INDIA decided to accept the Global Environment Facility (GEF) as the main funding mechanism for the biodiversity convention in a volte face of its earlier stand taken at the United Nations Conference on the Environment and Development (UNCED) at Rio in 1992. Highly placed sources revealed that the Union ministry of environment and forests (MEF) caved in as the Union ministries of finance (MOF) and external affairs (MEA) insisted on accepting "global realities" during the inter-ministerial consultations on the proposed agenda for the Conference of Parties on Biodiversity Convention (COP), held in Nassau in the Bahamas in the last week of November. The MEF was "advised" to accept the GEF, to the extent that it did not even consider framing a blueprint for an alternate funding mechanism.
During UNCED, India, along with the G77 countries and China, had demanded an independent fund to be set up under the Authority of the Convention. India had led from the front in opposing the North's attempt to keep the funding mechanism within the World Bank-dominated GEF. When a restructured GEF was decided upon as an interim mechanism, it was accepted only as a breather to develop an alternate funding system.
However, at the end of internal consultations, environment minister Kamal Nath admitted awkwardly, "The GEF has been restructured and therefore there is no harm in giving it a chance. Besides, the creation of an alternative financial mechanism would need a new administrative structure and additional funds, which seem unrealistic at present." According to a MEA official, "Let us see how many projects get implemented under the GEF and how they are implemented."
Smarting under the retreat, MEF officials admitted that the backout may also result in other compromises in COP. There was much at stake for India as there were clear indications that the support base for India's crusade against the attempt to revive the forest protocol might fall apart. After successfully quashing the North's attempt in Rio to moot a forest protocol to police the global forests and influence national priorities, India continued to oppose subsequent attempts to revive the protocol. Nath was confident to hold on to the stand, despite indications that Malaysia, one of the opponents of the protocol, might soften its stand.
Also, the contentious issue of technology transfer in the area of biotechnology -- kept "in brackets" during the preceding inter-governmental meetings -- may continue to elude a solution. The North had proposed that technology transfer can be best done through bilateral channels, arguing that biotechnology is a new subject and that clarity over patents was still too elusive for governments to agree to a common platform.
The broader goal of combating poverty while conserving biodiversity, which is central to Southern concern, is also in danger of being sidetracked by the North. The US, for instance, is not accepting the word "poverty" in the list of priorities for funding projects, even though the term was used to identify secondary benefits of conserving biodiversity.
The North insists that poverty is not crucial enough to be given priority under the financial and institutional structure and ought to be dealt elsewhere. Indian officials, however, supported the position of the developing world that the convention recognised that conservation and sustainable use were integrated under the convention and priorities should be given to technology transfer and poverty.
It is also ironic that despite the repeated demand for a biosafety protocol to mitigate the potential threat from unregulated testing and modifications of living organisms by transnational companies, it was not included in the agenda for COP. MEF officials claimed to have taken a strong stand on this issue. The battle over biosafety was intense as the US put its foot down against a protocol and the European Community mooted "technical guidelines" on biosafety instead of a protocol.
Yet another point of contention was the demand to keep the proposed Subsidiary Body of Scientific, Technical, and Technological Advice to guide COP as an open-ended scientific assessment of biodiversity.