Offshoot that matters

But Indian communities may lose out due to lack of official preparedness

By Clifford Polycarp
Published: Sunday 29 February 2004

-- yuksom is one of the most biodiversity rich areas of India. The communities of the district, located at the foothills of Mount Kanchenjunga in Sikkim, have painstakingly protected their natural heritage for generations. Ironically, their future, intrinsically linked to the biodiversity, will be decided thousands of kilometres away in Kuala Lumpur, where members of the Convention on Biological Diversity (cbd) will convene for the seventh Conference of Parties (cop-7) from February 9-20, 2004. They will negotiate on an international system that will give countries (with technology to exploit genetic resources) access to the resources of areas like Yuksom. The system will also set out a framework to determine the benefits that should be accrued to the local communities.

"The access and benefit sharing regime is the most important issue for India and we will be pushing for a legally-binding instrument," reveals a source from India's Union ministry of environment and forests (moef). The European Union and the us are expected to block any proposals that would 'legally obligate' them to comply. They view it as a disincentive for their firms.

Due to such a stance, experts from developing nations are concerned about how the benefit sharing would work. "The moef babus are not paying enough attention to the modalities of how to calculate the monetary gains from the transactions," laments Suman Sahai, coordinator of Gene Campaign, a New Delhi-based non-governmental organisation (ngo). Her concern is imperative, as national authorities will have to individually negotiate with foreign firms or governments on the monetary gains.

Transfer of technologies to developing countries, and designating biodiversity rich regions as 'protected areas' are other contentious issues that should be taken up at the meeting. For long, developing nations have been demanding the transfer of financial resources to develop local solutions to local problems. But developed nations have been reluctant to legally commit any resources. In case of protected areas, countries like India are concerned about proposals concerning biosphere reserves, in which a certain area is to be designated as 'protected'. Strangely enough, India is reluctant to the idea of defining protected areas with the permission of local communities. "The communities cannot be involved all the time because they would always act only in their economic interest, which may not be in the nation's interest," says the moef source. This approach may be unviable, as community participation is a must for the sustainable management of natural resources.
Talks on biosafety The need to protect communities' interests, however, will be voiced by ngos participating in the first meeting of the Parties to the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety, which would also held in Kuala Lumpur from February 23-27, 2004. During the meet, ngos would initiate discussions on developing a framework on the socio-economic impacts (such as the displacement of farmers) of the unintended release of living modified organisms (lmos). Presently, the protocol only recognises damage to the environment and, to some extent, health. "Since this is the first meeting after the treaty has been enforced, countries will have to debate on elements to which the 'parties' will be bound. Therefore such matters should be discussed thoroughly," asserts D D Verma, joint secretary of moef.

The debate will be mainly between biodiversity rich nations and those that are technologically advanced. And it will centre on the provisions applying to the transboundary movement of transgenic products, the liabilities arising from the damages caused by the accidental release of lmos, and the labelling of genetically modified products.

The issue of liability and redressal are very important. "We need to fight for the strongest laws, and the liability should extent not just to damage but contamination as well," argues Sahai. "In general, developing nations are asking for 'definite' liability for damages," reveals Verma. The developed countries are, however, reluctant to agree because they feel that it creates unnecessary and artificial barriers. Moreover, they want developing countries to take up some of the liability.

Another issue in the context of ascertaining damage/liability is related to the overemphasis on science-based proofs. This effectively annuls the precautionary principle, which would allow the use of 'indicative information' to prove that a genetically modified product has caused damage.

There is certainly a lot at stake at both the meetings, not only for India but for other biodiversity rich developing nations as well. But India had not finalised its official position until five days before the commencement of the cbd meeting. This should be a reason for concern, as the fate of many poor communities depends on the outcome of both the meetings.

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