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Access & Benefit: Genes

Published: November 3, 2010, Author: Rÿser Rudolph C.

Nagoya, Japan – The 10th Conference of Parties of the Convention on Biological Diversity produced a truly wilted plan for governments, non-governmental organizations, businesses and indigenous peoples to meet the challenge of the collapsing natural system of diverse plants, animals and their eco-niches throughout the world. During a week of negotiations involving 193 states’ governments and thousands of representatives from indigenous peoples, non-governmental organizations, businesses, labor unions and specialized international agencies of the United Nations the parties who were supposed to make a decision (states’ government representatives) dropped the ball.  Well let’s say they managed to make a tiny step forward as they began dropping the ball — leaving parties to pick up the ball once again at the Climate Change negotiations in Cancun, Mexico in early December 2010. That is not a promising thought, to be sure.

There was some progress on the issue of “benefit sharing” and “access” to genetic biological diversity that was dubbed: “Nagoya Protocol on Access to Genetic Resources and the Fair and Equitable Sharing of Benefits Arising from Their Utilisation.” It was hailed by some indigenous peoples’ representatives attending the confab in Nagoya. Joji Carino, Philippines-based Tebtebba Foundation and indigenous peoples spokesperson said, “We can live with this (Nagoya Protocol).

Tulalip Tribes (Northwest US) representative Preston Hardison pronounced the protocol, “…a fairly big win and is pretty good overall.”

Malaysia’s states’ government delegate representing the “Like-Minded Asia-Pacific Group” Gurdial Singh Nijar said, “The Nagoya Protocol is a magnificent treaty … we have made history here.”

Others described the agreement as a “major gain,” and “huge and significant commitments in terms of reinvigorated political will, as well as real money….”

The “question of genetic access and benefit sharing” is one of three essential elements of the steps necessary to fully implement the Convention on Biodiversity originally agreed to by states’ governments in 1994. The three purposes of the convention are: conservation of biodiversity; sustainable use of biodiversity; fair and equitable sharing of the benefits arising from the use of genetic resources.

The Nagoya Protocol constitutes one key goal that negotiators now celebrate as having been agreed to.  One indigenous representative said the agreement, “gives indigenous peoples a place at the table.”  The convention says to fulfill access and benefit requirements, “a person or institution seeking access to the genetic material of a biological resource in a foreign country should seek the prior informed consent of the country in which the resource is located.”

The indigenous peoples position led by the Tebtebba Foundation in the Philippines and the Grand Council of the Crees (Eeyou Istchee) that led a coalition of indigenous nations and organizations (including the Center for World Indigenous Studies) to advance a strong emphasis on including “Free, Prior and Informed Consent” of Indigenous peoples in language of the Biodiversity Protocol in Nagoya.  Indigenous peoples are the first users and stewards of the world biological diversity and must, therefore, stand first in line to grant or deny access and benefit from the world’s diversity.

There are huge obstacles such as those denying indigenous peoples political access to the negotiations of Climate Change treaty provisions (even though the European Union now indicates it prefers that indigenous peoples come to the table). The primary sources of revenue to support implementation of the third goal of the Convention on Biodiversity through the Nagoya Protocol must come from states’ with the money.  The US is not a signatory to the Convention and the European Union is laboring under a financial crisis gripping the world.  Where will the financial resources come from the implement the Nagoya Protocol?

As I have often urged and argued in this column over the years, indigenous peoples must take the initiative themselves and only secondarily depend on the states’ governments.  That means immediately organizing local and sub-regional gatherings of indigenous peoples to formulate plans and actions to assert the principle of “free, prior and informed consent” and to act on that principle by defining the rules for “access” and “benefit sharing” in accord with cultural standards, rules and regulations set by indigenous peoples themselves. Once defined and implemented, then these standards, rules and regulations must be enforced.

Indigenous peoples cannot wait until the states’ governments finalize agreement, establish the $30 billion to $300 billion necessary to implement protocols or to define how they will enforce their agreement.  Indigenous peoples must move now to control their destiny through pro-active decision-making.

In the United States there are perhaps two and certainly not more than five indigenous nations that have any awareness of what is happening in connection with the Convention on Biodiversity and Climate Change. This is a very sad reality. Indigenous nations in Canada led by the Grand Council of the Crees (Eeyou Istchee) have actively engaged the process to inform themselves and to advance policies that promote indigenous peoples’ rights and responsibilities. The Assembly of First Nations led by National Chief Shawn A-in-chut Atleo have given hope to indigenous peoples in the Americas through the leadership of that body on the CBD as well as key issues before the UN Perform Forum on Indian Issues.  Unfortunately, leaders of indigenous peoples in the United States have been too preoccupied with short term issues at the expense of preparing for and becoming informed about long term threats and challenges. The weakness of US indigenous nations has made things more difficult in international negotiations in large measure because that weakness has permitted the US government to step back and promote its own “exceptionalist policies” that have undermine efforts to solve looming challenges before they become disasters. US-based indigenous leaders have simply been generally absent from the key challenges affecting the future of indigenous peoples.

The small step toward achieving agreement on “access and benefit sharing” under the Convention on Biological Diversity may help matters to some limited degree in other negotiating arenas (i.e., Climate Change, intellectual property, regulation of eco-piracy), but as long as US indigenous leaders fail to step forward to actively work with their allies in indigenous nations around the world, the process will remain enormously complicated.  While indigenous nations in the United States may benefit in the long term from the prodigious efforts of other indigenous nations, it will not be owing to their own courage and commitment.

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