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Bahamas Biodiversity meet 15 Dec 1994

THE EARTH TIMES

DECEMBER 15, 1994

NOW, biodiversity Governments take a big first step toward turning a key treaty from 1992 Earth Summit into an action program for preserving the planet’s genetic heritage.  Meeting for two contentious weeks in Nassau, the Bahamas, diplomats and others debated the biodiversity convention and argued about finding money to protect species.

A first step in fulfilling promise of the Rio Summit on the environment

By Ashali Varma

NASSAU, Bahamas –The setting was idyllic. Crystal-clear waters white sandy beaches and lush tropical vegetation—all a constant reminder to those present that there was much to preserve for future generations.

In the short span of two weeks the First Conference of Parties (COP) to the Convention on Biological Diversity achieved a consensus on goals first outlined two and a half years ago. The convention was signed by 155 countries at the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992.  But the document had to be ratified by national governments.  To date, 104 have done so.  Thus a convention that had been a theoretical framework became an active process.  Now countries can begin to implement the goals they identified in Rio: conservation, sustainable use of biological resources, and equitable sharing of such resources.

Much of the work that occupied the more than 700 persons here was procedural.  Negotiations went on till the early hours of the morning .  But for the delegates from 133 countries and 109 nongovernmental organizations, it was time well spent on furthering the commitments to biological diversity made at Rio.  At the plenary session attended by ministers from 60 countries, Elizabeth Dowdeswell, the executive director of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), said, “Without biological diversity, life on our planet would be difficult to envisage.  It is for this reason that Convention on Biological Diversity is the convention about life on earth.”

Dowdeswell also said that UNEP will institute an award to be given each year on the 29th of December, the anniversary of the convention’s entry into force.  UNEP will award the prize to an individual, institution or community for “outstanding actions in support of biological diversity conservation.”

During the conference’s two weeks, countries that had ratified the convention debated and made recommendations on elements of the Convention on Biological Diversity and set the procedural and working agenda for the COP.  It was decided that UNEP would take on the role of permanent secretariat of the convention. The location of the  secretariat proved to be a sticky point. Kenya, Spain and Switzerland were the contenders. The COP agreed to have the secretariat based in Geneva for the interim. Unesco and the Food and Agricultural Organization offered to make funds and staff available to facilitate the secretariat’s functioning.

The Global Environment Facility was suggested as the organization to handle the finances for implementing the biodiversity convention. But the developing countries, under G77 and China, made a strong statement saying they would only accept the GEF as an interim financial mechanism. The US, Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Australia and Norway supported the GEF as the permanent financial mechanism.

Timothy E. Wirth, the US undersecretary of state for global affairs, told The Earth Times, “I think it is not realistic at this time to think of a separate fund and rather than creating new mechanisms let’s make the existing mechanisms work better. The UN way is to have a proliferation of institutions and that makes no sense. We ought to be contracting rather than expanding, and making the UN more efficient.”

Developing countries, however, were concerned that the GEF has other funding priorities and biodiversity would be neglected. India suggested that the Subsidiary Body for Scientific, Technical and Technological Advice, a study group, should be recognized as the pivotal body for advising the GEF on biodiversity projects. The structure and functions of the subsidiary was another important decision.

Chaired by J. H. Seyani from Malawi, it was decided that the body would consist of scientists from five major regions nominated by the countries involved. The body would have an input in the medium-term work program, provide scientific and technical assessments of the status of biodiversity and work according to the guidelines set in the convention. The first meeting was set for September 4-6, 1995, in Paris.

The agenda for the medium term work program for 1995 included the following: conservation and sustainable use of coastal and marine biological diversity; access to genetic resources and the equitable sharing of benefits derived from their use; issues relating to the transfer of technology; and the handling of biotechnology. In its statement for the Commission on Sustainable Development (CSD), the COP emphasized the importance of a substantive relationship with the CSD. The statement said, “The provisions of the convention are of the utmost relevance to the issues to be reviewed by the CSD at its third session; to the planning and management of land resources, combating deforestation, managing fragile ecosystems and promoting sustainable agriculture and rural development.”

In the ministerial segment of the ‘COP which began on the 7th of December, Ministers from 60 countries spoke at the plenary meeting. However, of the 60 ministers, 55 were from developing countries. Kamal Nath, India’s minister for environment and forests

told reporters, “1 only hope that the lack of attendance of ministers from developed countries is not reflective of their lack of interest in the Biodiversity Convention.”

In his speech, Nath spoke of the urgency for a Biosafety Protocol saying that there should be “adequate safeguards” against the “hasty experimentation and use of genetically-modified organisms.” He added, “There is a justifiable and very real fear that the developing world could become the playground for the experimentation with such

organisms.”

The need for a Biosafety Protocol was reiterated by the Malaysian Minister of Science, Technology and the Environment, Law Hieng Ding. The minister said, “Such a legal

instrument is necessary to protect states that have weak or no biosafety regulations, becoming the testing ground for Genetically-Modified Organisms by multinational corporations.” He also called for new and additional financial resources, separate from existing overseas development assistance and free of conditions.

“The convention, after all, is not about development aid.   It concerns access to valuable genetic resources, which are almost entirely owned by developing countries,” Ding said.

Klaus Topfer of Germany, speaking in his capacity as chairman of the CSD, was one of the few speakers from an industrialized country to point out, “We have to change consumption and production patterns and to be open for making trade and environment mutually supportive.”

There was some difference of opinion along North-South lines concerning biosafety and intellectual property rights. NGOs sided with the developing countries. However, it was finally decided that a panel of scientists appointed by the secretariat would do a biosafety study and submit a report by September 1995. In the intellectual property rights, India, backed by Colombia, Brazil and Malaysia, was determined to include a study of the effects of intellectual property rights on the attainment of the .convention’s objectives. This would include the recognition of indigenous knowledge and a country’s genetic resources.

The US, Switzerland United Kingdom wanted to restrict the study to transfer of technology only. In an interview with The Earth Times, US Undersecretary of State

Wirth said, “Most of the international property rights issues have been defined. People

are beginning to understand that  if there is no protection of property rights you are not going to get the necessary investment and exchange of technology.”

Phillippe Roch, Director of the Swiss Federal Office of Environment put issues in

perspective in an interview with The Earth Times. “These kind of negotiations are necessary.” He said, “but in the final analysis it’s political will that counts and for that I wish that at such meetings ministers would participate more.”

Roch suggested having shorter statements at the plenary and a system, which could  allow ministers from the North and South to form small working groups, where they could discuss country priorities, finances and problems. This would not only bring about good relations and understanding, he said, but would also be a vehicle to promote active responses to the debate.