Page last updated at 10:04 GMT, Tuesday, 13 July 2010 11:04 UK

Could things for biodiversity go from bad to worse?

Krystyna Swiderska (Image: IIED)
Krystyna Swiderska

Current efforts to protect the world's biodiversity run the risk of doing more harm than good, warns Krystyna Swiderska. In this week's Green Room, she says the role of indigenous and local communities in protecting the planet's genetic resources are being overlooked or even ignored.

Indian farmers working in a field (Image: AP)
My own research... shows the critical role that traditional farmers and healers play in sustaining and enhancing genetic diversity

In October, representatives from 193 governments will meet in Nagoya, Japan, to hopefully adopt a historic new international law that aims to ensure the world's biological resources are used in a fair and sustainable way.

It's about time.

The UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) estimates that a third of all genetic resources for food and agriculture have already been lost in the last 100 years.

This year — the UN's International Year of Biodiversity — we will also get official confirmation that an intergovernmental target to reduce the loss of biodiversity has been badly missed.

The deal struck in Nagoya could help to reverse that trend, but unless governments make some major progress at their final negotiating session next week, the agreement will be more likely to harm biodiversity and impoverish the people who depend on it most.

The new law is important for a number of reasons.

For millennia, communities around the world have nurtured the variety of life, including thousands of crops and medicinal plants that are vital for our agriculture, food security, health and nutrition.

These resources take on new importance today because they provide options that will enable people to adapt to climate change by switching to flood- or drought-resistant crop varieties, for instance.

The private sector and consumers worldwide have benefited greatly from these riches.


Corporations increasingly seek out biological resources and associated local knowledge, and use them to develop, patent and sell new medicines, seeds, foodstuffs and industrial products.

Cattle herd, Mozambique
There is an urgent need to protect this collective bio-cultural heritage in order to protect global food security and to enable people to adapt to climate change

But there is no system in place to ensure that the benefits from such products are shared fairly with the countries and communities from which they originated.

This had led to accusations of "biopiracy" and has removed incentives for poor developing nations and local communities to conserve their biological riches.

This is not new. Back in 1992, governments adopted the UN Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), which required access to genetic resources to be accompanied by equitable benefit-sharing. Industrialised countries agreed to share the benefits from genetic resource use with poor developing countries.

This North/South deal lies at the heart of the CBD, but has yet to materialise.

Efforts to date have focused largely of conserving wildlife, as opposed to genetic resources which provide the basis for food and agriculture.

Since the 2002 World Summit on Sustainable Development, governments have been trying to negotiate an international, legally binding protocol under the CBD to ensure these challenges are addressed in practice. Their deadline is October 2010.

The protocol is also meant to promote equitable benefit-sharing from the use of the traditional knowledge of indigenous and local communities, and the development of community-led rules for accessing local biological resources.

Sharing the spoils

This week, governments are meeting in Montreal for the final negotiating session before October's meeting in Japan, where the deal is meant to be sealed.

Kihansi spray toad (Image: IUCN/Tim Herman)
The Kihansi spray toad is one of the species now deemed to be extinct

But the way things look now, the negotiators will fail to ensure a positive outcome unless they can resolve a number of critical issues.

While the protocol will emphasise the sovereign rights of states over genetic resources, a number of countries do not want it to recognise the rights of indigenous and local communities over biological resources under customary use.

Nor do they want to recognise the rights of such communities to participate in decisions regarding access to these resources.

This would undermine the ability of communities to use biological resources according to their own customs, which have an important role in conservation and are vital for subsistence of millions of poor indigenous people.

Furthermore, the industrialised countries do not want the protocol to cover traditional knowledge that is already in the public domain.

This would enable companies to freely access this knowledge without the need for consent or sharing of benefits that arise from its use.

Although much traditional knowledge has already been documented and is publicly available, in most cases communities have not given their consent for it to be used commercially.

If the new protocol excludes publicly available traditional knowledge it will greatly limit the scope for benefit-sharing with indigenous and local communities. This would make it harder to generate incentives that encourage local people who live off biodiversity to conserve it.

Industrialised countries want the protocol to cover only genetic resources, while developing nations feel that it should also cover derivatives, meaning that the benefits from any products that are based on genetic resources should also be shared.

