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globe logo     Caravan: Newsletter of the Alliance for a Responsible and United World
Number 3 May 1999

bulletFrom Readers
bulletThe Alliance in Motion
bulletAn Alliance? As Seen By
 · Question of resources, knowledge & rights
 · Biotechnology & Agriculture
 · Another view of diversity
 · Save the Seeds Movement
 · Biodiversity Workshop
 · Biodiversity, Community Rights & GMOs
 · Rishikesh final declaration
 · Sources of inspiration
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bulletIntercultural Dialogue
bulletCaravan Association
bulletNgecha Artists Ass'n
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A question of Resources, Knowledge and Rights

Coordinated by Carine Pionetti

Dealing with life forms and cultures

What can one say in a few pages about a subject that is so vast and rich as biodiversity? Numerous books have been dedicated to this subject, and yet we have not been able to unravel its secrets. And for a very valid reason! On the one hand, the human species which itself is a part of this biodiversity has but a limited knowledge of all the species that share the Earth, of the functioning of ecosystems or even the extent of genetic diversity of wild and domesticated plants and animals. On the other hand, management of diversity is constantly evolving. Each minute, new forest areas are being stripped of their resources, and every day a community of Asia or Africa decides to get organised to preserve local varieties of millet or manioc before they become extinct. Here a new application for a patent on a gene is filed whereas elsewhere a massive wave of Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) has an irreversible influence on agro-systems and the ecological balance. International negotiations, forum of experts, meetings of NGOs are being organised in every corner of the world to debate on intellectual property rights, the future of gene banks, moratorium on cod fishing or even an agreement on biosecurity.

And each time we mention biological diversity, we are also implying cultural diversity...

In this issue, instead of highlighting diversity in a strictly biological sense of the word, we have decided to focus on actors – men and women – who have a direct interaction with biodiversity or who participate in its management through their economic activities, political commitment or thought. These men and women who use biodiversity on a daily basis are mainly inhabitants of rural areas. The food they produce comes directly from the use of plant and animal species and varieties. Rural communities use an impressive range of knowledge and know-how concerning properties of medicinal plants as well as behaviour of local species of goats, seed conservation or management of mangrove forests. This knowledge is closely linked to the social, economic and spiritual fabric of the communities.

Today biodiversity is unquestionably threatened not only by intensive agriculture, rearing and fishing, but also by pollution through introduction of exotic species and by desertification. Expansion of forest, mining and food processing industries is undoubtedly responsible for the degradation of ecosystems. Attacks on tropical forests have multiplied since the beginning of this century and some countries of Asia and Africa (Ivory Coast, Ghana) have lost more than 70% of their forest cover in a span of twenty years. The halieutic resources have been affected by marine pollution caused by hydrocarbons, waste-water and industrial waste.

After having favoured means of ex-situ conservation for a long time in gene banks and national parks etc., one is now turning towards in-situ conservation which does not aim to preserve genes and species in an isolated manner, but favours the process that develops diversity. In the case of agriculture, preserving biodiversity also signifies giving importance to farming practices, promoting consumption of local varieties and reactivating local networks of seed distribution.

On the other hand, genetic resources have not escaped trade, which is flourishing in various domains giving rise to a new wave of bioprospection. Genetic resources that are exchanged in the form of varieties, bacteria, species, transformed into medicines, cosmetics and food products, sometimes modified in their genetic makeup are also raw materials for the biotechnological industry. This industry opens promising avenues in the endeavour against marine pollution, purification of waste water, manufacture of materials for the industry and medical research. This explains why a number of firms particularly multinationals are investing in this sector. The economic valorisation of living resources undeniably represents a means of conserving these resources only if they are managed with a concern for equity.

Intensification of commercial exchange gives rise to new forms of exploitation and new risks: privatisation of genetic resources, ecological risks linked to the diffusion of GMOs, hold of powerful firms on seeds, setting up of a legal system for intellectual property centred on the model of patents. Indeed, if industrialists are keenly interested in genetic resources, it is also because they have a powerful system of protection, which enables them to patent their "inventions" and thus obtain a right to exclusive marketing on their researched products.

The agreement on Trade Related Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) concluded by the World Trade Organisation (WTO) regulates intellectual property rights at the international level. Each of the member countries of the WTO has to work out a legislation that conforms to this agreement (whose terms have to be reviewed by 1999). As for the countries where rural communities play an important role in the management of biodiversity, the challenge is to set up a regime of legislations protecting not only industrialists but also the communities. The Convention on Biodiversity (CBD), another key element of the international legislation on biodiversity, recognises the sovereign right of States in managing their biological resources. It favours the recognition of innovations practised by rural and indigenous communities through a system of benefit sharing (resulting from commercialisation of genetically transformed resources). Some countries of the South, like the Philippines, India and Ethiopia are working out laws by integrating the notion of community rights and by aiming to put an end to the appropriation of their biological and intellectual resources through a system of patents.

Finally the question is not only about preserving biodiversity, but also preserving the fragile relationship that links human societies with their natural surroundings. It is also in the maintenance of the diversity of systems of thought, beliefs, knowledge, representations and people’s right to choose their way of life, to have free access to their resources and to preserve ancestral practices while continuing to adopt new techniques.


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