The conservation and sustainable management of biological resources was high on the international agenda in February 2004. Representatives of more than 160 countries converged on Kuala Lumpur in …

-- (Credit: EMKAY)The conservation and sustainable management of biological resources was high on the international agenda in February 2004. Representatives of more than 160 countries converged on Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia over three weeks to discuss a host of important matters dealing with the subject. The seventh meeting of the Conference of Parties (CoP-7) to the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), which took place from February 9-20, set the ball rolling. The activity culminated with the first Meeting of Parties (MoP-1) to the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety from February 23-27.

At CoP-7, the possibility of developing an international regime on access and benefit-sharing (ABS) of genetic resources was evaluated. Negotiations were also conducted on a comprehensive programme to protect biodiversity hotspots. MoP-1 involved discussions on setting up mechanisms to ensure compliance with biosafety provisions, and on documents that would accompany shipments of living modified organisms. While some significant, albeit watered down, decisions were taken during CoP-7, members largely tested the waters at MoP-1.
CoP-7: modest gains For a long time, developing nations have been demanding fair returns for their native plants, which are used by Western companies to make medicinal and other products. At CoP-7, they had a chance to negotiate an international system that would facilitate such a transfer. The creation of such a mechanism would provide technology-rich developed countries access to the genetic resources of biodiversity-rich areas (mostly in the South). Additionally, it would ensure that the benefits of commercialisation accrue to the poor communities that have preserved these resources for generations.

ABS STRUCTURE: The proposed international regime on ABS is an important aspect of conservation and sustainable management of biodiversity. "By giving biodiversity-rich countries a greater stake in protecting their valuable biological resources, this future regime could make an enormous contribution to the goals of CBD," remarked Hamdallah Zedan, executive secretary of the Convention.

"But the developed countries were only interested in the access part and paid scant attention to the benefit-sharing aspect," quipped an official in India's Union ministry of environment and forests (MoEF) who was also a member of the country's delegation. It was this disinclination that prevented consensus from being evolved on a legally binding instrument.

Among the developing countries, the 39-member African Group is the strongest proponent of this arrangement. Developed members like Australia, Canada, Switzerland and the EU, are, however, not interested in any treaty that would obligate them legally. Instead, they prefer to focus on the recommendatory Bonn Guidelines on ABS, which were adopted at the last CoP. In Kuala Lumpur, the bloc questioned the very need for such a regime despite agreeing to it at the World Summit on Sustainable Development in 2002. A compromise was ultimately struck when members resolved to deliberate on the nature of the regime in the Ad Hoc Open-Ended Working Group on ABS.

This is one among several features of the terms of reference of the ABS working group. It is now expected to "elaborate and negotiate an international regime" with the aim of adopting one or more international instruments. The regime's scope would not only cover genetic resources but traditional knowledge, innovations and practices associated with the use of the resources as well. The group is also required to flesh out measures to ensure benefit-sharing, to promote scientific research, and to ensure compliance with national legislations.

DIVIDED ON WIPO: The other controversial issue with respect to ABS was the role of the World Intellectual Property Organisation (WIPO). Most developing countries were opposed to the idea of involving the body. Its role was necessitated on issues related to the disclosure of origin of genetic resources and associated traditional knowledge in applications for intellectual property rights protection (see: 'Break the deadlock'). "The bloc views WIPO as a trade-centric body biased towards developed countries," points out D D Verma, joint secretary, MoEF. To their credit, members brought about a balance in the final decision. "Other organisations like the UN Conference on Trade and Development, and the Food and Agriculture Organization would also be involved, and WIPO's work has been specifically restricted to the terms decided for it," adds Verma.

FOOTING THE BILL: Just as it seemed that the ABS issue had been thrashed out, a fresh obstacle emerged. No country was forthcoming on funding the two working group meetings required before the next CoP in 2006. The developed nations were unwilling to allow these meetings to be financed by the core budget of the CBD, and suggested that the expenditure be borne voluntarily. At the same time, they were averse to committing any resources for the purpose. It wasn't until Thailand offered to host one of the two meetings that progress was made. Following this, Spain, too, expressed a similar intent. Subsequently, it was agreed that one of the meetings would be funded from the core budget and the other from voluntary resources without specifying the country.

NORTH'S PRESERVE: For their part, developed nations wanted the focus to be on protection of biodiversity hotspots. "They were keen that the topic be accorded the highest priority," reveals Verma. The stance was predictable because the biotechnology-rich developed world is disproportionately dependent on developing nations for biological resources. The 17 members of the like-minded megadiverse countries (LMMC) -- a negotiating group of southern nations in the CBD -- alone account for 75 per cent of the world's biodiversity.

On this front, an all-inclusive programme of work was adopted for creating comprehensive, effectively managed and ecologically representative national as well as regional systems of protected terrestrial areas by 2010 and protected marine areas by 2012 (see box: Gruelling schedule). The primary objective of the exercise would be to significantly reduce the current rate of biodiversity loss by 2010. "The programme is by no means ideal, but is a major step in international thinking on protected areas," feels Ashish Kothari, founding member of Kalpvriksh, a Pune-based non-governmental organisation (NGO).

