The Convention on Biological Diversity

Sustaining Life on Earth

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How the Convention on Biological Diversity promotes nature and human well-being


4 - International Action

The Convention's success depends on the combined efforts of the world's nations. The responsibility to implement the Convention lies with the individual countries and, to a large extent, compliance will depend on informed self-interest and peer pressure from other countries and from public opinion. The Convention has created a global forum-actually a series of meetings-where governments, non-governmental organizations, academics, the private sector and other interested groups or individuals share ideas and compare strategies.

The Convention's ultimate authority is the Conference of the Parties (COP), consisting of all governments (and regional economic integration organizations) that have ratified the treaty. This governing body reviews progress under the Convention, identifies new priorities, and sets work plans for members. The COP can also make amendments to the Convention, create expert advisory bodies, review progress reports by member nations, and collaborate with other international organizations and agreements.

The Conference of the Parties can rely on expertise and support from several other bodies that are established by the Convention:

  • The Subsidiary Body on Scientific, Technical and Technological Advice (SBSTTA). The SBSTTA is a committee composed of experts from member governments competent in relevant fields. It plays a key role in making recommendations to the COP on scientific and technical issues.
  • The Clearing House Mechanism. This Internet-based network promotes technical and scientific cooperation and the exchange of information.
  • The Secretariat. Based in Montreal, it is linked to United Nations Environment Programme. Its main functions are to organize meetings, draft documents, assist member governments in the implementation of the programme of work, coordinate with other international organizations, and collect and disseminate information. In addition, the COP establishes ad hoc committees or mechanisms as it sees fit. For example, it created a Working Group on Biosafety that met from 1996 to 1999 and a Working Group on the knowledge of indigenous and local communities.

Thematic programmes and "cross-cutting" issues

The Convention's members regularly share ideas on best practices and policies for the conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity with an ecosystem approach. They look at how to deal with biodiversity concerns during development planning, how to promote transboundary cooperation, and how to involve indigenous peoples and local communities in ecosystem management. The Conference of the Parties has launched a number of thematic programmes covering the biodiversity of inland waters, forests, marine and coastal areas, drylands, and agricultural lands. Cross-cutting issues are also addressed on matters such as the control of alien invasive species, strengthening the capacity of member countries in taxonomy, and the development of indicators of biodiversity loss.

Financial and technical support

When the Convention was adopted, developing countries emphasized that their ability to take national actions to achieve global biodiversity benefits would depend on financial and technical assistance. Thus, bilateral and multilateral support for capacity building and for investing in projects and programmes is essential for enabling developing countries to meet the Convention's objectives.

Convention-related activities by developing countries are eligible for support from the financial mechanism of the Convention: the Global Environment Facility (GEF). GEF projects, supported by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and the World Bank, help forge international cooperation and finance actions to address four critical threats to the global environment: biodiversity loss, climate change, depletion of the ozone layer and degradation of international waters. By the end of 1999, the GEF had contributed nearly $ 1 billion for biodiversity projects in more than 120 countries.

The Biosafety Protocol

Since the domestication of the first crops and farm animals, we have altered their genetic makeup through selective breeding and cross-fertilization. The results have been greater agricultural productivity and improved human nutrition.

In recent years, advances in biotechnology techniques have enabled us to cross the species barrier by transferring genes from one species to another. We now have transgenic plants, such as tomatoes and strawberries that have been modified using a gene from a cold water fish to protect the plants from frost. Some varieties of potato and corn have received genes from a bacterium that enables them to produce their own insecticide, thus reducing the need to spray chemical insecticides. Other plants have been modified to tolerate herbicides sprayed to kill weeds. Living Modified Organisms (LMOs) -- often known as genetically modified organisms (GMOs) -- are becoming part of an increasing number of products, including foods and food additives, beverages, drugs, adhesives, and fuels. Agricultural and pharmaceutical LMOs have rapidly become a multi-billion-dollar global industry.

Biotechnology is being promoted as a better way to grow crops and produce medicines, but it has raised concerns about potential side effects on human health and the environment, including risks to biological diversity. In some countries, genetically altered agricultural products have been sold without much debate, while in others, there have been vocal protests against their use, particularly when they are sold without being identified as genetically modified.

In response to these concerns, governments negotiated a subsidiary agreement to the Convention to address the potential risks posed by cross-border trade and accidental releases of LMOs. Adopted in January 2000, the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety allows governments to signal whether or not they are willing to accept imports of agricultural commodities that include LMOs by communicating their decision to the world community via a Biosafety Clearing House, a mechanism set up to facilitate the exchange of information on and experience with LMOs. In addition, commodities that may contain LMOs are to be clearly labeled as such when being exported.

Stricter Advanced Informed Agreement procedures will apply to seeds, live fish, and other LMOs that are to be intentionally introduced into the environment. In these cases, the exporter must provide detailed information to each importing country in advance of the first shipment, and the importer must then authorize the shipment. The aim is to ensure that recipient countries have both the opportunity and the capacity to assess risks involving the products of modern biotechnology. The Protocol will enter into force after it has been ratified by 50 governments.

Sharing the benefits of genetic resources

An important part of the biodiversity debate involves access to and sharing of the benefits arising out of the commercial and other utilization of genetic material, such as pharmaceutical products. Most of the world's biodiversity is found in developing countries, which consider it a resource for fueling their economic and social development. Historically, plant genetic resources were collected for commercial use outside their region of origin or as inputs in plant breeding. Foreign bioprospectors have searched for natural substances to develop new commercial products, such drugs. Often, the products would be sold and protected by patents or other intellectual property rights, without fair benefits to the source countries.

The treaty recognizes national sovereignty over all genetic resources, and provides that access to valuable biological resources be carried out on "mutually agreed terms" and subject to the "prior informed consent" of the country of origin. When a microorganism, plant, or animal is used for a commercial application, the country from which it came has the right to benefit. Such benefits can include cash, samples of what is collected, the participation or training of national researchers, the transfer of biotechnology equipment and know-how, and shares of any profits from the use of the resources.

Work has begun to translate this concept into reality and there are already examples of benefit-sharing arrangements. At least a dozen countries have established controls over access to their genetic resources, and an equal number of nations are developing such controls. Amongst the examples:

  • In 1995, the Philippines required bioprospectors to get "prior informed consent" from both the government and local peoples.
  • Costa Rica's National Institute of Biodiversity (INBIO) signed a historic bioprospecting agreement with a major drug company to receive funds and share in benefits from biological materials that are commercialized.
  • Countries of the Andean Pact (Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia and Venezuela) have adopted laws and measures to regulate access to their genetic resources. The bio-prospector is required to meet certain conditions, such as the submission of duplicate samples of genetic resources collected to a designated institution; including a national institution in the collection of genetic resources; sharing existing information; sharing research results with the competent national authority; assisting in the strengthening of institutional capacities; and sharing specific financial or related benefits.

Through the Convention, countries meet to develop common policies on these matters.

Traditional knowledge

The Convention also recognizes the close and traditional dependence of indigenous and local communities on biological resources and the need to ensure that these communities share in the benefits arising from the use of their traditional knowledge and practices relating to the conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity. Member governments have undertaken "to respect, preserve and maintain" such knowledge and practices, to promote their wider application with the approval and involvement of the communities concerned, and to encourage the equitable sharing of the benefits derived from their utilization.