Will the ugly duckling turn into a swan?

16 December 2010 | Audio

For the past eight years, parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity have unsuccessfully tried to adopt a protocol on Access and Benefit Sharing (ABS) – an agreement that would secure fair, globally-regulated access to the earth’s genetic diversity and equitable sharing of the benefits it offers us.

Genetic diversity held in plants, animals and microorganisms offers us innumerable benefits not least in the form of food, medicines and cosmetics. Accessing it and sharing in a fair way is one of the three objectives of the Convention on Biological Diversity.

Achieving this objective has been so complex and controversial that it has become the ‘ugly duckling’ of the Convention.The issue also turned out to be the ‘ugly duckling’ of the biodiversity summit in Nagoya. Negotiations on the protocol kept everyone in suspense till the very end of the meeting, with fierce debates between the providers of genetic resources – mostly biodiversity-rich, but financially-poor countries - and their users – the developed countries which host the world’s biggest pharmaceutical companies and research institutions. This jeopardized the adoption of other issues discussed in Nagoya, as certain countries threatened blocking the negotiations unless sufficient progress was made on ABS. It was not surprising then to see an enthusiastic round of applause from the delegates once the protocol was finally adopted, in the early hours of the meeting’s last day.

Although it has been criticized for its ambiguity and avoidance of many contentious elements, the Nagoya ABS Protocol was seen as a major success of the conference. It provides a useful framework to regulate access and benefit sharing of genetic resources both on a national and international level.

Sonia Peña Moreno, IUCN’s Biodiversity Policy Officer explains what this means in practice: