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ENVIRONMENT: Brazil to Press for Global Biodiversity Regime

Roberto Villar Belmonte

CURITIBA, Brazil, Mar 14 2006 (IPS) - Curbing the loss of biodiversity and achieving an international regime governing access to genetic resources will be the two top priorities of Brazil, which is hosting the eighth conference of the parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity (COP-8), Brazilian Environment Minister Marina Silva told IPS.

“Our motto is ‘implementation’, since there are already a large number of international treaties that have to be translated into concrete action,” said the minister, who will preside over COP-8, to be held Mar. 20-31 in the southern Brazilian city of Curitiba.

“Over the next two years, we are going to work hard in order for the international regime to be binding, and so that it is not understood as a tool to facilitate access, but to ensure protection and sustainable use and the distribution of benefits” and profits arising from the use of genetic resources, she announced.

The adoption of a regime governing access to genetic resources and the equitable sharing of benefits derived from the use of biodiversity and biological wealth is key to meeting the Convention’s target of reducing the rate of loss of diversity of habitat and of animal and plant species by 2010.

During COP-8, Brazil will try to strengthen political coordination with the “Group of Like-Minded Megadiverse Countries”, made up of 17 developing nations, said Silva.

Another of Brazil’s aims is to announce, during the conference, a draft law that would regulate access to biodiversity and guarantee the rights of local communities.

The minister did not attend the first day of the May 13-17 “Third meeting of the Conference of the Parties serving as the meeting of the Parties to the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety” (COP-MOP3) Monday in Curitiba.

But she announced in Sao Paulo that Brazil had reached a decision on the labeling of cross-border shipments of transgenic products.

The Cartagena Protocol to the Convention on Biological Diversity has been in effect since September 2003, and is aimed at protecting biodiversity from the potential risks posed by living organisms modified through modern biotechnology.

President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva’s decision settled differences over the question in his cabinet by opting to accept the wording “contains LMOs (living modified organisms)” for the labels, rather than “may contain LMOs”, as he had pushed for at the COP-MOP2, held nine months ago in Montreal.

But in Curitiba this month, Brasilia will negotiate a four-year timetable for countries and companies to gradually put into effect a system of mandatory labeling and separation of products containing LMOs. During that period, labels would read “may contain LMOs”, along with a list of the genetic modification procedures approved in the country exporting the product.

After the period of adaptation, all cross-border shipments would have to be clearly identified as containing LMOs, by labels that would also provide information on genetic engineering.

Brazil decided on pressing for a four-year transition period because it allows countries to gradually create the internal conditions for the labeling of transgenic products, said a statement issued by the Environment Ministry.

Minister Silva, who said the position taken by Brazil would help overcome the biggest hurdle in the negotiations on the Cartagena Protocol, added that “Now we have to negotiate this week, in order to keep moving forward.”

But the decision was not welcomed by agribusiness representatives. “We consider the Brazilian government’s current proposal frustrating. It will place a very large onus on Brazilian agriculture, because we will have to segregate products from their point of origin,” said Carlo Lovatelli, president of the Brazilian Association of Vegetable Oil Industries.

Nevertheless, he added, there could be changes before Friday. “We have information that some Latin American countries, like Mexico, Colombia, Paraguay, Peru and Nicaragua, could opt for the ‘may contain’ wording previously advocated by Brazil,” he told IPS.

Lovatelli presented an economic study at COP-MOP3, according to which the requirement to identify LMOs would raise soy bean production costs by between eight and nine percent.

“If Brazil sticks by its position, we would have to ask for financial support from the government in order to comply with the Protocol,” he said.

Soy beans are the main transgenic crop produced by Brazil and Argentina.

Environmental groups praised Lula’s instructions for Brazilian negotiators to back the “contains LMOs” wording, but criticised the four-year timetable for implementation, arguing that many incidents of transgenic contamination could occur over that period..

“From our point of view, agribusiness has already had six years to adjust to the Cartagena Protocol, which was approved in 2000,” observed Marijane Lisboa, a representative of the Organic Agriculture Association and a professor at the Catholic University of Sao Paulo.

“Four more years is unacceptable, because in the last six months alone, there were cases of contamination in dozens of countries. Agribusiness has been left to adapt to the new regulations when it feels like it,” she commented to IPS.

Statements by diplomats from Mexico, Nicaragua and Peru that echo the stance dropped by Brazil have sparked suspicion among the environmentalists attending COP-MOP3.

“All of these countries have had incidents of transgenic contamination or have received unidentified transgenic corn as food aid from the United States. It is remarkable that they are not defending the interests of their populations here, since they have already proven to be unable to identify transgenic products,” remarked Lisboa, a former Greenpeace representative and former secretary of environmental quality at the Brazilian Environment Ministry in 2003 and 2004.

In order to be consistent with its new stance, the Brazilian government should send the police to investigate why the agribusiness sector is not complying with the labeling requirements for transgenic foodstuffs stipulated by Brazilian law, said Joao Pedro Stedile, a national coordinator for the Landless Workers’ Movement (MST), speaking on behalf of the international peasant and small farmers’movement, Vía Campesina, at the opening of the Civil Society Global Forum taking place parallel to COP-MOP3.

On Tuesday morning, roughly 1,000 Vía Campesina activists occupied facilities owned by the Switzerland-based transnational agribusiness giant Syngenta in Santa Teresa do Oeste, some 550 km from Curitiba.

The protesters demanded an end to the company’s illegal experiments with transgenics at the installation, which are prohibited because of its proximity to Iguazu National Park, a conservation area.

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