Communities call for access to genetic diversity to combat poverty and climate change

News, 21 January 2008
Governments must agree international rules that would give indigenous communities access to genetic resources to help them fight poverty, preserve biodiversity and adapt to climate change, says a report released today by the International Institute for Environment and Development.

The call comes as governments gather to negotiate rules to implement the UN Convention of Biological Diversity (CBD) in Geneva on 21-25 January.

Nearly 15 years after the convention came into force there is still no international regime for pursuing one of its three main aims: to ensure fair and equitable sharing of benefits arising from access to genetic resources.

"Industrialised nations are still opposing an international regime on access and benefit sharing (ABS) that is legally binding and recognises of the rights of indigenous and local communities," says Krystyna Swiderska, senior researcher at the International Institute for Environment and Development.

In many parts of the world, much of the genetic diversity in crops, traditional medicines and other species has been lost. But for centuries, explorers, botanists and others have been collecting genetic resources and related knowledge from communities that openly share their resources.

Many community resources are now held in gene banks, research institutes and botanical gardens. Scientists and private companies can access these resources but communities are usually denied access even to genetic resources collected from their lands.

Many industries explore genetic resources for their potential economic or social value. Undiscovered drugs in rainforest plants are alone estimated to be worth billions of dollars.

The report urges the 190 nations that are party to the CBD to ensure that communities can also access these resources to increase their livelihood options and resilience to environmental stresses such as climate change.

"The current ABS regime does not adequately recognise the customary rights of indigenous and local communities who are the original custodians of many of the world's genetic resources,"says Alejandro Argumedo of Asociación ANDES, an indigenous nongovernmental organisation in Peru.

"It continues the one-way flow of genetic resources away from communities by requiring governments to facilitate access to genetic resources - whether from gene banks, national parks or community lands - to other countries and third parties such as scientists or companies."

The report, based on an international workshop involving researchers and indigenous groups from Panama, India, Peru and China, calls for ways of ensuring that communities can access genetic resources which they have lost, but which are now held 'ex situ' and are available to foreign governments, companies and researchers.

An agreement between six Andean Quechua communities in Peru and the International Potato Centre (CIP) provides an example of such reciprocal access. The CIP, an internationally funded research centre, is gaining access to genetic resources in a centre of potato diversity.

In return, the communities are gaining access to varieties held by CIP that were collected from their territories in the 1950s and 60s but which they have since lost (see This agreement, the first of its kind, sets an important precedent for others to follow for transfer of crop varieties, medicinal plants and other genetic resources

"When the CBD was agreed in 1992, developing nations agreed to conserve and sustainably use biodiversity in return for a fair and equitable share of the benefits from the use of genetic resources by industrialised countries, but the rich nations are not keeping their side of the bargain," says Ruchi Pant of Indian nongovernmental organisation Ecoserve.

"To date, neither local communities nor countries of origin have received much benefit from the use of their genetic resources," she adds. "An international regime would legally bind countries that use genetic resources to share these benefits derived from commercial and scientific use. It should promote benefit-sharing not only with countries of origin of genetic resources but also with the communities of origin to provide an incentive for conservation."

"Restoring traditional crops, medicinal plants and other forms of genetic diversity to communities is a critical form of benefit-sharing, as it can provide immediate improvements to agriculture, nutrition, food security, health and income," says Swiderska. "Community access to such diversity can help meet the global targets to tackle poverty in the Millennium Development Goals. Enhancing local genetic diversity is also critical to enable communities to adapt to rapid climate change, and to converse biodiversity in situ."

The report arose from a workshop of researchers and indigenous organisations from China, India, Panama and Peru organised by IIED and Fundación Dobbo Yala, an indigenous nongovernmental organisation working for Panama's Kuna people.

The international workshop reviewed three years of research at community and policy levels to generate recommendations for international policy on biodiversity conservation.

More about the project and report


Mike Shanahan
Press Officer, International Institute for Environment and Development
Tel: +44 (0)20 7872 7308


Krystyna Swiderska
Phone: +44 207 388 2117

Alejandro Argumedo of Asociación ANDES in Peru (English or Spanish):
Phone: +51 84 245021 or +51 84 9209913

Ruchi Pant of Ecoserve in Delhi, India:

Yiching Song of the Centre for Chinese Agriculture Policy, China

Heraclio Herrera of Fundación Dobbo Yala in Panama (Spanish only)
Phone: 507 261 7229 /6347
Mobile: 507 6513 4378

Notes to editors

190 countries are party to the UN Convention of Biological Diversity. The United States has signed but not ratified the convention.

The CBD's objectives are the conservation of biological diversity, the sustainable use of its components and the fair and equitable sharing of the benefits arising out of the utilisation of genetic resources, including by appropriate access to genetic resources and by appropriate transfer of relevant technologies, taking into account all rights over those resources and to technologies, and by appropriate funding.

The exploration of biodiversity for resources of social and economic value - bioprospecting - is carried out by a wide range of industries, including pharmaceutical, herbal medicine, seeds, crop protection, cosmetics, horticulture, environmental monitoring, manufacturing and construction.

Bioprospecting can provide revenues for conservation, technological capacity for research and development in the South and, in rare instances, large profits for corporations. The value of undiscovered pharmaceuticals from tropical forest plants has been estimated at $109 billion (Mendelson and Balick, 1997).

According to the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, many bioprospecting activities and revenues are expected to increase over the next decades, including pharmaceutical bioprospecting.

The CBD working group on access to genetic resources and benefit-sharing (ABS) is meeting in Geneva on 21-25 January to negotiate an international regime for ABS and traditional knowledge, as recommended by the World Summit on Sustainable Development in 2002.

The International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED) is an independent, non-profit research institute. Set up in 1971 and based in London, IIED provides expertise and leadership in researching and achieving sustainable development.

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