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Bahamas Biodiversity Conference 30 Nov 1994


NOVEMBER 30, 1994

Biodiversity meeting in Bahamas to consider financial mechanisms

Protection of species emerges as revived concern

By Ashali Varma

Nassau Bahamas: Diplomats, journalists and scientists from all over the world gathered in the Bahamas on November 28 for two weeks for the First Conference of the Parties on Biological Diversity. The significance of the meeting was spelled out by Elizabeth Dowdeswell, executive director of the United Nation’s Environment· Programme, at the opening.

“This Convention is much more than just a set of rights and obligations to be implemented by the Contracting Parties,” Dowdeswell said. “It is a means by which nations can support one another equitably in their quest for sustainable development.”

The aim of the Convention is “the conservation of biological diversity, the sustainable use of its .components and the fair and equitable sharing of the benefits arising out of the utilization of genetic resources.”

Developing countries contain at least four-fifths of global biodiversity and are recognized by the Convention as having sovereignty over it. Industrialized nations have the financial resources and the advantage of biotechnology to make use of the biological diversity. Herein lies the main contention: who gives how much to whom and whether the North should share the benefits and intellectual property rights for a successful drug developed and patented by the North from a species found in the South?

The legal, moral and financial implications are vast and vested interests could jeopardize the very essence of the Treaty, which outlines clearly that Parties must:

• Develop national strategies for the conservation and sustainable use of biological resources; establish training and research programs for this and support such programs in developing countries

• Establish protected areas, restore degraded ecosystems; and establish ex situ conservation facilities

• Carry out environmental impact assessment prior to any proposed project that may reduce biodiversity

• Recognize the rights of governments to regulate access to their own genetic resources, and, wherever possible, grant other Parties access to genetic resources for  environmentally sound uses

• Encourage technology and biotechnology transfer, particularly to developing countries

•Establish an information exchange between the Parties on all subjects relevant to biodiversity;

• Promote technical and scientific cooperation between Parties (particularly to developing

countries) to enable them to implement the convention

•Ensure that countries that provide genetic resources have access to the benefits arising from them;

•Provide financial resources to developing countries to enable them to carry out the requirements of the convention

The question of providing financial resources to develop countries is another sticky issue. The unmet financial requirement for developing counties is estimated to be US$20 billion year.

At present, US$228 million in aid is channeled to developing countries for the conservation of biological diversity. Donor countries are unwilling to commit themselves to more even though it has often been pointed out that in 1990 alone global military spending was US$980 billion. So while countries negotiate, an estimated 17 million hectares of tropical moist forests are being cleared annually and the accompanying loss of species can only be guessed at.

According to UNEP, a little more than a quarter of all drugs used in the US are plant-based and the total retail value of such drugs in 1980 was about US$8 billion.

A mere 40 species are  a source of these drugs so in effect each species generates US$ 200 Million a year for the pharmaceutical industry.  For example, diosgenin is used in the manufacture of contraceptive pills and a species of plant that grows in the foothills of the Himalayas is a major source diosgenin.  The species has been so over-collected that it is now subject to international trade controls.  An extract from serpentine root, which is a forest shrub in India, has been used as one of the principal substances in commercial tranquilizers for the past 50 years and the species is also under threat in the wild.

When the Convention on Biological Diversity opened for signature at the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro on the June 5, 1992, 157 countries signed the Convention; notable among the exceptions was the United States. At the time of the adoption of the agreed text of the Convention on Biological Diversity, in its declaration the United States said that the text was “seriously flawed” and “we find particularly unsatisfactory the text’s treatment of intellectual property rights; finances, including, importantly, the role of the Global Environmental Facility; technology transfer and biotechnology.”

The United States signed the convention under the Clinton administration but has not ratified it.  So far 167 States and the European Community have signed the treaty and 103 nations and the European Union have ratified it.

In a press communiqué the Group of 77 and China warned that “any delay on the selection of the financial mechanism will undermine the effectiveness of the implementation of the financial provisions of the Convention.”

It remains to be seen what the donor countries, especially the United States, will come up with at the First Conference of the Parties on Biological Diversity taking place in Nassau. Unless there is political commitment the fate of thousands of species and millions of acres of ecologically rich areas are under threat from overuse, loss of habitat and environmental pollution.