THE EARTH TIMES/Special Report
15 Dec 1994
By Ashali Varma
NASSAU, Bahamas – The 109 non-governmental organizations with 191 representatives at the First Conference of Parties proved by their sheer numbers and active involvement the importance they attached to the Biodiversity Convention.
The convention is aimed at conservation, sustainable use of biological resources, and equitable sharing of the benefits of these resources. While delegates negotiated the procedural arrangements the NGOs met, discussed and had workshops on all the major aspects of the convention.
Their meetings were a refreshing change from the sometimes tedious governmental discussions. Their input suggested that while delegates work on country positions, people working at the grassroots level know what is at stake and would like to see quicker responses.
In her speech on behalf of 22 organizations, Chee Yoke ling of the Third World Network spoke on the urgent need to have a Biosafety Protocol. She urged “the COP to ensure that the ad hoc working group will focus primarily on modalities for a protocol, so that intergovernmental negotiations on such modalities can begin at the second meeting of the COP.”
Her statement included a concern for the intellectual property rights of the indigenous peoples, “We believe that the issues of access to genetic resources, intellectual property rights, the knowledge, customs and practices of indigenous and local communities as well as benefit sharing are part of the same whole.”
On forests, the statement said, “We welcome the COP’s positive input on forests to the third session of the Commission of Sustainable Development in 1995. We therefore fully expect that forests will be an important topic addressed under the terrestrial ecosystems listed in the medium-term work program, at the COP in 1996.”
Some NGOs spoke of the gap between such meetings and the work done at the grassroots level. Elizabeth Brazo, of Accion Ecologica from Ecuador, has been involved with three indigenous communities in the Cuyabeno Wildlife Reserve. The reserve boasts a record-breaking number of tree species and is the last habitat of the pink dolphin.
Brazo is concerned about bio-prospecting and although the Convention clearly defines that access to genetic resources should be on mutually-agreed terms, the reality is different. “I hope this Conference will change things,” she said, “but 1 am not too optimistic.”
On the Global Environment Facility (GEF) and the fact that it is restructured to enable, more grassroots participation, Brazo said; “In my country only some NGOs are invited to select projects and then they inform the others. It is not all that open. The important point for me is that they never consult the indigenous people who are going to be affected by the projects.” She added: “The GEF deals with governments and doesn’t know what is going on at the grassroots level.”
Ashish Kothari of the Indian Institute of Public Administration, an NGO research and training body, said of the conference—–“The convention has potential and can be a useful tool in monitoring the transfer of genetic resources and in the transfer of indigenous knowledge from the community to governments and to figure out how they can be compensated.”
Kothari feels strongly about the fact that local communities should be involved in managing the forests. When the government imposes legislation without involving the local people it costs more and often corrupts the system, he said.
Beatrize Schulthess, who represents the Costa Rica-based Earth Council, said, “It is a good that the issue of indigenous knowledge is being dealt with here. Though I am worried that in the case of intellectual property rights the very powerful in business and industry get the benefits from our knowledge. If we had enough resources we would create awareness among the indigenous people and use it in capacity building so they could be aware of their rights and negotiate with industry.”