New Legislation Helps Communities Benefit from Botanical Treasures

Elise Rebut is currently attending the 12th Conference of the Parties of the Convention on Biological Diversity in South Korea. Read previous blogs from the meeting.

woman holds medicinal root in Malaysian forest

A woman in Malaysia holds up a medicinal root collected in a nearby forest. (© Benjamin Drummond)

Aspirin was developed from the white willow tree. Morphine was derived from poppy seeds. In fact, many medicines — not to mention cosmetic and cleaning products many of us use every day — have been derived directly from the botanical world.

Tropical forests are home to a disproportionate number of these resources; 70% of the plants identified by the U.S. National Cancer Institute as useful in the treatment of cancer are found only in rainforests. Yet historically, local communities who own or manage these resources have rarely benefited from their use by the outside world — until now.

This past Sunday, a crucial treaty was enacted to revolutionize this situation: the Nagoya Protocol. The protocol was first agreed to in 2010 at a meeting of the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), the global agreement through which the world’s nations commit to conserve biodiversity, to sustainably use its components and, last but not least, to share benefits arising from the utilization of genetic resources.

The latter principle refers to the genetic makeup of plants and animals that may be used in manmade products. Genetic resources are used extensively by academics and the bioindustry for everything from medicine to anti-aging cream.

Under the rules of the CBD, when companies and organizations seek access to genetic resources, they are supposed to first ask for the consent of the country where the resource comes from. Second, the two parties must negotiate a benefit-sharing agreement, which may include actions like payment of royalties, sharing of technologies, improvement of infrastructure, direct actions to conserve biodiversity, etc.

The same principle applies to traditional knowledge associated with genetic resources (such as traditional medicine) and genetic resources held by indigenous and local communities whose rights over said resources have been recognized.

Although these practices, known as “access and benefit-sharing” (ABS), have been a part of CBD discussions for more than 20 years, until recently the concept mainly remained on paper. Only about 30 countries included it in their national legislation. The Nagoya Protocol was adopted in order to provide a clear and legal framework to actually implement ABS. That agreement went into effect last Sunday; dozens of countries are currently drafting their ABS legislation.

In order for the Nagoya Protocol to be effective, the global community should build on successful projects that are already taking place across the planet. For example, CI’s Indigenous Advisory Group created a set of case studies that examine how to successfully include communities in conservation and development decisions. These formed the foundation for creating CI’s Free Prior and Informed Consent guidelines.

CI has also experimented with on-the-ground benefit-sharing mechanisms. Our Conservation Stewards Program links conservation funders (governments, bilateral agencies, private companies, foundations, individuals, etc.) with resource owners. The funders offer direct incentives for conservation through a negotiated benefit package in return for conservation actions by communities. Community members might pledge to monitor a specific area for illegal logging and hunting activities in exchange for the provision of farming equipment or medical supplies.

Such conservation agreements can also be linked with supply chains. This is the case in the Caura basin in Venezuela, where CI is working with a perfume company to meet the demand for natural ingredients while supporting local livelihoods.

In addition, CI is working with the cosmetic and perfume industries, in partnership with the Responsible Ecosystems Sourcing Platform, to help companies better understand which resources and utilizations fall under ABS policies.

The entry into force of the Nagoya Protocol builds the basis for a new way of considering the value of global biodiversity, which underpins our livelihoods. It’s also an overdue measure that should go a long way toward protecting the rights of indigenous and local communities, acknowledging the importance of their traditional knowledge and the contributions they make toward managing and protecting resources on which we all depend.

Elise Rebut is CI Europe’s senior manager of European public partnerships. Learn more about how CI is working to protect human rights in conservation efforts. 

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