How not to conserve the species
IPN Opinion article
When the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) was agreed by over 100 nations in 1992, it was seen as an important step towards halting the global decline in species numbers.
Since then, many positive conservation efforts have been undertaken under its auspices.
Disagreement remains, however, over the thorny issue of how access to genetic resources is regulated and how benefits from these resources are shared.
One of the great benefits of the CBD is that it provides a general framework for species conservation that is not overly prescriptive. One-size-fits-all global plans rarely work (as the Babylonians, Greeks, Romans, Persians, Austro-Hungarians and Soviets found to their cost).
However, in the past few years there has been a push to develop more restrictive plans in some areas of the of the CBD.
A technical committee of the CBD will meet in Granada this week to debate the merits of a proposal from India and Brazil that would compel the disclosure of origins of biological material used in the development of patented products, such as pharmaceuticals.
By mandating disclosure of origin in any patent filings, Brazil and India hope that they will uncover instances where genetic resources (such as plants and soil microbes) from their countries have been used as the basis for products.
In the context of a wider agreement on sharing of the benefits of such as genetic resources, this would in principle enable them to levy a fee for the use of those resources and thereby enhance their government's coffers.
Unfortunately, the government officials promoting mandatory disclosure don't seem to have considered the unintended consequences of their actions.
Faced with the prospect of paying an unforeseen fee on products in development, companies may well choose to develop and use synthetic analogues of molecules derived from genetic resources, rather than the naturally-derived compounds. They already do this to a considerable degree because analogues are often more effective or have fewer side-effects.
Moreover, increasingly companies are synthesising molecules from first principles based on improved understanding of the molecular biology of disease; raising the cost of using naturally occurring biological material will speed this process along.
Meanwhile, a benefit-sharing system that rewards governments is unlikely to provide much incentive to the local people who must bear the cost of conserving the biological material.
It is rather depressing that India and Brazil are leading the charge to promote this idea, since those countries have a particularly poor record when it comes to conservation. The Indian government has single-handedly opposed effective conservation of two of the country's most charismatic endangered species _ the Bengal tiger and the Indian elephant.
Meanwhile, Brazil's government has overseen a dramatic decline in its biologically-rich northern rainforest, where local land ownership is poorly defined and enforced.
A more constructive approach is clearly needed; one that would increase the resources devoted to conservation and increase the availability of biological materials for the purposes of researching possible new technologies.
Such an approach would encourage more voluntary agreements between people living in biologically rich environments and companies intending to develop products.
Much can be learned from the experience in Southern Africa. Until the 1980s, wildlife throughout Africa was in general deemed to be res nullius: the property of no one until captured or killed. Some species were protected by law, especially those in state parks, which were deemed to be the property of the state.
As a result, local communities had little incentive to invest in conservation; wild animals would be seen as a threat and often killed, even in spite of substantial state penalties, especially where their products were of considerable value (as in the case of elephant ivory and rhino horn). This contributed to the precipitous decline in African wildlife for much of the 20th century.
In the past 25 years, however, ownership of wildlife in Namibia, South Africa and Botswana has been vested in local communities and individuals, which are able to sell hunting rights and to benefit from ecotourism.
As a result, their incomes from these sources have risen significantly and they have stronger incentives to conserve rather than kill the wildlife.
The impact on species numbers has been dramatic: elephant, rhinos and many other species are far more numerous now than in the 1970s.
In principle, the CBD enables parties to develop conservation strategies that build on this experience. A positive-sum access and benefit-sharing regime would combine vesting ownership rights of genetic resources in individuals and communities, while enabling simple contractual arrangements for assigning rights to downstream users.
By devolving the rights to biological material to the individuals and communities who live with them, governments would give those people an incentive to conserve that material. By enabling the owners of the material to contract with downstream users, governments would enhance those incentives by increasing the value of the species they conserve.
It would also incentivise people living in biologically rich areas to seek out partners who might invest in identifying new uses for the material they own.
The push for mandatory disclosure should be resisted: it would have no impact on conservation of species already appropriated for use in downstream products, since the benefits have already been realised, but it would weaken the incentives for companies to use biological resources as the basis for products in the future.
This in turn would reduce the value of species to locals and weaken the incentives to develop more sustainable local management systems.
The message to the negotiators in Granada should be clear: Instead of approving a mechanism that would increase the centralisation of control over genetic resources, to the detriment of species conservation, policies should instead be constructed to ensure local communities have a stake in the biological resources they manage. Only then will the Convention on Biological Diversity fulfil its purpose and help protect the Earth's biological diversity.