The protocol is potentially very important as, for the first time, it will legally bind industrialised countries where genetic resources are used, which are beyond the jurisdiction of national laws of provider countries.

But as it stands, it is likely to make little progress in preventing biopiracy or protecting biodiversity.

Industrialised countries such as Australia, Canada, Japan and the European Union are clearly putting the interest of private companies ahead of the interests of the global public good that is biodiversity.

What's more, a number of countries, including Canada, India and Indonesia, do not want to recognise the customary use rights of indigenous and local communities, despite their recognition in the CBD and the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

My own research with such communities in India, China, Peru, Panama and Kenya shows the critical role that traditional farmers and healers play in sustaining and enhancing genetic diversity.

There is an urgent need to protect this collective bio-cultural heritage in order to protect global food security and to enable people to adapt to climate change.

Krystyna Swiderska is a senior researcher in the Natural Resources Group at the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED), a UK-based think tank

The Green Room is a series of opinion articles on environmental topics running weekly on the BBC News website

Do you agree with Krystyna Swiderska? What should governments be doing to halt the current rate of biodiversity loss? Should more focus be placed upon genetic resources rather than wildlife conservation? Can the world's "bio-cultural heritage" protect global food security and enable people to adapt to climate change?

Acknowledging the importance of gaining knowledge of how ecosystems work through both science and local/indigenous traditions, the most crucial component is still each individual's awareness and reduction of their consumption. Technology and conservation are a large part of the picture, but they are more reflexive and oriented towards fixing noticeable symptoms. We are leagues away from fully utilizing the majority of our existing products.
Dillon Miner, San Diego USA

Why bother, the human race is past the point of no return. We have a massive population whose numbers are dependent on cheap fossil energy. These sources will be exausted in our lifetime, and most people will be thrown back into the 18th c. level of technology. There will be a huge die back and no future recovery since all the easy to access minerals, cheap carbon sources have already been maximally exploited. Loss of heirloom speicies means a return to traditional farming is problematic. Basiclly its back to the stone age for a few miserable survivors of the coming population implosion, and any one who says anything to the contrary is deluded, a religious fanatic expecting last minute salvation from a deus ex machina, or a govt or corporate flack who wants to have a huge number of exploitable consumers and "voters" right up until the last moment. malcom
Malcolm Mayrin, Springfield

There is certianly some truth in this argument, however the 'indigenous guardian' approach is problematic in a number of ways, not least the fact that human populations have exploded in the last century. Indigenous hunters have always sought to make economic gain from their land and skills, but the low numbers of humans and large amount of space kept this in check.. the same does not necessarily hold true with shrinking reserves and rapidly growing human populations... (bushmeat is a good example. There is nothing wrong with hunting per se, but the sheer number of people doing it makes it unsustainable)... On another note, biodiversity is a useful tool, but it can be painfully utilitarian. A zoo or patchwork of tiny environments has high biodiversity, but is of little cultural, biological or ecological value outside of education... a tiny, heavily managed reserve also has no sense of 'wildness' a crucial but intangible property often overlooked in the biological debate… To be fair, I do not believe anyone has the answer, and all of us who care about wildlife and the environment all struggling up the same path. Best of luck to everyone!
Alasdair Cameron, Edinburgh/London

Perhaps the most chilling part of this story is how we are exporting - throwing our own net - our own ideas of ownership, over the traditional attitudes of other cultures; even to "us" in the capitalized West; these materials were once "free"; now there is paperwork; the very concept of the stuff has become ingested into our mawe, as surely as the food itself. It is a creaping web of thinking; that the whole planet is "ours", and the only life that takes place on it is the one we plan . . .yet we are clealry unable to do that much joined up thinking. The real reason why we loose so much material is because we act as if we own the place, but power to consider a whole planet's worth of detail. This is indeed a sad story; like being told there is no Santa-Claus; there is no more "wilderness"; there is no more realm of the spirits, or place for the Gods. There is simply a bar code, and a price tag; and it's all dying as a result ! We poisoned it all with the way we thought about it; as comodities, and not as "precious life" Will the last person left alive please let the plants out !
steven walker, Penzance

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