- Indigenous rights groups and others have long criticized the lack of benefit sharing between bio-prospectors and the local communities that inhabit the places where the organisms are found, calling such acts “biopiracy.”
- The African Union (AU) Strategic Guidelines for the Coordinated Implementation of the Nagoya Protocol in Africa was adopted by the AU Assembly at its 25th Ordinary Session, which was held in South Africa in 2015. The guidelines aim to provide a roadmap for implementation of the Protocol and Access and Benefit Sharing system at national and regional levels.
- But while the Nagoya Protocol and its AU implementation guidelines address many issues, some stakeholders remain worried about those not covered – such as off-site synthesis using information previously collected and the use of materials cultivated abroad.
Today, Malaysia is one of the world’s biggest producers of palm oil. Together with Indonesia, the Southeast Asian country contributes some 85 percent of the global supply. But this has not always been the case.
In the 1970s the industry was having a hard time taking hold in Malaysia, due in large part to pollination difficulties. Native to western Africa, the oil palm tree species from which most palm oil is produced (Ealais guineensis) had no natural pollinators in Southeast Asia, forcing plantation workers to laboriously pollinate by hand or simply hope that wind would be enough to transport pollen from one tree to another.
This all changed in July 1980 when the oil palm weevil (Elaeidobius kamerunicus) was introduced to Malaysia from Cameroon. The introduction was as a result of a 1977 study conducted in Cameroon that found the weevil was a primary pollinator of native stands of oil palm.
The weevils transformed Malaysian palm oil production, with a 1999 study finding oil palm fruit yields rose 20 percent in Peninsular Malaysia and 53 percent in Sabah following introduction. Since then, palm oil production and export has grown steadily, peaking at 1.6 million metric tons of crude palm oil exported in 2012, according to the Malaysian Palm Oil Board (MPOB). The Malaysian Department of Statistics reported palm oil production contributed 46.9 percent to the nation’s agriculture sector in 2016.
Concerns over biopiracy
While the weevil has boosted Malaysia’s palm oil industry and significantly contributed to the country’s GDP (as well as those of other palm oil-producing countries to which the weevil has since been introduced), the country it was taken from and where it was researched has received no compensation.
Cameroon is not alone in this; for instance, the rosy periwinkle (Catharanthus roseus), native to Madagascar, is cultivated and sold as an ornamental plant around the world and is also used by pharmaceutical companies as a treatment for several cancers. Yet, like Cameroon, Madagascar did not receive any economic benefits from the use of its native plant.
The detection and commercialization of biological resources is termed “bio-prospecting.” Indigenous rights groups and others have long criticized the lack of benefit sharing between bio-prospectors and the local communities that inhabit the places where the organisms are found, calling such acts “biopiracy.”
“There has been a lot of bio-prospecting in the tropics,” Harrison Kojwang, an environment and natural consultant based in Namibia. “The early botanists came and mined a wealth of knowledge from the traditional medical practitioners and the knowledge has been used over the years by western pharmaceuticals, and today … it’s coming back as unaffordable prices drugs. It’s important that from now henceforth developing countries assert their rights to [their] fair share [of] the benefits that accrued [from] the exploitation of their resources.”
In response to claims of biopiracy, the 1992 Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) included bioprospecting as one of its objectives, putting forth an international treaty that aims to ensure fair and equitable sharing of benefits arising from the use of biological resources. It also mandates that bio-prospectors obtain the informed consent of local communities before accessing such resources. The CBD was ratified by members from 193 nations and entered into force in December 1993.
This was further bolstered during the 10th Conference of the Parties (COP10) in October 2010 in Nagoya, Japan, which put forth the Nagoya Protocol to the CBD. The Protocol gives individual countries the rights to control research on genetic resources found within their borders. It also aims to promote transparent and effective implementation of the Access and Benefit Sharing concept of the CBD at regional, national and local levels.
Prudence Galega, a principal technical adviser to Cameroon’s Ministry of Environment, explained that while not legally binding, the CBD and Nagoya Protocol is helping guide fair bioprospecting principles.
