NAGOYA — Nearly two decades after its creation, the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity has finally realized one of its main goals.
The Nagoya Protocol, approved early Saturday morning at COP10, formalizes rules for achieving the CBD’s third objective, which is the fair sharing of benefits from genetic resources.
Adoption of the protocol is being hailed by delegates and nongovernmental organizations as one of the most important measures the world has ever taken against biopiracy, and the most important U.N. environmental agreement since the 1997 Kyoto Protocol.
Despite being couched in highly bureaucratic legal language, the Nagoya Protocol has the potential to affect issues of vital importance to everyday life in developed countries like Japan and in developing countries like Brazil, Malaysia and across Africa.
For decades, scientists, pharmaceutical firms, cosmetics manufacturers, agricultural businesses and the biotech industry have turned out everyday products that consumers in Japan and other developed nations use without any second thoughts.
Many of these products, from cold medicines and drugs to toothpaste and makeup, were created using plants or organisms from places such as the tropical rain forests of Latin America and Southeast Asia.
They were taken without the knowledge or consent of the indigenous peoples who live there. Or the traditional oral knowledge of the uses of such plants was used for the basis of laboratory research that led to patented drugs, the profits of which were never returned to the people whose knowledge made their development possible.
Under the Nagoya Protocol, access to genetic resources shall be subject to prior informed consent by the party that provides such resources. In addition, parties to the protocol are required to take appropriate measures in accordance with their domestic laws to ensure prior, informed consent or approval and involvement of indigenous and local communities is obtained for access to those resources.
In a separate section in the protocol on traditional knowledge, parties must establish ways to inform potential users of traditional knowledge associated with genetic resources about their obligations.
“The Nagoya Protocol is a crucial legal document that will help determine how we will deal with genetic resources. It creates a new balance, providing a fairness that was, until now, missing. . . . It offers clarity, flexibility and legality for access to genetic resources,” said European Environment Commissioner Janez Potocnik.
International NGOs, by and large, share the enthusiasm delegates displayed for the new protocol, with Greenpeace and WWF expressing satisfaction at the outcome.
Greenpeace oceans policy analyst Nathalie Rey called adoption of the protocol the beginning of the end of biopiracy and said Nagoya is not another Copenhagen, which held last December’s failed climate change conference.
WWF called the document historic, and said it will ensure the benefits of genetic resources will be distributed in a fairer manner.
Adoption of the protocol was the key to the success in reaching an agreement on a plan to conserve biodiversity over the next decade.
The news at the start of the conference regarding biodiversity was not good.
A previous goal to significantly reduce biodiversity loss by 2010 was not met and, in fact, science showed that biodiversity loss is rapidly increasing.
But in the end, COP10 adopted a number of specific numerical targets that, while less than some had hoped for, were nevertheless welcomed by all.
These include an agreement to at least halve the rate of loss of habitats, including forests, by 2020.
Delegates also agreed on specific percentages on the amount of the world’s terrestrial and marine areas that should be set aside as biodiversity zones.
Under what is known as the Aichi Targets, by 2020 the world is supposed to conserve at least 17 percent of its terrestrial water bodies, and 10 percent of coastal and marine areas as biodiversity protection zones.
These numerical targets were the toughest elements of the overall strategic plan to reach agreement on.
Delegates from developing countries did not want to vote for strong targets unless there was guaranteed financial assistance from the developed world to help them meet their national biodiversity loss-reduction goals under the terms of the CBD, particularly in the area of marine targets, where access to fishing grounds is a major point of contention.
“It’s important to have numbers, especially for marine and coastal system protection zones,” said Brazilian Environment Minister Izabella Teixeira.
An agreement on a funding mechanism for the goals of post-2010 was therefore an integral part of the overall negotiations on the strategic plan and COP10 agreed to work to mobilize financial resources from both the public and private sectors toward this end.
Thus, as delegates noted, the conference achieved its main goals. But perhaps the more important result of COP10 was political.
For the United Nations, success in Nagoya was crucial for convincing the world that the U.N. system for negotiating international environment-related treaties could still produce positive results.
There was talk in the conference center following the end of the meeting that a big step had been taken toward banishing the ghost of the Copenhagen failure lingering among environmental activists and policymakers this past year.
For Japan, and especially newly appointed Environment Minister Ryu Matsumoto, COP10 was politically important because a failure or an embarrassing performance by Japan would have likely led to further distrust in the government of Prime Minister Naoto Kan.
Matsumoto, who had never served in a major Cabinet position before and who only assumed his post about a month ago, often looked nervous during the proceedings, and not a few delegates wondered if he and Japan were up to the job.
With the successful conclusion of COP10, however, Matsumoto was being hailed by COP10 delegates as a skillful leader who did what nine previous COP meetings on biodiversity could not, and that was to conclude an access- and benefit-sharing protocol.
Yet amid the celebrations early Saturday morning, several key questions remained.
The United States, the world’s largest user of genetic resources, is not a party to the CBD, although it does attend as an observer. Just how effective the agreements in Nagoya will be without formal U.S. participation is a question that went unanswered.
U.S. negotiators indicated during the conference that it is highly unlikely America will join the convention anytime soon, given the host of other issues higher on Washington’s priority list.
But without U.S. participation, some wondered, the burden of financing developing countries to help them meet the strategic goals over the next decade could fall upon the European Union at a time when the world is still feeling the impact of the economic crisis that began not long after the last biodiversity meeting in 2008.
For the moment, though, negotiators leaving Nagoya are optimistic that success there will create hope and a more positive environment going into the next round of climate change talks in Mexico in December.
That success, several delegates said, was not only due to Japan’s management of the conference, but also because the location of Nagoya as the site of the conference.
The result was not a circuslike atmosphere or the feel of a vacation resort, but a businesslike atmosphere that, in the end and against the expectations of many, produced concrete results.