Access to Genetic Resources: Meeting in Havana, Cuba

22 March 2013 | News story

Pharmaceutical, biotechnology, agricultural and food industries around the world have given us innumerable products derived from genetic resources in nature. Sharing the benefits of these products equitably has been of concern to biodiverse developing countries, whose natural resources have given rise to new drugs, crop varieties, and herbal supplements. Providing international access to these resources for research and development, and sharing the commercial benefits of such use, can be beneficial for social and economic development. At the same time, access and benefit-sharing (ABS) offers a concrete example of valuing biodiversity and its ecosystem services, and an economic tool to take proper account of this value.

But how to mainstream ABS? This was addressed with the 2010 adoption of the Nagoya Protocol under the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), establishing a legal framework for the transparent and effective implementation of ABS agreements to remove mistrust and obstacles to biodiversity research. In any case, though, in a world of disparate national legal cultures, the protocol alone cannot settle every legal question that is bound to arise. Indeed, legal analysis of ABS contracts — the agreements between and among countries and stakeholders regarding ABS — has rarely strayed from the theoretical. Article 19 of the protocol calls for the development of practical, appropriate models for ABS contracts, but so far, little progress has been made.

To this end, IUCN-Sur is helping eight countries in Latin America and the Caribbean region to develop legal frameworks for this protocol and strength capacities on ABS matters, through the GEF (Global Environment Facility) Regional project, Strengthening the Implementation of Access to Genetic Resources and Benefit-Sharing Regimes in Latin America and the Caribbean. The project begun in 2011 and is executed by IUCN-Sur and implemented by UNEP-ROLAC The eight countries — Colombia, Costa Rica, Cuba, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Guyana, Panama and Peru — represent an area of staggering genetic biodiversity, including parts of the Amazon rainforest.

This project aims to uphold the principles of conservation, sustainability, equity and justice of the CBD with regard to access and benefit-sharing, as well as the protection of traditional knowledge. This will be developed through case studies that will gather information and share results among the participating countries. Chief among the project’s goals is to increase the understanding and the negotiation skills of countries regarding ABS agreements and contracts in a way that will contribute to alignment of bio-prospecting projects and national ABS decisions with the CBD. A workshop on contract negotiation, being held in March 2013 in Havana, Cuba, will specifically address these issues.

This is a formidable goal, fraught with “loads of complexities,” says Arturo Mora, Program Officer at IUCN-Sur. For one, Mora says, though national legal frameworks and cultures stop at the border, animals, plants and micro-organisms do not: Genetic resources, and the traditional knowledge associated with them, are not necessarily endemic to a specific country — the shared ecosystems of Colombia, Ecuador and Peru offer one example. In such cases, a bilateral ABS approach can lead to competition between countries sharing the same genetic resources/traditional knowledge associated with those resources, weakening their position in contract negotiations and degrading ABS requirements. It can also lead to confusion over how to share benefits.

A second challenge: Since the entry into force of the CBD, only a limited number of countries have adopted comprehensive ABS regimes at the national level. This contributes to inertia with respect to ABS contracts, as legal frameworks vary from country to country: In some places, Mora says, you sign a contract with the owner of the property on which a particular species is found; in others, you sign with the country itself. Thus, only a portion of existing ABS negotiating instruments are actually contracts between users from one country and a provider from another country — the source country.

A third challenge: There is often no clear line between the users of genetic resources and the providers of those resources. Countries are often both at the same time. What will be desired by the country providing access to genetic resources, and what will be acceptable to the party (be it a government institution or private enterprise) seeking access, varies in each case.

As the Nagoya Protocol awaits ratification — at least 35 more countries must approve the treaty for it to take force — what happens in Cuba this month could go a long way in creating suitable models for ABS contracts, not just for the Latin American and Caribbean region, but for the world.