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Canada Slowing Biodiversity Protocol’s Progress

Beatrice Paez

UNITED NATIONS, Jul 19 2010 (IPS) - The spirit of international negotiations in Montreal on a draft protocol on Access and Benefit Sharing (ABS) of natural resources were marred by Canada’s insistence on a decentralised approach to ABS, Peigi Wilson, a Métis lawyer present at the meeting in support of the Quebec Native Women, told IPS.

“I got the distinct sense that Canada was throwing objections to slow the negotiations,” Wilson, a former U.N. Environment Programme (UNEP) official, added.

The Working Group on ABS met last week to finalise negotiations in time for an October summit in Nagoya, Japan, where a protocol on biodiversity will be open for signature. The meeting concluded with negotiations suspended until mid-September.

As one of the objectives of the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), ABS works to ensure that the benefits derived from genetic resources are distributed in a proportionate manner to reflect the contribution and rights of indigenous people and local communities.

Canada is pushing for any ABS protocol to be based on contractual mutually agreed terms (MAT) – individual agreements reached between users and providers of a genetic resource on how benefits should be shared. Canada is avoiding instituting national ABS requirements, instead opting to allow different jurisdictions and companies to develop their own frameworks.

According to Environment Canada’s official website, the federal government does not want to impose a uniform national model – it wants to allow for flexibility and adaptation in each context. It also notes that while laws have not yet been developed on ABS, there are legal measures in place dealing with the collection of biological resources in the country’s national parks.

In Montreal, an alliance of indigenous groups from across the world appealed for an amendment to the draft protocol. They argued that the draft undermined their right to self-determination and failed to reflect and invoke the U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

At odds with Canada and other developed countries, the regional representative of Africa supported the indigenous peoples’ challenge of MAT on a contractual basis.

Industrialised countries, including Canada have been criticised by developing countries and local communities for catering to the needs of private companies, which leads to the misappropriation of the earth’s resources and traditional knowledge. This misappropriation could involve the unlicensed and uncompensated collection of indigenous plants, animals, microorganisms, genes or traditional knowledge for patenting by corporations and researchers.

Groups such as Québec Native Women, Indigenous Law Institute, and Indigenous World Association are seeking to change the nature of the negotiation process, which requires a consensus among the states.

Wilson told IPS that negotiations kicked off on an uneven playing field for indigenous groups – the chair prevented indigenous representatives from actively participating in dialogue with the delegations.

It was recommended that the consensus be extended to include the indigenous groups to correct any power imbalance. The recommendation also included the need for financial assistance and other resources, to facilitate indigenous participation.

The U.N. has dubbed 2010 as the year of biodiversity. In observation of this thematic issue, the CBD has initiated a 2010 Biodiversity Target, imploring countries to substantially reduce the current rate of biodiversity loss across all levels.

The lack of action on biodiversity can be attributed to the lack of mainstreaming on what genetic resources mean for our livelihood, Leslie Adams, the General Management of Protect Our Water and Environmental Resources (POWER), told IPS.

All 193 parties to the CBD are obliged to work towards this goal, yet without the development of a baseline to measure against global trends, Wilson pointed out that Canada does not have the means to report on whether improvements have been made.

Since 2008 Canada has worked at developing an Ecosystem Status and Trends Assessment, which intends to assess the status of Canada’s ecosystems.

POWER, which operates as a not-for profit organisation has been at the forefront of ensuring water security and promoting education on biodiversity at the community level.

“I don’t think people are aware within the federal government what the convention represents and means,” Adams said. “I think the only way we can get more participation is if the government focuses on educating not only communities, but parliamentarians and bureaucrats as well.”

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