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Money from bio-trade and rich nations cannot save India’s rich biodiversity. Kanchi Kohli and Shalini Bhutani write.

india Updated: Oct 30, 2012 23:05 IST

The 11th Conference of Parties (CoP) of the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) recently concluded in Hyderabad. But what does this mega-event and decisions taken there mean for the conservation of biological diversity in a country like ours? When the CBD first came into force 20 years ago, it was to address two critical issues that arose out of the human-biodiversity interaction. First, to check large-scale degradation of ecological habitats with positive steps for conservation. Second, to arrest ‘biopiracy’ by the pharmaceutical and seed industry.

We are now two decades down with the CBD and India also has the Biological Diversity Act, 2002, in force for the last 10 years. So far, neither has managed to address the two core problems that the convention set out to address. If it had, the first three goals of the Aichi targets that the CBD set for member countries in 2010 would not be directed towards addressing root causes of biodiversity loss, reducing direct pressures on biodiversity and improving the status of biodiversity by safeguarding ecosystems, species and genetic diversity. Even as some celebrate the financial impetus that the current CoP has given to these targets, it stands in complete contradiction, as land is being diverted for industrial and infrastructure purposes. There does not seem to be any clarity in terms of how money will resolve the conflicts around land and resource use in the country today. Will we have biodiversity conservation schemes implemented in the same areas which continue to be demarcated for mining, power generation or infrastructure expansion?

The CBD’s answer to biopiracy is laying down a robust system for Access and Benefit Sharing (ABS), which is what the Nagoya Protocol is about. It’s believed that if accessors of genetic material and knowledge follow due procedure of law, they would be able to get into suitable contractual agreements with those who own the material and/or knowledge. This strong conviction continues to be perpetrated when there is no model of ABS in sight that affects fair and equitable sharing.

Benefit-sharing largely depends on whether or not the accessor discloses that the material will be used beyond research. In most cases of the 108 ABS agreements that the National Biodiversity Authority (NBA) has signed to date with various institutions and individuals, a defined payment was made to the authority with a contractual assurance that in case the genetic material is sought to be commercialised, benefits will be ‘shared’ back as mutually agreed. Therefore, what might have been termed biopiracy in the past now gets legalised by a regulatory system that relies on systems of trust and self-disclosure to track genetic material and its use.

The issue of designating who are the owners of biodiversity has remained unresolved for more than the last two decades. To whom will the ABS regime attribute ownership for the brinjal germplasm, which was used as part of the Bt Brinjal experiment? This is a crucial case of biopiracy where the NBA is contemplating action against the seed company.

The CBD, its decisions and protocols are clearly headed in a direction which believes that money from bio-trade and developed country grants can bring in resources for conservation of ecosystems, and contracts with industry will make the process of access more ethical. It surely can’t buy any guarantees for the local custodians of biodiversity and conservation futures.

Kanchi Kohli and Shalini Bhutani are part of the Campaign for Conservation and Community Control over Biodiversity

The views expressed by the authors are personal