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ENVIRONMENT: Only the Cover Is Green

Julio Godoy

BONN, May 14 2008 (IPS) - Notice how green the public relations campaigns of multinational corporations have become.

Major companies, from beer producers to airlines to automobile makers, want to tell you they’re doing their bit to save the environment from global warming and loss of biodiversity. What these companies actually do is another matter.

That became evident at the fourth meeting of the parties to the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety which opened in Bonn Monday.

Major biochemical companies are either trying to boycott tougher international regulations against genetically modified organisms, or they are ignoring rules on intellectual property rights in order to profit from traditional knowledge in developing countries.

Take the plant Umckaloabo (Pelargonium sidoides, or South African Geranium). The South African government, the African Centre for Biodiversity (ACB) and the Berne Declaration, a Swiss non-governmental organisation, all say the plant has been used in traditional medicine for centuries against respiratory diseases.

But for years now, an extract of the plant has been commercialised by the German pharmaceuticals company Spitzner, claiming that medical application of Umckaloabo has been known in Europe at least since 1935. Spitzner also sells derivatives of Umckaloabo as drugs against AIDS.

The Africans say the German patents are illegitimate because they are based on a genetic resource and traditional knowledge from southern Africa.

The German “extractive methods (of Umckaloabo) are neither new nor innovative” when compared to the traditional techniques used by South African healers, says Fritz Doeldner, legal counsellor for the South African case.

The South African government and the two other organisations have filed a plea before the European Patents Office to contest Spitzner’s claims to the medical uses of Umckaloabo.

According to the South African view, Spitzner also violates the UN convention on biodiversity (article 15, paragraph 5) under which the South African government and South African healers who have using Umckaloabo for generations must give “prior informed consent” for international commercial use of their genetic resources.

Spitzner denies that such consent is necessary for European commercialisation of Umckaloabo and its derivatives.

Given the intensive commercialisation of Umckaloabo, the South African kingdom Lesotho registered the plant in 2004 as “in danger of extinction.”

Meanwhile, six biochemical giants have opposed binding international rules on liability for health and environmental damage caused by genetically modified organisms that they have developed.

The six companies (BASF, Bayer CropScience, Dow AgroSciences, DuPont/Pioneer, Monsanto and Syngenta) want instead a “compact” proposal to settle claims through compensation agreements with individual countries, rather than through general binding rules.

Several environmental groups, including Friends of the Earth (FoE), have condemned this position. “Such a proposal is seen as totally inadequate by many stakeholders, since there would be no liability in most scenarios of GMO contamination,” Juan Lopez, international coordinator of the FoE campaign against genetically modified organisms told IPS.

“The majority of developing countries participating in the talks are requesting solid international rules to protect them against possible damage from genetically modified crops,” Lopez added. “The polluter must pay, and should not be allowed to dictate the terms of the compensation.”

Christine von Weizsaecker, president of the environmental institute Ecoropa, said the companies really want to “privatise international environmental law-making.”

More than 3,000 delegates from 147 countries, all parties to the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety, are participating in the UN conference in Bonn that seeks to ensure safe use of modern biotechnology, including an agreement on international rules on liability. The debates in Bonn will continue until May 16.

The Cartagena protocol, adopted in January 2000, is a supplementary agreement to the Convention on Biological Diversity, and seeks to protect biodiversity from the potential risks posed by modified organisms.

Among other procedures, the agreement envisages a standard procedure for international information exchange to ensure that countries are provided with the data necessary to make informed decisions before agreeing to import of modified organisms into their territory.

The Bonn conference on the Cartagena protocol precedes a meeting of the body that implements the UN’s Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD). That meting begins in Bonn May 19.

Some 5,000 representatives from 190 countries will take part in that conference. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva will be among the leaders who will gather to discuss issues related to the destruction of indigenous forests and the plundering of the sea, and to avoid the resulting loss of biodiversity.

The CBD conference takes place two years before the deadline for achieving the 2010 biodiversity target, adopted in 2002 by 110 heads of state and government. The agreement sought to significantly reduce the rate of biodiversity loss by 2010.

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