The apple of discord: genetic diversity on the table in Nagoya

28 October 2010 | News story

For the last eight years, parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity have been unsuccessfully trying to adopt an agreement that would make sure that the benefits we derive from our planet’s genetic resources are shared fairly and equitably with biodiversity-rich but financially poor countries. This highly contentious deal is expected to be finalized in Nagoya. We ask Sonia Peña Moreno, IUCN’s Biodiversity Policy Officer, to explain why this issue has been so controversial.

Let’s start with the basics: What is genetic diversity?

Genes are one of the three components of biodiversity, the other two being ecosystems and species. For example, if you break a leaf into its tiniest particles, what you’ll find there will be its genetic components, its DNA, which is used by research institutes, universities and private companies from various sectors such as pharmaceuticals, cosmetics, agriculture and biotechnology.

Although we can’t see genetic diversity with the naked eye, we strongly depend on. It has great importance for our health and wellbeing and special significance for indigenous communities who often have a strong cultural attachment to their natural resources. 

ABS is one of the most frequently-mentioned acronyms here at the conference in Nagoya. What does it mean?

ABS stands for ‘Access to genetic resources and benefit sharing’. It concerns accessing genetic resources in a country that provides them and being able to use them for different purposes and share the benefits that are coming out of this use. At the moment, we have national regulations related to ABS in certain countries but they vary across the world. We’re lacking a global, legally-binding agreement that would apply to all countries around the world in the same way.

Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity have been negotiating the ABS protocol for eight years. Why has it taken so long?

There are many issues that have made it extremely difficult to agree on. First, there is the question whether the Convention itself has a mandate to address issues that are already dealt with by, for example, the World Health Organization (such as pathogens, medicines), the World Intellectual Property Organization (property rights and patents), and the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (marine genetic resources beyond national jurisdiction). Another contentious issue is whether we should have a global legally-binding protocol or simply international guidelines, where each country would be able to decide how it regulates this access. There are also issues of sovereignty and justice which are linked to the scope of the negotiated agreement: whether it would be retro-active, applying before its entry into force or even the entry into force of the Convention itself, or whether it would apply as soon as it is ratified. We also need to define the beneficiaries of genetic resources. Some countries already recognize the rights of the indigenous peoples to their land and resources, which form the basis of their livelihoods, and for others it is the state that ‘owns’ them. And finally, the big question that still needs to be addressed is who is going to pay for this – this is part of the current negotiations here in Nagoya.

What outcome are you expecting from the talks?

Parties to the Convention have made a commitment to have the ABS protocol adopted in Nagoya but the question is: what will be its substance? It’s going to be a trade-off during these final days. Some parties are going to say that this is the moment to seek a compromise, an in-between solution. Others - like many of the developing countries in Africa - will prefer not to have any agreement rather than a soft and ‘empty’ protocol. I’m optimistic about the outcome but it’s not going to be easy.