Biodiversity for Human Survival

THE divide between poor and rich countries in the world can also be roughly mapped into another kind of division – that between gene or biodiversity rich countries and patent rich countries. A major part of the earth’s biological diversity – in the form of different kinds of naturally occurring plants, animals and micro-organisms – are present in the poorer countries of Asia, Africa and Latin America. On the other hand, the countries of Europe and North America, while poor in biodiversity, control the use of knowledge to utilise the planet’s biological resources.


This divide underpins the history of the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD). The convention was launched in 1992 at the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, and came into force in 1993. 193 countries are signatories to the convention. The United States stands out as one of the handful of countries that has signed but not ratified the convention, meaning that the United States is not bound by its provisions. Among the reasons cited by the US for not ratifying the convention is its ‘fear’ that the convention will interfere with intellectual property rights (including patents) that are held by US citizens and US based corporations.

The CBD has three principal aims: a) conservation of biological diversity; b) sustainable use of the biological resources of the planet; and c) equity in benefit sharing arising from the technological exploitation of biological resources.

The convention was hailed as an important step towards conservation of the planet’s ecology as it was the first occasion, under international law, when it was recognised that biological diversity is a common global heritage and its conservation is a common concern of humankind. The convention is based on the understanding that the biological resources of the planet are finite and are being depleted very rapidly. This is a cause for real concern because every species of plants or animals that gets extinct, erases millions of years of evolutionary history. The very large variety of plants and animals that we see around us sustain the entire ecology of the planet. As more and more species die out, the ecological system of the globe becomes more and more fragile, till a situation is reached where the entire eco-system is destroyed. In spite of the enormous scientific and technological progress that we have made, we still do not have means to replenish biological diversity through artificial means. When a species is lost, it stays lost!


Human beings, like other plants and animals, are able to satisfy their needs through the utilisation of the resources available. But unlike other living organisms on this planet, human beings are also the first species that not only draws resources from nature but also has the ability to irreversibly change nature in a manner that it desires. There is thus a contradiction between human beings and nature, which has existed since the dawn of human civilization. This contradiction had limited consequences in the early days of human civilization, as nature was so bountiful that it was able to absorb the effect of human intervention, and continue to replenish its biological diversity. However, with growth and development, especially under Capitalism, the ability of nature to continue to maintain its large biodiversity is under sustained threat.

While human intervention shapes nature in a certain way, human beings are still inextricably dependant on nature for its needs. Thus if the contradiction between human beings and nature reaches a tipping point, it would not only lead to an irreversible depletion of diversity, but would then also threaten the very existence of human civilization. The CBD is a recognition that we are fast reaching that tipping point! Not just that – it is only recently that we have woken up to the possibility that a catastrophe awaits us. The term biodiversity itself is a very recent coinage, dating back to the 1980s.

We still have limited data to be able to say how much has been irreversibly lost. We should remember that mass extinction of species have happened several times in the past. Under normal conditions, species do become extinct as a result of evolutionary processes – this is called the ‘background rate’ of extinction. When the rate of extinction of species is double that of this rate, it is assumed that ‘mass extinction’ is underway. It is believed that there have been at least five occasions in the last 600 million years when mass extinction has taken place. All these have been in situations when naturally occurring cataclysmic climate events have led to a drastic change in the earth’s environment. For example it is hypothesised that the mass extinction of dinosaurs – that ruled earth for millions of years (in contrast human beings have been on earth for less than 1,00,000 years) – took place due to one such cataclysmic change, perhaps brought about by earth’s collision with a large asteroid.

What is frightening is that we may be headed for another mass extinction – this time brought on by the consequences of unsustainable exploitation of nature by human beings. Some estimates predict that we could soon see a situation where hundreds of species become extinct ever day – millions of times higher than the background rate. It is even being predicted that more species may become extinct in our lifetime than were lost in the mass extinction that caused the dinosaurs to disappear about 65 million years ago.

The projected acceleration in the loss of biodiversity is, of course, linked to the rapid change in global temperatures and the consequent changes in climate. Biodiversity loss and climate change are very closely linked. For example, the loss of tropical rainforests indicate a loss of tens of thousands of species, and also mean less ‘sinks’ that can absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and lower global temperatures. On the other hand, rapid warming of the planet makes the environment unsuitable for the survival of a large number of species, leading to their extinction.


