Sharing Nature’s Bounty

A Kayapó woman in Brazil. Traditional knowledge from indigenous peoples can aid the development of nature-derived medicines and other products used around the world. (© Cristina Mittermeier)

If you have ever used skin care products, taken a weight loss pill containing herbal remedies or known someone treated for cancer, this post is for you.

What do all of these disparate things have in common? The ingredients for these products and many more often come directly from nature, either discovered by scientists or based on the traditional knowledge of indigenous peoples. One example of this is the weight loss drug Hoodia, which was derived from a plant found in Southern Africa that has been used by the San people for millennia to suppress appetite during hunting trips.

Some of the natural ingredients mentioned above were discovered under cooperative international agreements known as access and benefit sharing, or ABS. This process regulates the use of genetic resources that are owned by a country or community, and is set up to ensure that any benefits arising from the use of these resources by outside entities will be shared equitably with the provider. (For a clear overview of ABS, watch this short video.)

In order to learn more about ABS and its linkages to our conservation work, CI recently hosted a workshop at our headquarters near Washington, D.C. The workshop was facilitated by experts on ABS issues, including partners at the ABS Capacity Development Initiative.

The participants discussed many aspects of ABS, but several were highlighted as especially important to our work. Genetic materials are of course sourced from nature, which would be much diminished without conservation efforts; however, equally important is ensuring that the people who own these materials are recognized and compensated, especially as many of them are living in poverty in developing countries.

Conservation organizations have been striving to protect biodiversity for more than a century; many indigenous and local communities have been successfully doing so for millennia. When a potentially useful compound is found on their lands, ABS can help to ensure that these communities receive some of the benefits that may arise from that discovery.

At last year’s Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) in Japan, a new international treaty known as the Nagoya Protocol was developed to provide legal certainty and transparency to providers and users of genetic resources entering into ABS agreements. This treaty is expected to enter into force in 2012.

Learning how to incorporate ABS into our work is just one of the many ways CI can improve human well-being and strengthen conservation efforts in the areas in which we work. And by protecting natural ecosystems around the world, who knows what future medicines and products we could be saving?

Adrienne McKeehan is the program manager of Social Policy and Practice in CI’s Center for Conservation and Government.

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