“It’s not legally binding as there [is] no global standard on access nor global standards [for] benefit sharing, but it is dependent on what a state prioritizes on their national and regional policy guidelines on access and benefit sharing of genetic resources,” Galega said. “But, it’s a new dynamic in shaping fair trade where biodiversity trade benefits are shared equitably with all those who contribute to the production of the products.”
Africa’s lack of progress toward the Aichi Biodiversity Targets
The CBD’s 2011-2020 Strategic Plan for Biodiversity include 20 objectives collectively known as the Aichi Biodiversity Targets. Their overall goal is to ensure that biodiversity is valued, conserved, restored and sustainably used to maintain a healthy planet and deliver benefits essential for all people by 2050.
Aichi Targets 16 and 17 require parties to have ratified the Nagoya Protocol and adopted a National Biodiversity Strategy and Action Plan (NBSAP) as policy instruments by 2015. Thirty-six African countries have ratified the Nagoya Protocol, with eight also adopting domestic measures to implement the access and benefit-sharing obligations of the convention.
However, assessments indicate much of Africa is not where it should be if 2050 goals are to be met. According to the 2016 United Nations Environmental Program (UNEP) mid-term review, the continent lacks institutional, financial and technological resources and capacity to implement the NBSAPs.
The report also notes that biodiversity in Africa is declining. In 2014, the IUCN Red List recorded nearly 6,500 animal species and more than 3,000 plant species as threatened with extinction in Africa. It noted 21 percent of all freshwater aquatic species in Africa are threatened, and 45 percent of freshwater fish and 58 percent of freshwater plant species are currently over-harvested.
To build institutional capacity among African stakeholders, the African Forest Forum (AFF), through funding from the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (Sida), organized a regional training workshop for African forestry experts on forest-related international agreements at the end of June in Lusaka, Zambia. The training brought together a variety of stakeholders, including government officials, academics, researchers, and representatives from civil society and the private sector.
At the workshop, AFF executive secretary Godwin Kowero told Mongabay that the organization aims to enhance awareness of the provisions of the international agreements among the major actors in Africa.
“We are building their capacity to examine the national obligations arising from the agreements, exchange knowledge and recommend the appropriate ways for mainstreaming the provisions of the international agreements into national policies, plans and activities,” Kowero said.
Kowero further added that Africa lacks readily available data on its own biodiversity, which is presenting a barrier to accurate monitoring.
Aichi Target 18 requires signatory nations to integrate local communities and their traditional knowledge of biological resources by 2020. But Martin Nganje, president of the African section of the Society for Conservation Biology and an AFF consultant, warned that progress is lacking towards this goal, with access to traditional knowledge and benefit sharing not yet realized at the local and trans boundary levels in West and Central Africa. However, he added that projects administered through the UN-REDD deforestation-reduction program are included in the NBSAPs of many countries and helping stakeholders better understand benefit-sharing.
“Many African countries developed their NBSAPs many years ago but they are not being implemented and the communities [are not] benefiting from the intent of the Nagoya protocol,” Nganji said. “Mainly international UN agents are helping countries implement the NBSAPs … but concrete sensitization has not been done at all levels.”
According to Alfred Oteng-Yeboah of the Department of Plant & Environmental Biology at the University of Ghana, many communities have yet to see profit-sharing benefits.
“Africa mainly benefits from bio-trade, but not from commercialized genetic materials, or research tapped from knowledge obtained from a rural community,” Oteng-Yeboah said.
The Nagoya Protocol’s Access and Benefit Sharing could be a ‘win-win’ for Africa
The African Union (AU) Strategic Guidelines for the Coordinated Implementation of the Nagoya Protocol in Africa was adopted by the AU Assembly at its 25th Ordinary Session, which was held in South Africa in 2015. The guidelines aim to provide a roadmap for implementation of the Protocol and Access and Benefit Sharing system at national and regional levels.
