The eighth meeting of the Conference of the Parties (COP8) to the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) was held from 20-31 March 2006 at Curitiba, Brazil. The CBD website describes the Conference of the Parties as "the governing body of the Convention, and advances implementation of the Convention through the decisions it takes at its periodic meetings." According to the CBD Secretariat, headquarted at Montreal, the main outcome of the Curitiba meeting was to agree on a "roadmap" to achieve the Biodiversity Target, which is of achieving a significant reduction in the rate of loss of biological diversity by 2010. The Secretariat noted that 122 member countries had participated in COP8. D D Verma, a Joint Secretary at the Ministry of Environment and Forests led the Indian delegation.
Is India progressing towards this goal? To understand the realities, let's look at what India committed to when ratified the Convention in 1994. The government agreed to move towards three critical goals: conservation of its biological diversity, sustainable use of its biological resources, and equity in sharing the benefits of such use.
India's submissions to the CBD are available at: http://www.biodiv.org/world/map.asp?ctr=in
Moving to protect biodiversity
Biotech policy: secretive and hasty
Here are some instances.
The CBD requires countries to assess the impacts of development projects on biodiversity. It's 'AKWÉ: KON' voluntary guidelines serve as guidance to countries to develop and implement impact assessment regimes, especially in relation to sacred sites and other lands/waters traditionally occupied or used by indigenous and local communities.
India has failed to bring its impact assessment procedures into compliance with the CBD. India's relevant legal statute on this is the Environment Impact Assessment Notification (EIA) 1994, under the Environment Protection Act 1986. As recorded in earlier articles in India Together, successive central governments have been systematically diluting its provisions. In 2005, the Ministry of Environment proposed to amend them in a way that takes them even further away from the spirit and principles of the guidelines. Several development and industrial projects continue to be cleared in wildlife habitats and biodiversity rich areas.
Also, many of these high impact projects severely affect the rights and existence of indigenous communities. Articles 8 and 10 of the CBD, and decisions taken by the CBD Conference of Parties, require member countries to take strong legal and policy measures to protect the rights, interests, and knowledge of indigenous (tribal) and other local communities.
Convention on Biological Diversity
Articles in the convention begin with "Each Contracting Party shall, as far as possible and as appropriate.." and then layout the requirements of the member countries.
Article 8 is titled In-situ Conservation. In 8(j), it asks signatories to: "Subject to its national legislation, respect, preserve and maintain knowledge, innovations and practices of indigenous and local communities embodying traditional lifestyles relevant for the conservation and sustainable use of biological diversity and promote their wider application with the approval and involvement of the holders of such knowledge, innovations and practices and encourage the equitable sharing of the benefits arising from the utilization of such knowledge, innovations and practices." (See: Biodiv.org, Article 8.)
Article 10 is titled Sustainable Use of Components of Biological Diversity. 10(c) asks signatories to: "Protect and encourage customary use of biological resources in accordance with traditional cultural practices that are compatible with conservation or sustainable use requirements." (See Biodiv.org, Article 10).
The issue of protecting the knowledge and rights of local communities is also relevant beyond the impact assessment procedures. Take for instance the Biological Diversity Act, 2002. While the Act has a general clause on the protection of traditional knowledge, no operative mechanisms for this have been put into place. This is mentioned in the open letter to the Prime Minister. Moreover, the Biological Diversity Rules 2004, instead of empowering communities to protect their knowledge and lead conservation efforts have been reduced to mere data providers. In the Rules, communities have been given the primary task of preparing biodiversity knowledge registers. But this alone will not do. While local communities record centuries old knowledge, in the absence of any legal protection, this information could become an easy source of biopiracy by those eager to cash in on it.
Another critical issue that has been brought to the notice to Prime Minister's Office and also the Ministry of Environment and Forests, is the issue of the self destructive terminator seeds. This has been part of earlier CBD discussions and was an agenda point for COP8's deliberations. Unlike the above points that are clear violations of India's obligations to the convention, this point was seeking preventive action from the government.
Though there is a ban on the introduction on this technology in India today, many farmers and civil society organisations were worried because India did not oppose the recommendations emerging from a CBD working group meeting in Granada, Spain, in January 2006. The group recommended that the current moratorium on terminator technology be diluted to a "case-by-case" consideration by national governments. As a result, NGOs feared the pressure groups may persuade India to change its position at COP8.
The South Against Genetic Engineering (SAGE), a coalition of farmers' groups, civil society organisations, scientists, academicians and consumer organizations, wrote to D D Verma at the Ministry of Environment on this matter. SAGE said that it had collected nearly half a million signatures from farmers in the southern states of AP, Tamilnadu and Karnataka, as part of the international campaign to warn the Indian Government against succumbing to pressures by Biotech corporations and GE promoting countries. SAGE also said in a release to the press that the new argument being used in favour of terminator seeds by the GE industry is this: "Since the planted seed does not reproduce itself and thereby does not lend itself to contamination, it is safe for the environment." SAGE then rebutted, "Contamination does not wait to happen until seeds reproduce themselves. It happens at the pollinating stage when the pollen from one plant rides wind, bees and birds to other plants and pollinates it."
The signature campaign was one of the factors that led to governments at COP8 rejecting the 'case by case' consideration of terminator seeds. New Delhi has also decided to retain the ban.
On balance, while the ban on terminator seeds remains, protection of biodiversity remains a stark challenge. Since being one of the most pro-active countries in the formulation of the CBD, India has been gradually losing its leadership role in the last few years. India has gone from pushing for the convention's implementation in the initial years, to clear violations of the provisions of the convention in recent times.