North undermining implementation of biodiversity convention

While the results of the third meeting of the Biodiversity Convention were fairly satisfactory, a disturbing feature was the continued refusal of the Northern countries to honour their commitments to provide new and additional funds to the Southern countries to enable them to implement its provisions to conserve biodiversity.

by Gurdial Singh Nijar

DEVELOPING countries attending the third meeting of the Conference of Parties of the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD)at Buenos Aires in Argentina which ended on 15 November denounced developed countries for undermining the Convention by refusing to provide funds for its implementation. The Convention, which came into being in 1992 after several years of tough negotiations, states explicitly that developed countries shall provide new and additional funds to enable developing countries to implement its provisions to conserve and sustainably use biodiversity. It is in the South that 11 of the globe's 12 megadiversity spots are located.

'Developed countries are not complying with their commitments under the Convention, as established in Article 20(2) and thus they are hindering the implementation of the Convention. At the same time they are not permitting developing countries to comply with their commitments,' complained Mr Rene Castro on behalf of G77 and China at the closing plenary meeting.

The European Union (EU) acknowledged in their closing statement that adequate funding was necessary to fully implement national strategies, which they saw as crucial to the attainment of the objectives of the Convention. 'Why then are they not coming out with funding, if they are genuine in their concern?' retorted a Southern Government delegate.

Rene Castro highlighted the futility of continuing with this process if there was no commitment of new funds. 'All of the efforts that all delegations have been putting in this present Conference of Parties (COP) and the former ones, as well as efforts made at the national level by establishing objectives and goals, by preparing strategies and guidelines, by designing projects and presenting them to be financed, become a futile and theoretical exercise if our developed country partners in the Convention do not provide the new and additional resources, especially at this moment when official development assistance (ODA) resources are dwindling.'

Data from the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) suggests that ODA, by far the most important source of funds for projects supporting biodiversity, has fallen from its 1992 peak of US$1.22 billion to US$269 million in 1993 and to US$208 million in 1994. Bilateral donor funding has also been significantly reduced over the same time period. This major fall-off has not been offset by funding from the Global Environmental Facility (GEF), which is the Convention's interim funding mechanism. Assistance from the GEF has fallen from US$332 million in its 1991-93 pilot phase to US$65 million in the fiscal year ending June 1995. In the year ending June 1996 it dropped further to a meagre US$23 million. As a percentage of the GEF portfolio, biodiversity projects represented 40% in the pilot phase, 45% in fiscal year 1995 and 7% in 1996.

COP3 has also decided not to name the GEF as the permanent funding mechanism for the CBD for the third year running. The GEF, which was created in 1991 as a World Bank organ, was restructured in 1994 to become a permanent financial mechanism and characterised as an international organisation. This restructuring was done amidst serious criticisms of the World Bank by developing countries. But the World Bank remains one of the three agencies charged with the implementation of its activities. The GEF, supported by the North, has always resisted any language which would put it under the authority of the COP of the CBD. The South has demanded that nothing less is required of the GEF by the explicit provisions of the CBD.

Article 21 of the Convention states that the mechanism shall function under the authority and guidance of, and be accountable to, the COP. In this way the COP can direct the funding to be channelled according to its own policies, strategies, programme priorities and eligibility criteria. Because of this standoff, the COP refuses to name the GEF as its permanent funding mechanism. As an Asian delegate said, 'It is premature to give GEF that status until we assess its effectiveness to serve the CBD on the basis of lessons learned and concrete experience.'

A Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) between the GEF and the CBD was approved by the COP. The GEF will operate under the guidance of the CBD under the terms of this MOU. The GEF will also have to provide detailed information on its biodiversity funding programme. The determination of the COP to keep the GEF on a tight leash was also made clear by the establishment of a mechanism for COP4 to review the effectiveness of the GEF.