But while the Nagoya Protocol and its AU implementation guidelines address many issues, some stakeholders remain worried about those not covered – such as off-site synthesis using information previously collected and the use of materials cultivated abroad.
“When you get into researching the genetic material of a plant now located in a botanical garden abroad when the source country material was located somewhere in Africa, then who has the sovereignty rights to the material, yet the law cannot be retrospective?” Galega asked. “Domestic legislation should be made to anticipate these new, unknown and emerging issues.” She added that there should also be a stepping-up of international effort, and said the CBD should play a larger role in paving a way forward.
In a statement provided to Mongabay, the Secretariat of the CBD asserted that the Access, Benefit-sharing, and Compliance measures of the Nagoya Protocol aim to ensure greater legal certainty for providers and users of genetic resources and associated traditional knowledge.
“At its core, the Nagoya Protocol is about establishing fair partnerships between users and providers,” the statement read “It is about balancing the need to promote innovation while enabling all countries (and indigenous peoples and local communities where relevant) to benefit from the utilization of their genetic resources and associated traditional knowledge.”
The Secretariat asserted that although the Nagoya Protocol encourages both providers and users of genetic resources to direct benefits to the conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity, the choice of benefits shared depends on each country’s national interests and priorities. In other words, determining how benefits are distributed is the responsibility of specific countries.
Oteng-Yeboah is concerned technological advances in synthetic biology and nanotechnology may allow researchers to access and use genetic information without going to the source.
“It requires information found in data systems,” Oteng-Yeboah said. “With material widely published in books and stored electronically, research students can access the information without knowing where it comes from, develop new components and sell to the industries. [Y]et the knowledge and information come from somewhere.
“Africa’s position is that no information has no source and we must put in place a mechanism that allows one to disclose the source of their information.”
In its statement, the CBD Secretariat said that while the Protocol cannot be expected to solve all past issues regarding misappropriation of genetic resources and associated traditional knowledge, it has established a clear framework for the implementation of Access and Benefit Sharing.
The statement goes on to say that there is still much to discover and learn from Africa’s biological diversity.
“With the rapid developments in the field of biotechnology, and with many countries conducting inventories of their genetic resources or establishing repositories of traditional knowledge, new genetic resources are continuously being identified as well as new leads to potentially useful genetic resources,” the statement reads.
Protocol compliance obligations currently in place require parties to take measures to monitor the use of genetic resources after they leave a country. They also require states to designate checkpoints nationally and internationally – but, so far, only Kenya and South Africa have established national control points.
Galega laments what she says is nonexistent monitoring of research and development taking place with discoveries made through bioprospecting. She said that while there are enormous profits being reaped by industries using material and information collected abroad, most African communities living in the areas where materials were initially collected – many of which act as stewards of the lands surrounding them and the biodiversity they contain – have yet to see significant benefit sharing.
“The communities are conserving the resource that someone is exploiting but [those who are exploiting it] are not investing back the benefits for the conservation,” Galega said. “Nagoya is about ensuring benefits for conservation [and] sustainability as well as [the] wellbeing of the present generation.”
She added work is being done to improve the situation.
“We are identifying checkpoints nationally and internationally that should help us track the movement of this kind of information from research, development, innovation, pre-commercialization or commercialization of the genetic resources that would try to exclude source countries,” Galega said.
While Nagoya Protocol experienced what many see as a bumpy rollout, there are still high hopes that it may affect positive change through fair bio-trade practices. Oteng-Yeboah is one of these optimists, saying effective implementation of the Protocol has the potential to improve social, economic and environmental wellbeing in the places where genetic and biological resources are discovered.
“Future research on genetic resources will be regulated by the laws of countries of origin and that of the user countries,” Oteng-Yeboah said. “Therefore, business investors, research communities, pharmaceuticals, agriculture and horticulture industries, cosmetics and biotechnology companies will not be able to sell a product labeled as bio-piracy.
“[This would be a] win-win for the conservation of biodiversity, indigenous communities, and global bio-trade.”
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