Wildlife & Biodiversity

Road to COP15 Montreal: Mexican indigenous groups yet to benefit under Nagoya Protocol; here is why

The Convention on Biological Diversity leaves many matters to the interpretation of each country’s laws

By Hugo Vela
Published: Tuesday 22 November 2022
Axolotl, a Mexican endemic salamander. Photo: iStock

Just a decade ago, a natural spring in central Mexico’s State of Queretaro was reduced to a landfill. That all changed when a group of women of the La Carbonera community, led by businesswoman and environmental activist, Janet Arteaga, decided to take action and formed the organisation Mujeres y Ambiente.

They brought the spring back to life and used their traditional botanical knowledge to transform the land around it into an orchard of medicinal plants. Their idea quickly became a successful business of “living pharmacies”; as they call it.

“We use lemon balm to make an anti-stress gel and arnica for anti-inflammatory creams as well as to reduce eye bags,” said Janet.

Janet’s Mujeres y Ambiente organisation quickly caught the eye of Provital — a Spanish company which develops extracts and active ingredients for the cosmetics industry.

Also read: Legal, controlled trade of wild species can have many benefits: CITES report

With a joint venture, Mujeres y Ambiente and Provital started exchanging knowledge on the properties of more than a dozen medicinal plants and began a mutually beneficial partnership.

Their agreement was then sealed under the Nagoya Protocol of the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) and the Mexican government assigned an Internationally Recognised Certificate of Compliance to this agreement October 11, 2017.

As one of the megadiverse countries in the world, Mexico has spearheaded the development of an institutional framework to protect biodiversity.

In 1992, it became one of the founding members of the CBD, the first global agreement to ensure the conservation of biological diversity and the sustainable development of its components.

Moreover, in 2011, Mexico also signed the Nagoya Protocol, a complimentary agreement to guarantee that the benefits arising from genetic resources are shared in a fair and equitable way.

For Janet, this agreement was a major success, as her community was reluctant to share their traditional knowledge with a multinational corporation, fearing falling victim to biopiracy.

Also readOver 10,000 to attend UN biodiversity convention next month

“Corporations are always taking everything away. They are always taking advantage of communities and their traditional knowledge. To see them collaborating with us, working together, learning together and sharing the benefits; to me is a win-win situation”.

Such wins are rare in the country despite the fact that the Mexican Constitution establishes that the country must respect and abide by the international treaties it has entered.

However, since signing the Nagoya Protocol, Mexico has only issued eight Internationally Recognised Certificates of Compliance, which allow monitoring of the use of genetic resources and the sharing of benefits.

The country’s reticence stems from biopiracy which has been a major issue for Mexican communities and their ancestral knowledge.

Alejandro Callejas, director of Natural Resources of the Mexican State of Guanajuato, explains that it has happened several times before.

One major case was the research regarding the regenerative properties of the axolotl, a Mexican endemic salamander that can grow back its limbs and organs. 

Research on this animal may hold the secret for human tissue regeneration. More axolotls are now found outside Mexico in research labs and in homes as pets. In Mexico, the axolotl is endangered and found exclusively in the Xochimilco Lake Complex in southern Mexico City.

“The research involving the axolotl is not a small deal. It is associated with our cosmogony and has produced billions of dollars in research revenues worldwide. It should’ve stayed in Mexico and yet, we got nothing out of it,” Callejas said.

He points out another example: Dioscorea composita, a Mexican yam was used and is still being used by communities in the southern Mexican states of Oaxaca and Chiapas to control women’s menstrual cycles. It was traditional knowledge that evolved from indigenous groups in the region.

Around the 1940s, pharmaceutical companies began researching the plant which led to the discovery of the active ingredient of the birth control pill. This changed the lives of the communities, as they began massively selling the plants, but when researchers were finally able to synthesise the plant in a lab, they stopped buying them and literally looted the communities of their traditional knowledge, since they never saw a paycheck for it again.

These examples may very well explain Janet and her community’s hesitancy to share their knowledge, but under the protection of the Nagoya Protocol, it seemed that the gamble would pay off.

CBD loopholes

But the truth is, Janet and her community have yet to receive profits from sharing the benefits of their genetic resources despite receiving the International Certificate of Compliance.

The problems faced by Janet and other Mexican indigenous people could feature during the 15th Conference of the Parties in Montreal, Canada, from December 7-19.

The Mexican government is lagging in implementing the regulations needed for this to happen and the Mexican Congress has yet to pass legislation enabling the Nagoya Protocol in the country.

“If we don’t have the institutional capabilities, the financial support and the technical resources to really comply with all these objectives, we are not going to be able to truly protect our biodiversity”, said Camila Cepeda, director for Global Issues of the Mexican Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

This has halted the possibility of issuing new International Certificates of Compliance. The current administration only published one in 2019, and more than 200 projects are still on the waiting list.

Also read: ‘Largest public collection of unique plant germplasm in the world up for private takeover’

One of them is on the healing properties of the agave plant as used by the Zapotecan indigenous community in Nejapa de Madero, Oaxaca. “We hope that soon enough our people can have access to those benefits,” said Evelia Jimenez, who represents the community.

The CBD leaves many matters to the interpretation of each country’s laws. Some allow for the communities to receive the benefits directly, while others consider that the State should manage them, said Yesenia Hernández, a spokesperson for the International Forum of Indigenous People for Biodiversity.

It’s also the case of other Latin American countries such as Brazil, where negotiations are directly with the government, Hernández added.

Those loopholes in the Nagoya Protocol, as well as extensive bureaucracy in the region, are part of the reasons there are not many good examples of Access and Benefits Sharing in Latin America. For example, Colombia, Costa Rica, and Paraguay are not even part of the Nagoya Protocol.

Political backlash also plays a major role in deterring the actual access and benefits sharing in countries that are already part of the Nagoya Protocol. In Brazil, the right-wing government of President Jair Bolsonaro did not make the indigenous population a priority.

In Mexico, the left-wing administration of President Andres Manuel López Obrador enforced an austerity policy which led to defunding many environmentally related projects.

In 2020, the Mexican Congress passed a bill that extinguished 109 public trusts, including all of which regulated environmental issues, which were the legal instrument to ensure economic retribution to the communities for their genetic resources.

Until that changes, they are in for a long wait.

This is the first of a four-part series

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