by Gumisai Mutume

Mexico City (IPS)24 Feb 2000 -- The Convention on Biodiversity is one way for developing countries to retain control over their biological and genetic resources, but its effective implementation remains bogged down in complexities and conflicts with other international policies, observers say.

"The convention has been weakened systematically after its signature in 1992 in order to make it conform to World Trade Organisation (WTO) regulations," says Silvia Ribeiro of the Rural Advancement Foundation International (RAFI).

"When they signed it, Southern governments saw it as a possible way to protect the intellectual rights of indigenous people and their biological and plant resources, but this has not happened," she says.

The Convention on Biodiversity (CBD) entered into force in 1993 and it now has 176 parties. Its objectives are to conserve biological diversity, and to ensure sustainable use of these resources and equitable distribution of the benefits arising from their use.

UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan says that these three areas are interdependent, and progress in each of them is necessary if the Convention is to be successful.

But can environmental concerns be satisfied without creating new obstacles to free trade?

"If a country puts in place strong laws to protect its biodiversity, this can be interpreted as working against free trade under the WTO," Ribeiro told IPS.

She says developing countries still have opportunities next month and in May to strengthen instruments of the CBD in order to place it on par with international trade laws.

Next month, the CBD will come under the spotlight in Sevilla, Spain when an expert group meets to discuss an article that seeks to further the rights of indigenous people. And in May, world delegates will converge at the fifth meeting of the Conference of Parties to CBD in Nairobi, Kenya.

Access to genetic resources through new national legislation is one of the topics that will come up in Nairobi. Environmentalists say that in the absence of convincing global morality, and with accelerating demand for genetic resources, strong national policies in developing countries are imperative.

Multinational corporations, however, would like to see developing countries adopt national laws that allow them easy access to genetic materials, vital for their profitable operations.

It is estimated that more than two-thirds of the world's plant species - at least 35% of which have medicinal properties - originate in developing countries. Because the development of medicinal plants, for instance, depends on the knowledge of rural and indigenous communities, the issue of benefit sharing arises.

When it came into force, the CBD gave states sovereignty over their biological and genetic resources for the first time.

But over the last decade, pharmaceutical companies have been scrambling to patent genetic resources extracted from the south. Under the new trade regimes of the WTO, intellectual property rights are even more firmly entrenched, giving rise to new controversies on the biodiversity agenda.

At a recent CBD conference. a developing country representative voiced concern that the application of world trade agreements - particularly the Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPs) pact - endangered the traditional rights of farmers all over the world and was a recipe for conflict between technologically-advanced and developing societies.

And at the December meeting of the WTO in Seattle, a number of developing African countries led by Kenya lobbied for TRIPs to consider the right of countries to exclude life forms from the agreement.

"The primary and immediate beneficiaries of the implementation of the TRIPs agreement are likely to be technology and information developers in the industrialised countries," notes the UN Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD).

TRIPs is currently up for review, and the outcome will be crucial for developing countries.

While the threat to species and ecosystems has never been greater, there is growing public awareness that biological diversity is a global asset of tremendous value.

"The world is learning to care about the environment. Governments are becoming interested in finding out what is happening to our planet, and are increasingly prepared to act," says Klaus Toepfer, executive director of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP).

"As the globalisation of environmental management of UNEP's challenges over the next decade will be to help develop and strengthen international environmental law and the instruments for monitoring and implementing it," Toepfer says.

Yet biological diversity is being eroded as fast today as at any time since the dinosaurs died out some 65 million years ago, says the World Resources Institute (WRI).

"The crucible of extinction is believed to be tropical forests. Around 10 million species live on earth and tropical forests house between 50 and 90% of this total," notes WRI's World Report released last year.

"About 17 million hectares of tropical forests - an area four times the size of Switzerland - are now being cleared annually, and scientists estimate that at these rates, roughly 5 to 10% of tropical forest species may face extinction within the next 30 years," the report says.

WRI says insufficient value accorded to biological resources, huge profits earned by traders and manufacturers through exploiting biomaterial without environmental consequences to their own countries, and the narrow focus of environmental lobbyists are among the obstacles to conserving biological diversity.

However, developing countries have made some gains on the CBD, the biggest occurring last month in Montreal, Canada.

Following five years of negotiations, parties to the CBD agreed on a Bio-safety Protocol that will allow countries to place limits on the import of genetically-modified food - even if this appears to be in conflict with free trade. "This is the first binding section of the convention and it is the most applicable aspect of the convention so far," says Ribeiro. (SUNS4614)