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Big Nature Debate

3 Posts tagged with the un_convention_on_biological_diversity tag
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Dr Chris Lyal studies insects in the Natural History  Museum's Department of Entomology, where his speciality is the largest  of all beetle groups, the weevils.  As well as his research work he is  the UK National Focal Point for the Convention on Biological Diversity's  Global Taxonomy Initiative and for several years worked as a Programme  Officer for the CBD Secretariat.  He has visited many different  countries both for research and while working with people on  biodiversity policy and capacity-building issues.

 

In an earlier blog I mentioned I’d come back to benefits from genetic resources and the CBD, so I’ll now try to grasp the nettle.

 

One of the three objectives of the Convention is Fair and Equitable Access to the Benefits arising out of the utilization of Genetic Resources of Biological Diversity. This is the part that receives least attention of all, and which many of the Parties to the Convention want action on. As Bob has mentioned in one of his postings, one of the three outcomes that many countries want from Nagoya is an International Regime on Access and Benefit-Sharing.  So what does this mean? One thing it means is a lot of terminology, but as so much of the discussions are terminology-heavy, I’d better go for it.

 

Under Article 3 of the Convention "States have … the sovereign right to exploit their own resources …".  Broadly speaking, this means that the biodiversity of a country belongs to that country, and cannot be exploited without the permission of that country. Article 15 makes it clearer: “Recognizing the sovereign rights of States over their natural resources, the authority to determine access to genetic resources rests with the national governments and is subject to national legislation.”.  So if anyone wants to get hold of a ‘genetic resource’ (“genetic material of actual or potential value”) they have to ask the government of the country in which it is found and obey its laws. In practice this may mean getting permission from a variety of bodies and people, including at very local level, to access these ‘resources’.  The general mechanism for this is to make it clear what use is going to be made of the resource and get agreement with the provider country (‘Prior Informed Consent’ - PIC) and then agree a form of contract, a ‘Material Transfer Agreement’ (MAT). This will probably have a section on how any benefits are shared. The benefits might be money, if something gets commercialised, or information, or support for conservation, or a host of other things. So far so good. However, different countries have developed legislation in different ways, and there is real lack of clarity on how legislation in one country might be applied to someone from another country who has exploited genetic material without PIC and MAT. That is part of the background for the desire for an International Regime, so that access can be regulated and compliance can be more easily monitored and enforced.

 

In principle that sounds OK. Stuff growing in my garden belongs to me; you can’t take genes from it without my permission, and if you make money out of those genes I want a cut. In practice, it is a touch more difficult. How does a country know what is being collected and used out, how does it manage the permits it issues, how does it monitor what happens when genetic material is being examined outside the country, and passed between different researchers? Any process put in place is likely to be expensive in time and money; should it apply only to people who are planning to utilise a genetic resource commercially, or to everybody, including those who are carrying out purely academic research with no financial implications? How do you tell which is which? Should the regime apply only to the genetic material or to derivatives (“a naturally occurring biochemical compound resulting from the genetic expression or metabolism of biological or genetic resources, even if they do not contain functional units of heredity”). Should this apply to human genetic material? Should it apply to disease organisms, where it might be important to transfer and use genetic material very rapidly? Of course, one doesn’t just take genetic material from the environment, one takes organisms and extracts the genetic material afterwards. Because of this any legislation tends to be applied to specimens that might be collected, because of the potential benefits from the genetic material within them. So should it apply to commodities, such as potatoes? How does it apply to the exotic pot plants so many of us grow at home?

 

The basis of the discussion is very important; countries have seen and are still seeing money being made by big companies from exploiting genetic information gleaned from organisms they have collected, but no return coming back to the country of origin. The problems in developing a regime that can protect such countries whilst not paralysing other activities in support of the Convention, and can be practically implemented, are considerable.  The proposed text of the regime to be agreed at Nagoya is still being negotiated, and as of this morning still contains much text that is bracketed, which indicates that the negotiators have not yet agreed on the appropriate wording. It is important that we have something out of Nagoya that we can take forward, so we can move forward on this area of the Convention.

