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Who Owns Biological Diversity? A Brief Description of the Debate over the Rights to Biological Diversity in the North-South Context

Tappeser, Beatrix and Baier, Alexandra (2000) Who Owns Biological Diversity? A Brief Description of the Debate over the Rights to Biological Diversity in the North-South Context. Documents, Papers and Reports of the Heinrich Böll Foundation, no. 3. Heinrich Böll Stiftung, Berlin.

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Document available online at: http://www.oeko.de/bereiche/gentech/documents/bio_diversity.pdf


For a long time, the genetic resources and biological diversity of all types of living organisms on the Earth were considered the common heritage of all of humanity. However, there have always been great imbalances in the distribution of this natural wealth. The economically most interesting original regions in terms of agriculturally useful plants are primarily in the countries of the south. The countries of the north, relatively poor in species variety, exhibited great interest in the acquisition of plant genetic resources as early as the 18th and 19th centuries – for strategic and other reasons. However, until the 20th century, the primary topic of interest was in developing new species rather than varieties within a given species. By using them throughout the millennia, coupled with targeted selection and adaptation to existent conditions, farmers worldwide have developed a great deal of variety within species. In India, for example, there were more than 30,000 varieties of rice in the mid-20th century. This multitude, developed throughout many years, is of crucial importance for the ability to adapt to future environmental conditions, continued development of varieties, and breeding to resist against disease and pests. Modern, high-technology breeding builds on that gene pool as well. Simultaneously, however, modern breeding and the accompanying varieties protection laws in the Western industrialized countries have led to a decrease in this multitude of agricultural varieties; in some cases drastic. As early as the 1970s, the U.S. Academy of Sciences stated that “the process represents a paradox of social and economic development, in that the product of technology (breeding of high-yield and uniform varieties) destroys the resources upon which technology builds” (1978, cited by Flitner 1995). Primarily for the colonial powers, botanical gardens played a key role, and served as collection points to transport useful plants between the continents and to build up or break down monopolies on products of plant origin. Until the 1980s in Germany and other countries, large-scale collective imports led to those countries maintenance of large stocks of potato, carrot and barley varieties; some at private breeding companies and some at state-established gene banks. Now more than ever, these collections are of incalculable value. They represent the current storage of raw materials of the genetic technology industry and of private plant breeders. An added advantage is that profit sharing with the indigenous farmers who have cultivated these varieties and species is normally not necessary, since the varieties were taken to the industrialized countries long before the effective date of the Convention on Biological Diversity.
In 1992 at the environmental summit in Rio de Janeiro, the Convention on Biological Diversity was finally approved to work against the erosion of genetic diversity within species which accompanies the intensification of breeding and the global success of high-yield varieties, as well as the general loss of species occasioned by industrialization and environmental pollution, all of which have taken on dangerous proportions since the 1950s. This was the first internationally binding agreement obligating all member countries to undertake measures to protect biological diversity. By mid-1999, the Convention had been signed by 175 countries. As such, the Convention has more member countries than the World Trade Organization (134). Partially due to intensive lobbying by the American biotechnology industry, the USA have thus far not become a signatory to the Convention. As early as 1983, an international agreement was reached under the leadership of FAO (Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations), which specifically addresses the conservation of plant genetic resources. However, the “International Undertaking for Plant Genetic Resources” is thus far not yet legally binding. It was decided in 1993 to revise the document. The technology conference, which took place in Leipzig in 1996 and was organized within the scope of the “Undertaking,” represented an important step toward integrating these two international agreements. The revisions are due to be completed by the end of 2000, and will lead to a legally binding agreement which will possibly become a part of the Convention on Biological Diversity.
The adoption of the Biosafety Protocol in January 2000, which regulates the international trade in genetically modified organisms, for the first time clarified the relationship between an agreement under the Convention on Biological Diversity and the WTO and GATT agreements. It was agreed that the two agreements would stand alongside one another and be given equal weight. The agreements discussed briefly herein represent the primary international instruments and forums which address and debate the status of biological diversity and appropriate ways to deal with it. The interests of the industrialized and developing countries clash sharply in this respect, and non-governmental organizations worldwide are fighting for effective preservation endeavors, and for a sustainable use of biological diversity which deserves description with that adjective. In the following, these various agreements will be introduced briefly and their most important statements will be summarized. This will make clear which contra-dictions and discordant aspects exist between the various agreements as well as the focus of the current political debate. We conclude with a short introduction of selected actors among the non-govern-mental organizations, some of which have had great success in their yearlong work for the preservation of biological diversity, against patents on life, and for self-determined and sustainable use of these valuable resources.

EPrint Type:Book
Subjects: Environmental aspects > Biodiversity and ecosystem services
Research affiliation: Germany > Oeko-Institut
Related Links:http://www.biodiv.org
Deposited By: Tappeser, Dr. Beatrix
ID Code:971
Deposited On:14 Aug 2003
Last Modified:12 Apr 2010 07:27
Document Language:English
Refereed:Not peer-reviewed

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