Communities call for access to genetic diversity to combat poverty and climate change

Governments must agree international rules that would give indigenous communities access to genetic resources to help them fight poverty, preserve biodiversity and adapt to climate change, says a report released today by the International Institute for Environment and Development.

News, 21 January 2008

The call comes as governments gather to negotiate rules to implement the UN Convention of Biological Diversity (CBD) in Geneva on 21-25 January.

Nearly 15 years after the convention came into force there is still no international regime for pursuing one of its three main aims: to ensure fair and equitable sharing of benefits arising from access to genetic resources.

"Industrialised nations are still opposing an international regime on access and benefit sharing (ABS) that is legally binding and recognises of the rights of indigenous and local communities," says Krystyna Swiderska, senior researcher at the International Institute for Environment and Development.

In many parts of the world, much of the genetic diversity in crops, traditional medicines and other species has been lost. But for centuries, explorers, botanists and others have been collecting genetic resources and related knowledge from communities that openly share their resources.

Many community resources are now held in gene banks, research institutes and botanical gardens. Scientists and private companies can access these resources but communities are usually denied access even to genetic resources collected from their lands.

Many industries explore genetic resources for their potential economic or social value. Undiscovered drugs in rainforest plants are alone estimated to be worth billions of dollars.

The report urges the 190 nations that are party to the CBD to ensure that communities can also access these resources to increase their livelihood options and resilience to environmental stresses such as climate change.

"The current ABS regime does not adequately recognise the customary rights of indigenous and local communities who are the original custodians of many of the world's genetic resources,"says Alejandro Argumedo of Asociación ANDES, an indigenous nongovernmental organisation in Peru.

"It continues the one-way flow of genetic resources away from communities by requiring governments to facilitate access to genetic resources - whether from gene banks, national parks or community lands - to other countries and third parties such as scientists or companies."

The report, based on an international workshop involving researchers and indigenous groups from Panama, India, Peru and China, calls for ways of ensuring that communities can access genetic resources which they have lost, but which are now held 'ex situ' and are available to foreign governments, companies and researchers.

An agreement between six Andean Quechua communities in Peru and the International Potato Centre (CIP) provides an example of such reciprocal access. The CIP, an internationally funded research centre, is gaining access to genetic resources in a centre of potato diversity.

In return, the communities are gaining access to varieties held by CIP that were collected from their territories in the 1950s and 60s but which they have since lost. This agreement, the first of its kind, sets an important precedent for others to follow for transfer of crop varieties, medicinal plants and other genetic resources

"When the CBD was agreed in 1992, developing nations agreed to conserve and sustainably use biodiversity in return for a fair and equitable share of the benefits from the use of genetic resources by industrialised countries, but the rich nations are not keeping their side of the bargain," says Ruchi Pant of Indian nongovernmental organisation Ecoserve.

"To date, neither local communities nor countries of origin have received much benefit from the use of their genetic resources," she adds. "An international regime would legally bind countries that use genetic resources to share these benefits derived from commercial and scientific use. It should promote benefit-sharing not only with countries of origin of genetic resources but also with the communities of origin to provide an incentive for conservation."

"Restoring traditional crops, medicinal plants and other forms of genetic diversity to communities is a critical form of benefit-sharing, as it can provide immediate improvements to agriculture, nutrition, food security, health and income," says Swiderska. "Community access to such diversity can help meet the global targets to tackle poverty in the Millennium Development Goals. Enhancing local genetic diversity is also critical to enable communities to adapt to rapid climate change, and to converse biodiversity in situ."

The report arose from a workshop of researchers and indigenous organisations from China, India, Panama and Peru organised by IIED and Fundación Dobbo Yala, an indigenous nongovernmental organisation working for Panama's Kuna people.

The international workshop reviewed three years of research at community and policy levels to generate recommendations for international policy on biodiversity conservation.