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Dr Chris Lyal studies insects in the Natural History Museum's Department of Entomology, where his speciality is the largest of all beetle groups, the weevils.  As well as his research work he is the UK National Focal Point for the Convention on Biological Diversity's Global Taxonomy Initiative and for several years worked as a Programme Officer for the CBD Secretariat.  He has visited many different countries both for research and while working with people on biodiversity policy and capacity-building issues.

 

Over the past 20 years there has been a lot of interest in ‘biodiversity’ – the variety of animals, plants and microorganisms on Earth, their genetic makeup and the ecosystems in which they live.  There have been peaks and troughs – a peak with the massive excitement globally at the Rio ‘Earth Summit’ in 1992, when the world’s leaders seemed to pick up the biodiversity flag, and troughs with continued threats to ecosystems from rainforests to seabed, and no clear turning point to a more secure future.

 

So what happened to the tide of optimism generated in Rio?  We got a ‘Convention on Biological Diversity’ out of it, but what has it done, and what will it achieve at its next major meeting in Nagoya?  At one level, the Convention (‘CBD’) has achieved a vast amount.  With 192 signatory countries, plus the European Union, it is the largest Environmental Convention.  It has 42 legally-binding provisions, and its major biennial meetings (the Conference of the Parties – ‘COP’) have taken nearly 250 detailed 'Decisions' about how the CBD should be implemented and what should be prioritised.  These have led to a great deal of work across the world, and money directed to biodiversity issues.  On the other hand, hardly anybody seems to have heard about it or, if they have, they have only a hazy idea of what it does.

 

The CBD is a policy process, a forum where global agreement can be reached and policies adopted.  However, these policies (the COP ‘Decisions’) are for national implementation, and are not legally binding.  Under the CBD “States have … the sovereign right to exploit their own resources pursuant to their own environmental policies …”.  Biodiversity does not belong to all humanity as it did before Rio, but belongs to the countries in which it exists.  The CBD cannot fund implementation, and does not have staff to take part in ‘hands-on’ biodiversity work.  Thus projects tend not to be clearly labelled ‘CBD’ and it is difficult to see what CBD policies are achieving.  The policies themselves are written in complex language, and are far from ‘user-friendly’ to most of us.

 

CBD policies are not just about conservation, but are in support of the three equally-important objectives: Conservation, Sustainable Use, and Fair and Equitable Access to the Benefits arising out of the utilization of Genetic Resources of Biological Diversity.  In terms of general understanding, ‘conservation’ is pretty easy, and many people stop there.  ‘Sustainable use’ is rather more complex, especially when we are not very clear about what that use is.  In fact ‘use’ encompasses everything from aesthetic enjoyment to spiritual support to food and water provision to pollination and a whole range of other ‘environmental goods and services’ – the life support system of good old ‘Planet Earth’.  In that framework ‘sustainable’ might mean anything from ‘exactly as it is now / was at some time in the past’ to ‘enough to allow us to survive’.  In fact, since the issue is rarely discussed in a comprehensive way, the decisions on what action to take to ensure sustainability are rarely addressed and even more rarely put into practice.  I’ll come back to benefits from genetic resources in another post, because the nub of the matter is discussion, understanding and action.

 

In Nagoya the CBD COP will meet for the tenth time.  As with previous COPs, hundreds of government servants and others will spend the first week hammering out the details of new Decisions. In the second week environment ministers will join the stew to deal with any national political issues that can’t be addressed by the other attendees and then agree the final texts.  One of the major outcomes will be a new Strategic Plan for the CBD, including targets for 2020.  Whether those targets can be met depends entirely on how willing people across the world are to prioritise them against other policies, and to tell Government how much time, money and effort should be directed towards meeting them.  This has been an issue all along; Government may agree to CBD policies but can only implement them – bring the necessary benefits to biodiversity (and us!) – if voters want this to happen.  If we do not fully understand what these policies are, or even know they exist, there is little chance that Government can take the next important steps.

