisions do not go against biodiversity and CBD objectives, mostly as the result of European Union and other developed country positions. There is a call to ensure consistency in implementing the CBD and WTO/TRIPS agreements, especially in relation to IPRs, and a request for WTO to act as the watchdog over possible conflicts. That is more like asking the wolf to take care of the chickens, and does not send a strong message to the TRIPS Council as to the upcoming review of article 27(3)(b) on patents over plants.  

The discussion on the implementation of a work programme on agricultural biodiversity highlighted the increased collaboration with FAO, and the COP urged that the revision of the International Undertaking of genetic resources for food and agriculture be finalised by the end of 1999, and that the revised IU be presented for consideration as a protocol under the CBD. The importance of traditional knowledge was highlighted, as well as the need to identify the threats to agricultural biodiversity from biopiracy. Despite pressures to the contrary, and the fact that the word terminator was deleted, the final decision refers to the potential negative consequences of the recently patented genetechnology (US patent 5723765) that prevents farmer saved seed from germinating, and urges a precautionary approach in its development.  

High hopes had been placed on the establishment of an on-going process within the CBD for the implementation of article 8(j) on the rights of indigenous peoples and local communities embodying traditional lifestyles, which would pick up on the report by the working group which met in Madrid last November. Some delegates and indigenous peoples' representatives brought up the conflicts between local community rights and IPRs, and the final resolution includes an interesting statement to the effect that "traditional knowledge should be given the same respect as any other form of knowledge". The discussion around the mechanism to follow article 8(j) implementation led to a direct confrontation between the delegates of Brazil with indigenous people and local communities representatives, as the first repeatedly questioned the second's participation in the deliberations. At the end an ad hoc open-ended intersessional working group was approved, with, among other things, a mandate to advise on the development of a legal framework on the rights of indigenous peoples and local communities rights over biodiversity. Yet one cannot but raise a warning flag at the relevant role given in the approved decision to the World Intellectual Property Organisation (WIPO), and wonder if WIPO will not wind up implementing 8(j) as some watered down IPRs on traditional knowledge. This would kill any possibility through the CBD of implementing collective/community rights, which by definition oppose the private and monopolising nature of patents and other IPRs.  

Benefit sharing continues to be door at which trade interests knock most, in their drive for continued easy and cheap access to genetic resources. For the first time biotechnology was squarely on the agenda, and a panel of experts will be convened on suggesting access to genetic resources and benefit sharing schemes, "including the whole range of biotechnologies". Understandably, there was concern that accepting a priori that genetechnology may help to meet CBD objectives could undermine the work being done in the working group on biosafety. The biosafety working group will meet again 17-28 August in Montreal, and early in 1999 to finalise its work, followed by an extraordinary COP to adopt the protocol. Important outstanding issues include scope, preventive measures, trade with non-parties, socio-economic considerations, and liability and compensation.  

Another issue hotly debated dealt with bringing under CBD jurisdiction those ex situ collections which were collected prior to the Convention. Developed country delegates tried to divert the matter to processes under FAO, or to eliminate altogether any mention to those ex situ collections. In the end a mild reference was kept in the report which means that the issue will be dealt with in the future.  

COP5 has been scheduled for the second quarter of the year 2000 in Nairobi. In the meantime many things will be happening in the different outgrowths of the CBD and related fora: finalisation of the biosafety protocol, article 8j development, work under the Clearing House Mechanism, SBSTTA and under the different ecosystem approaches, the re-negotiation of the IU, the TRIPS revision of article 27(3)(b), and developments under the WTOs agriculture and environment committees. The Biotrade Initiative continues to move head under UNCTAC, and now WIPO is moving in on the implementation of traditional rights. The CBD could take the easy road of setting up the framework for the trading of biodiversity, joining the free trade paradigm under which all things and people must pay their toll, or really become the steward of its conservation and sustainable use based on an integrated approach that includes such basic considerations as equity and justice.


[*]This paper is published by kind permission of GRAIN

Genetic Resources Action International, Barcelona, Spain

NEW Telephone: +34 93 301 13 81

NEW Fax: +34 93 301 16 27



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