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by Hartmut Meyer


Coral reef: The rich nations want to exclude the seas beyond national territorial waters from the ABS Protocol

Coral reef: The rich nations want to exclude the seas beyond national territorial waters from the ABS Protocol

The negotiations on access and benefit-sharing (ABS) in the context of the UN Convention on Biological Diversity have ground to a halt. An ABS protocol was supposed to be adopted this year – but whether the Conference of the Parties will ­actually achieve that when it meets at the end of October in Nagoya remains to be seen. [ By Hartmut Meyer ]

In Montreal, the seat of the CBD Secretariat, environmental diplomats come and go. In July, there was an interim meeting convened at short notice to get the planned protocol ready for ministerial approval. The idea was to finalise the document up to the stage where ministers would only have to find agreements on a few last points. The meeting’s results were so meagre, however, that the diplomats will have to meet again in Montreal in September.

The CBD was approved in 1993. Its three pillars are not controversial:
– biological diversity must be protected,
– it must be made sustainable use of, and
– the benefits from that use must be fairly shared.
The ABS Protocol will be based on the same principles. Revenues generated with the economic use of genetic resources could then be channelled into nature conservation and poor countries’ development.

The basic idea is simple, but the international community has made precious little progress in terms of practical implementation. Long-standing bones of contention will be back on the agenda in Montreal in September:
– The majority of developing countries are of the view that ABS rules should apply retroactively from 1993 because that would be in line with the spirit of the convention that was adopted at that time. The rich nations, however, want the protocol to enter into force 90 days after ratification by the 50th signatory state. That is standard practice – but would delay implementation for years.
– The developing countries tend towards the position that the rules on ABS should apply across the board. The advanced countries, on the other hand, refuse to accept any restrictions on access to patho­genic organisms. There was a dispute in the past because of a patent granted in the USA for a vaccine against a virus from Indonesia, without the Southeast Asian country getting a share of the economic benefits.
– There is disagreement over the CBD’s status in respect to other international treaties. The developing countries argue that the ABS Protocol should take precedence over all other treaties as a matter of principle – whereas the rich world wants to grant scope for specific agreements (for instance on patho-­genic organisms) outside the CBD framework.
– The proposal of exempting the species covered by the FAO Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources from the ABS Protocol will probably be accepted. But what about livestock? There are no FAO rules on animal species.
– The geographical scope of the protocol is disputed too. The rich nations want to exclude Antarctica and the seas beyond national territorial waters.

Compromises are conceivable. For example, the ABS Protocol could take force in two stages. Regulations regarding access to genetic resources would thus not apply retroactively, whereas benefit-­sharing rules would cover all current uses from past accesses.

A major obstacle to an ABS agreement is certainly that it is very hard to assess what benefit sharing will mean in financial terms. There are hardly any reliable estimates because the economic use of genetic resources has not been systema­ti­cally documented so far – neither at the nation-state nor the global levels. The scant data that is available is inconclusive vague and barely trustworthy.

The ABS talks seem deadlocked. Moving forward will take courage and willingness to compromise. Every­­one agrees that the CBD has laid important foundations for international policymaking. The rich nations, that are in a stronger position anyway, should accept the implementation of the principles they agreed to in 1993. Once they stop dragging their feet on some of the points, developing countries will probably prove willing to make even more concessions than they have made already.