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Dr Bob Bloomfield has coordinated the UK response to the International Year of Biodiversity working with diverse partners from more than 400 partner organisations in the UK (www.biodiversityislife.net). Bob has an academic background in biological science but has devoted his career to science communication and public engagement around science issues including, and especially Evolution and Biodiversity.

 

 

Bob_Bloomfield.jpgThe recent Mori Poll confirming that British people are concerned about the loss of species is no surprise. For many years we have worked to protect areas of outstanding natural beauty such as our network of national parks. As a nation of nature lovers we take great interest in our wildlife. While many of us do this from our armchairs, many others volunteer with NGOs such as the Wildlife Trusts, the RSPB, and a host of other societies. Good progress has been made in protecting pockets of nature and specific species. Despite this over the past decade the United Kingdom, like the other 193 signatory countries to the UN Convention on Biological Diversity, has failed to meet the overall target of reversing biodiversity loss.

 

Biodiversity is the variety of living things, so biodiversity loss is happening at all levels – a decline in the genetic variety within species, individual species being pushed to the brink of extinction, and the decline in the variety of diverse habitats and ecosystems. What is happening now is without precedent, scientists estimate the current rate of extinction is maybe 1000 times the natural rate, and this erosion is due to human activities, primarily the consequence of the combined effects of human population growth and resource demands. These in turn fuel massive land-use changes with the expansion of agriculture and fishing, transport systems and urbanization, along with a host of industrial process with cause pollution through extraction, processing and waste disposal.

 

So here we get to the rub of the issue, while the efforts of Government environment departments, NGOs and volunteer organisations are having success, this is not dealing with the root cause of biodiversity loss which is the impact overall of human activity. Looking ahead to make a real difference humans need to look see things differently and do things differently.

 

The good news is that we are also becoming more aware of our dependence on biodiversity. Without green plants we would have no oxygen to breath. With no insects there would be no pollination of all the plants which provide our foods, fabrics, fuels and the host of other products for human use. Invertebrates, bacteria and fungi prevent us from being buried in our own waste and natural material would not be recycled which is essential for the maintenance of fertile soil. Without forests and moor land Insurance companies would pale at the risks of floods and drought, as these systems act like sponges to buffer the movement of rain to our rivers. Without genetic variety in nature we would have nowhere to turn to find the new strains of crops resistant to emerging pests and diseases, or for the natural pharmacopeia which is the basis for developing new medicines to protect people and our livestock. Even more significant today when we face the prospect of human induced climate change is the biological capability of forests, reef, ocean plankton, marches and bogs and other ecological systems to take in and lock away the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide. As humans allow biodiversity to degrade we threaten these Ecosystem Services, as they are called, and many more which I haven’t even mentioned.

 

Even more astounding is the emerging understanding of the economic cost of this loss. Conservative estimates of the economic costs of forest loss alone are between $2-4000000000000000000 ($2-4 trillion) each year (equivalent to about two global bank crises a year). Which brings me around to why it is so disturbing that so few people are aware of the meeting of the Convention On Biological Diversity meeting in Nagoya in October, when targets for the future protection of biodiversity will be set.

 

The Rio Earth Summit in1992 highlighted three agendas to be addressed; climate change; sustainable economic development; and biodiversity loss. What is now abundantly clear is that these are not separate agendas; quite the contrary, if we cannot address biodiversity loss we cannot hope to succeed in either of the other two, human society has to see all three as intimately bound and needing to be addressed together. As a life-long naturalist and environmentalist this is self-evident, that our complex interacting living system earth is something which we cannot be apart from, and if we do not tend to its vital organs, its oceans, rivers and forests, we will suffer as it declines. The good news is that the new economic awareness of the importance of biodiversity might be understood in the world in international politics and so we may see positive outcomes from Nagoya.

 

However biodiversity action needs the understanding of people too. People who can provide the mandate to ensure politicians provide the policy framework that will make a difference. People in business who can champion the green economy of which biodiversity preservation is a central part; and ordinary people who have the vision to see a world where we make space for biodiversity is the only way to ensure the health wealth and wellbeing of future generations.