The CBD is also premised on an understanding that human beings will need to continue drawing on the planet’s biological resources. It thus argues for sustainable methods of doing so – where human needs are balanced with the need to sustain biodiversity. While such a balance would seem perfectly reasonable, in practical terms it is not easy to implement. Sustainable exploitation of the planet’s biological diversity is impacted upon by the division between rich and poor countries in the globe. The rich countries are those who consume more, but it is the poor countries that are home to a bulk of the world’s biological diversity. Just as we have in the climate change debate, the terrain of biodiversity conservation is a struggle between the rich and the poor countries. The rich do not want to reduce their consumption, but wish to put the burden of conservation on to the poor countries. The poor countries, on the other hand, demand that they be compensated for the cost of such conservation through financial support and through access to technologies that are controlled by the rich countries.


The reflection of the rich versus poor divide in international relations is most clearly seen in the third remit of the CBD – equitable benefit sharing. As we have discussed earlier, a bulk of the world’s biological resources are located in the poor countries. Rich countries and their multinational corporations need access to these resources for their expansion and for generation of profits. Biological resources continue to be the key raw materials necessary for new medicines, for better agricultural products, and for a variety of engineering applications. This form of global inequity produces the phenomenon of ‘bio-piracy’ where corporations from rich countries prospect for biological resources from poor countries (called bio-prospecting), which they then exploit to make new products. Many of these products are sold at profits of billions of dollars, little or none of which is shared with countries from which these resources are taken from. Bio-piracy extends not just to the actual biological resources in the form of plants and animals, but also to knowledge that local peoples and communities hold. This is knowledge that people have nurtured and developed over thousands of years, but which may be stolen by transnational corporations instantly for their benefit and profits. This is why the CBD incorporates the notion of ‘benefit sharing’ meaning that benefits accruing from the utilisation of biological resources in one country (or by a community in a country) should be shared with that country or community.

Benefit sharing requirements need to cover not just plants and animals, but micro-organisms (bacteria and viruses) as well. In 2006, Indonesia caused a stir in international health circles when it refused access to its stock of the Avian Influenza virus. Indonesia’s logic was simple – it wanted firm commitments that vaccine manufacturers would share their profits on the vaccines they develop from biological material (in this case the Avian flu virus). The Indonesian case led to a prolonged impasse and subsequently the hammering out of a virus sharing agreement that is still being fine tuned under the aegis of the World health Organisation (WHO).

Benefit sharing mechanisms become even more difficult to structure when it involves the use of knowledge held by local communities – traditional knowledge – for the development of products such as new medicines, and new plant varieties. For long, corporations have stolen such knowledge to develop their products and to generate huge products for themselves, while not sharing any of this with those who developed and kept this knowledge alive.

The Nagoya Protocol on Access to Genetic Resources and the Fair and Equitable Sharing of Benefits Arising from their Utilisation to the Convention on Biological Diversity aims at sharing the benefits arising from the utilisation of biological resources in a fair and equitable way, 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, thereby contributing to the conservation of biological diversity and the sustainable use of its components. It was adopted in October 2010 in Nagoya, Japan. The Nagoya Protocol, however, has not come into force as it requires at least 50 countries to ratify it. Till date only a handful of countries have ratified the Nagoya Protocol.


Another area of contention within the remit of the convention is the issue of genetically modified organisms. Today, a very large portion of knowledge and intellectual property rights related to technologies that are based on modifying living organisms in the laboratory (and thereby producing new genetically modified organisms (GMOs) with possible benefits – viz. pest resistant plant varieties) is held by private corporations. There is also a debate within and outside the scientific community regarding precautions that need to be put in place when such GMOs are allowed in agriculture and other industries. The Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety to the Convention on Biological Diversity is an international agreement which aims to ensure the safe handling, transport and use of living modified organisms (LMOs) resulting from modern biotechnology that may have adverse effects on biological diversity, taking also into account risks to human health. It was adopted in January 2000 and entered into force on September 11, 2003.


We have outlined some of the major elements of the discussions in the Convention of Biodiversity. The convention’s governing body is the Conference of the Parties (COP), consisting of all governments (and regional economic integration organisations) that have ratified the treaty. It reviews progress under the convention, identifies new priorities, and sets work plans for members. Hyderabad is hosting the COP-MOP6 (sixth round of discussions on the Cartagena Protocol on Bio-safety) and COP-11 (11th round of discussions by the Conference of Parties) from October 1-5, 2012 and from October 8-19, 2012.