Implementation of Article 8(j)

Northern Governments, with the distinct exception of the Nordic countries, paid little more than lip service to the role of indigenous and local communities in nurturing the diversity of the world. Although the Convention has acknowledged in Article 8(j) this central role of indigenous and local communities no mechanisms have been established to implement this Article. Other provisions of the Convention such as: incentive measures, the role of the clearing house, and the development of traditional and indigenous technology - are not being focused on advancing indigenous knowledge, innovation and practices. The role of indigenous communities is being marginalised to some human rights concern. Typical of the lack of appreciation of the central role of these communities to the attainment of the Convention's objectives, was the one-line comment by Brendan Howlin on behalf of the EU in his final address to the plenary. 'We will do our part to ensure that the hopes and expectations of indigenous people are met.'

But the indigenous peoples and farmers' organisations, present in large numbers throughout the meeting for the first time in the history of the CBD process, refused to accept this. One after another, they demanded that their central role in preserving and nurturing biodiversity as explicitly acknowledged by the Convention be operationalised.

They proposed the establishment of an ad hoc working group or a subsidiary body to draw up a working plan for the implementation of Article 8(j). The UK and the US opposed this vehemently. The ensuing intense negotiations, conducted with negligible participation of indigenous peoples, produced a weak and grudging result. There will be a five-day workshop intersessionally'to advance further work on the implementation of Article 8(j) and related provisions with a view to producing a report for consideration at the fourth meeting of the COP'.

Indignant with the result, Senator Lorenzo Muelas, indigenous Senator from Colombia, announced at the final plenary session that indigenous peoples and local communities will no longer allow any bioprospecting of their resources and the usurpation of their knowledge until their rights were properly defined and respected. 'We have come here to defend our right to life, for in this forum the very essence of our being is subject to negotiation. We want to talk to you face to face and not in the limited and exclusionary way as is happening here. We cannot share and agree with the decisions you have taken, for example, Article 8(j) as adopted is not of our satisfaction. We strongly ask (you) to respond to our demands, so that we can keep what we have always had and that you seek and destroy at the same time.'

Intellectual Property Rights

For the first time, Parties have been exhorted to consider the development of 'alternative forms of protection that could promote the objectives of the Convention'. For the first time as well, the decision acknowledges that traditional knowledge should be given the same respect as any other form of knowledge in the implementation of the Convention. This opens the way for national governments to enact legislation which will protect indigenous knowledge and innovations from the predatory threats by transnational corporations (TNCs) to usurp and monopolise their knowledge through intellectual property rights (IPRs) and ultimately destroy the very basis of the culture and community within which such innovations and diversity have for millennia, taken place.

The decision on IPRs' did not reflect the concerns of several countries (such as South Africa, Ghana, the Philippines, Colombia, Norway and Malaysia, to name a few) and the non-governmental organisations (NGOs) that Trade-Related Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPs) and the CBD were in conflict; and further that IPRs were not a mechanism for implementing the provisions of the Convention and that there should be no patents over life forms. In particular, the decision:

a) assigned IPRs a central role for achieving the objectives of the CBD;

b) suggests accommodation of the CBD with TRIPs;

c) does not recognise that TRIPs' focus is on the promotion of trade, whilst that of the CBD is biodiversity conservation and sustainable use;

d) fails, consequently, to assert that in matters relating to biodiversity the CBD should have primacy.

The struggle of the South to have these concerns acknowledged and incorporated in the decision will no doubt be resurrected at COP4.


There was no substantive debate on biotechnology. Initially many developing countries had been expected to seek guidance from the COP on issues which were not being dealt with by the Ad Hoc Working Group on Biosafety, set up to develop a Biosafety Protocol by COP2. Two key issues were singled out, namely, liability and compensation and social and economic aspects. Northern Governments were denying the inclusion of these key issues in a Protocol. G77 and China decided however not to raise this for discussion at the COP. They feared that any such discussion might reopen the debate on the mandate of the Working Group and possibly delay the implementation of the Protocol.

