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Negotiating Biodiversity and the Business with Genes

Not the most biodiverse place: artificial creatures in Nagoya, photo: rumpleteaser/flickr

Eric Johnston called it “the most important conference you never heard of”:

You would think that a conference that was once billed as a meeting designed to come to an agreement  on a “Kyoto Protocol” for all living things would get just a bit more media respect. Or public attention.

And indeed, having just returned from Japan, I am surprised how much less media coverage COP 10 is getting outside its host country. It was by chance that I stumbled over COP 10 when in Nagoya last week and it took me a while until I understood the meaning of the acronym, which was all over the Japanese media: COP 10 stands for the tenth meeting of the Conference of the Parties of the Convention on Biological Diversity.

Given the technical and complex nature of the issues at stake, lay people may find it difficult to understand let alone explain what’s going on in Nagoya. However, the International Year of Biodiversity should provide reason enough to make an effort.

The most contentious issue at the conference is a possible compensation paid by drug companies to indigenous people for using and patenting their knowledge on the medical use of natural resources.

I give the word again to Eric Johnston of the Japan Times:

  • Should we offer some sort of compensation to indigenous peoples for medicines from their traditional lands already on the market?
  • Should we sign contracts directly with them so the next time a drug company is hiking through a biodiverse rich environment, they’ll be doing so with the approval of whoever lives on the land those plants come from?
  • And how do we determine, legally, whether the knowledge of how to manipulate those plants came from ancient oral traditions or a peer-reviewed article in a scientific magazine?
  • And if payments are to be made to indigenous peoples, how are they to be paid, and what does this mean for drugstore prices in developed countries?

These questions are to be addressed by an additional protocol to the convention, the so called Access and Benefit Sharing (ABS) Protocol. COP 10 started 18 October and will end with a ministerial meeting 29 October. The chances for agreement on the protocol seem dim and the 16,000 people from NGOs, business and governments who have made the conference a colorful event are likely, as it stands, to leave Japan disappointed. Yet, the time is not up yet and Japanese nights are long…

Until western media covers the conference’s closing, check out this dossier by the Japan Times or the articles by Asahi Shinbun. A research institute which has focused on access to genetic resources and benefit-sharing and which will do a better job at explaining the key issues and processes, is the International Centre for Trade and Sustainable Development (ICTSD), an ISN partner. Check out their papers and the ISN’s other resources on biodiversity.