Who owns biological diversity?

A Brief Description of the Debate over the Rights to Biological Diversity in the North-South Context

In 1992 at the environmental summit in Rio de Janeiro, the Convention on Biological Diversity was finally approved to work against the erosion of genetic diversity within species which accompanies the intensification of breeding and the global success of high-yield varieties, as well as the general loss of species occasioned by industrialization and environmental pollution, all of which have taken on dangerous proportions since the 1950s. This was the first internationally binding agreement obligating all member countries to undertake measures to protect bio-logical diversity. By mid-1999, the Convention had been signed by 175 countries. As such, the Convention has more member countries than the World Trade Organization (134). Partially due to intensive lobbying by the American biotechnology industry, the USA have thus far not become a signatory to the Convention.

As early as 1983, an international agreement was reached under the leadership of FAO (Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations), which specifically addresses the conservation of plant genetic resources. However, the "International Undertaking for Plant Genetic Resources" is thus far not yet legally binding. It was decided in 1993 to revise the document. The technology conference, which took place in Leipzig in 1996 and was organized within the scope of the "Undertaking," represented an important step toward integrating these two international agreements. The revisions are due to be completed by the end of 2000, and will lead to a legally binding agreement which will possibly become a part of the Convention on Biological Diversity.

The adoption of the Biosafety Protocol in January 2000, which regulates the international trade in genetically modified organisms, for the first time clarified the relationship between an agreement under the Convention on Biological Diversity and the WTO and GATT agreements. It was agreed that the two agreements would stand alongside one another and be given equal weight.

The agreements discussed briefly herein represent the primary international instruments and forums which address and debate the status of biological diversity and appropriate ways to deal with it. The interests of the industrialized and developing countries clash sharply in this respect, and non-governmental organi-zations worldwide are fighting for effective preservation endeavors, and for a sustainable use of biological diversity which deserves description with that adjective.

In the following, these various agreements will be introduced briefly and their most important statements will be summarized. This will make clear which contra-dictions and discordant aspects exist between the various agreements as well as the focus of the current political debate.