The final decision was a call for the Working Group to meet a sufficient number of times to ensure that its work was completed by 1998. Primarily at the insistence of the GRULAC Group (representing countries from South America), the bureau of the Working Group was reconstituted. There were now to be two representatives from each region according to the existing UN formula. The interim funding mechanism of the Convention, the GEF, was directed to provide funds to developing country Parties for capacity-building in biosafety.

Earlier, at the plenary discussion, the Third World Network (TWN) had voiced concern that despite the international community's acknowledgement for biosafety regulations and the lack of capacity of many developing countries to assess risk posed by genetically modified organisms and products incorporating them, multinational corporations (MNCs) had continued to market genetically engineered products. The most recent example was Monsanto foisting its transgenic soybean on consumers without any labelling. This was particularly alarming as Monsanto's testing of the transgenic soybean for effects on human health had been shown to be seriously flawed.

TWN asked the COP to institute interim measures to prevent the release of and trade in genetically modified organisms and products.

In the corridors, many delegates noted that the biotechnology industry was acting in bad faith by expediting the release of genetically modified food products while negotiations for a protocol were proceeding. Industry's attitude was, however, hardly surprising as the industry had mounted a massive campaign in Jakarta to dissuade parties from acknowledging the need for a Biosafety Protocol. Delegates from the South also questioned the value of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) Technical Guidelines. 'They were supposed to have been used as an interim mechanism while the protocol was being developed. Why are they not used to prevent the trade of suspect products?'

The Sri Lankan Minister of Environment expressed a widely felt concern. At the closing ministerial segment he noted that there was an increasing movement of genetically modified organisms (GMOs), which are being introduced, unrecorded or unregistered within the region. 'In Sri Lanka,' he said, 'cases of unregistered GMOs entering the country and being released into the field, have come to our attention. We therefore feel that it is imperative that the COP address the consequences of such activity.'


The most intense negotiations were in relation to agricultural biodiversity. Australia was adamant in opposing any language which condemned the negative impact of pesticides. They also vehemently opposed consensus on key language supporting the Global Plan of Action for Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture negotiated at the Leipzig Conference earlier this year. They also opposed any favourable reference to a revision of the International Undertaking and Realisation of Farmers' Rights. More worrying was a draft introduced by a small drafting group calling for a wide-ranging CBD programme of work on agrobiodiversity which would have duplicated the work of other intergovernmental bodies.

'This is ridiculous,' said one irate South delegate. 'Right after Leipzig and as preparations are being made for the revision of the Undertaking, a major part of the draft agrobiodiversity text ignores years of work in other fora, and may create a new CBD bureaucracy.'

The final results were fairly satisfactory. An ecosystem approach to agrobiodiversity was stated. The negative impact of pesticides and agrochemicals on terrestrial systems and biodiversity deterioration was acknowledged. The possible risks posed by the release of genetically engineered organisms resulting from biotechnology for maintaining conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity were also noted.

The recognition of the role of farming communities for the development, maintenance and use of their knowledge and practices in the conservation and sustainable use of agrobiodiversity was marked for promotion. This would no doubt provide an impetus for a better articulation of farmers' rights in the revision of the Undertaking.

The prospect of the International Undertaking becoming a protocol under the CBD after its revision in harmony with the Convention was affirmed. The need to prevent duplication of the CBD's work on agrobiodiversity and that carried out in other fora was acknowledged.

G77 and China described this initiative to regularise the use of agrobiodiversity to be in harmony with the CBD as an 'important and successful advance in biodiversity at the international level'.


Progress to implement measures for the conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity seems to be painfully slow. The consensus basis for arriving at decisions results in the weakest possible approach. Despite this, many South Governments expressed some satisfaction at the outcome. 'At least we have opened several windows of opportunity in areas such as the implementation of Article 8(j), recognition of collective intellectual rights of local communities, and, key issues relating to agro-biodiversity,' noted a tired delegate at the end of the two-week meeting.

Gurdial Singh Nijar is a Malaysian lawyer representing the Third World Network at the Biodiversity Convention.