GRASSROOTS' ROLE: More importantly, new ground was broken on the role of indigenous communities in creating and managing protected areas. Members would henceforth be required to "enhance and secure" the communities' involvement, achieving their full participation by 2008 for new and existing protected areas. "This is a huge breakthrough and noteworthy from India's perspective, as it strongly stresses the need for local participation throughout the planning and management process," adds Kothari.

TANGLED TERMS: Differences on the definitions of "ecological networks" and "global network of protected areas" also threatened to derail the protected area negotiations. The former is understood to refer to the integration of protected areas with broader landscapes and/or seascapes for conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity. The latter is thought to provide for connections between parties, with the collaboration of others, for comprehensive cooperation to achieve the programme of work. Several countries were concerned that the definitions would seriously restrict sovereignty over their resources and territory, but flexibility was provided for by frequently including the phrase "where appropriate".

No headway was made either on ABS or protected areas till close to the end of the meeting. Since separate groups were discussing the two subjects, each was waiting for forward movement in the other. "Finally a third group -- the friends of the president -- was created, which included the CoP president, the chair of the two working groups and some other countries, and the deadlock was broken," discloses Verma.

CoP-7 started out with a highly ambitious agenda. In view of this the 2,300 delegates attending the meet did well to adopt several key decisions, even if they had to be toned down considerably. To be sure, the meet generated enough momentum to propel it to the forefront of the sustainable development programme by including the concerns of poor countries and their local communities. But achieving the 2010 target of slashing biodiversity losses still seems an uphill task. Only the successful implementation of the course charted out at this meeting will take the world closer to that goal.

MoP-1: setting out
At the first meeting of the Biosafety Protocol -- the first legally binding treaty to enter into force since the 1992 Earth Summit -- members were supposed to set up a framework for its implementation. The pact aims to safely manage genetically modified organisms (GMOs) that can have a negative effect on biodiversity and human health.

Two main issues occupied the meet's agenda: ensuring parties' compliance with the provisions of the treaty, and developing documentation that would accompany all shipments of 'living modified organisms destined for food, feed and for processing' (LMOs-FFP). While some positive developments took place, subsidiary bodies were created to pursue matters further.

Adherence to the protocol proved to be a knotty issue, with most developing countries having decided in advance that they would oppose punitive measures like trade sanctions. "We were more in favour of measures that are supportive, those that can guide and enable countries to meet their obligations under the treaty," explains Verma. Members realised that the smaller developing countries might have difficulties in implementing the treaty. Hence they decided that the conformity procedures and mechanisms would be "facilitative and cooperative" in nature.

Apart from this, a Compliance Committee -- consisting of 15 members who would serve in their individual capacity -- was set up. This too, was a point of debate. India, in particular, was opposed to the idea that members act as single entities. But the concept was supported by China, Japan, the EU and the US. "One of the concerns was that since the panel members' activities are often supported by developed nations, they may not always act in the interest of the bloc they are supposed to represent," clarifies Verma. Although India didn't have its way, Verma claims that a favourable rider was inserted in the final decision. This would compel members to act in an "independent and impartial manner". Moreover, their term on the committee has been limited to two or four years. Verma is of the view that the clause should ensure impartiality. Parties will nominate panel members and they will meet twice a year.

Another measure enables countries to report cases of violation of the treaty to the committee. Further, upon the committee's recommendations, a caution would be issued or the secretariat requested to publish cases of contravention subject to the compliance capacity of the country. In case of repeated non-compliance, members may take steps to be identified at MoP-3.

Regarding the documents to accompany LMOs-FFP, there were divergent views on whether a standalone document was needed or if the commercial invoice that usually accompanies all consignments would suffice. Finally, it was settled that existing documents like the commercial invoice would be used for LMOs-FFP as of now, with a clear indication that the consignment "may contain" such organisms. An open-ended technical expert group was created to develop a permanent documentation format. Environmentalists, however, were circumspect. "These requirements are not sufficient to protect the environment and the food chain from contamination. All the same, they herald an important beginning," averred Greenpeace delegation head Doreen Stabinsky.

Other NGOs wanted to broach the topic of the socio-economic implications of GM technology on farmers in developing countries. For instance, an attempt is being made to introduce coconut and palm oils' property of high lauric acid in canola, which is more commonly produced in temperate climates. "This would mean the loss of markets for farmers growing coconut and oil palm in countries like India and Malaysia," said Suman Sahai, the convenor of Gene Campaign. This Indian NGO, together with Consumers International Asia-Pacific and some African countries, raised the issue at Kuala Lumpur. "Although the Indian government expressed its support, it wasn't proactive," added Sahai. The matter will be discussed at MoP-2.

With MoP-1 being more of a launching pad, countries were still getting the feel of things. While the US is not a member, yet it apparently did have a strong influence on the process and its outcomes. Some experts were of the opinion that India was being ambiguous in a few of its positions -- particularly on compliance, because it sees itself as a " GM-nation". This, they feared, may be dangerous as the country could end up with bad practices when its strength lies in being a non-GM nation.

With inputs from Sonam Mathur

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