Current efforts to protect the world's biodiversity run the risk of doing more harm than good, warns Krystyna Swiderska. In this week's Green Room, she says the role of indigenous and local communities in protecting the planet's genetic resources are being overlooked or even ignored.
In October, representatives from 193 governments will meet in Nagoya, Japan, to hopefully adopt a historic new international law that aims to ensure the world's biological resources are used in a fair and sustainable way.
It's about time.
The UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) estimates that a third of all genetic resources for food and agriculture have already been lost in the last 100 years.
This year — the UN's International Year of Biodiversity — we will also get official confirmation that an intergovernmental target to reduce the loss of biodiversity has been badly missed.
The deal struck in Nagoya could help to reverse that trend, but unless governments make some major progress at their final negotiating session next week, the agreement will be more likely to harm biodiversity and impoverish the people who depend on it most.
The new law is important for a number of reasons.
For millennia, communities around the world have nurtured the variety of life, including thousands of crops and medicinal plants that are vital for our agriculture, food security, health and nutrition.
These resources take on new importance today because they provide options that will enable people to adapt to climate change by switching to flood- or drought-resistant crop varieties, for instance.
The private sector and consumers worldwide have benefited greatly from these riches.
Corporations increasingly seek out biological resources and associated local knowledge, and use them to develop, patent and sell new medicines, seeds, foodstuffs and industrial products.
But there is no system in place to ensure that the benefits from such products are shared fairly with the countries and communities from which they originated.
This had led to accusations of "biopiracy" and has removed incentives for poor developing nations and local communities to conserve their biological riches.
This is not new. Back in 1992, governments adopted the UN Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), which required access to genetic resources to be accompanied by equitable benefit-sharing. Industrialised countries agreed to share the benefits from genetic resource use with poor developing countries.
This North/South deal lies at the heart of the CBD, but has yet to materialise.
Efforts to date have focused largely of conserving wildlife, as opposed to genetic resources which provide the basis for food and agriculture.
Since the 2002 World Summit on Sustainable Development, governments have been trying to negotiate an international, legally binding protocol under the CBD to ensure these challenges are addressed in practice. Their deadline is October 2010.
The protocol is also meant to promote equitable benefit-sharing from the use of the traditional knowledge of indigenous and local communities, and the development of community-led rules for accessing local biological resources.
Sharing the spoils....con't