Thursday, June 22, 2006

Access and Benefit Sharing - a Swiss view

The Swiss Academy of Sciences has just published a hard cover version and a Web version of a "Good practice for academic research" to ensure that Swiss academics act according to Access and Benefit Sharing as defined in the Convention on Biological Diversity and its follow-up.

Having done a lot of fieldwork in the tropics, participating in the follow-up of the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), and working in some of the world largest natural history museum's environment, I find this is not an adequate response of the Swiss Academy of Sciences. In fact, I find it rather patronizing rather than in support of science. It is not, that I disagree with ABS (see comments about open access), but sc-nat and official Swiss policy in this field.

CBD has three main objectives, the conservation of biological diversity, the sustainable use of its components and the fair and equitable sharing of the benefits (...). The North normally considers the first and second objectives as the relevant ones, but the South sees considers the last as the most important objective, to an extend that it can be looked at yet another tool to get money from the North to the South. It is the South' colonial history which makes them very sensitive about being exploited again, especially since in the late 80ties and early nineties the genetic resources in biodiversity rich areas have been used to argue for their protection. Bioprospecting has been, and still is an important word, but also one, that does hardly deliver (see Nature's Rex Dalton's story about bioprospecting and InBio in Costa Rica, Nature 441, 567-569) ). But the ghosts are out of the bottle.

Switzerland has a peculiar set up with its natural history collections. Due to the federal structure of Swiss museums, and the lack of Swiss Natural History Museum, there is no strong voice for systematics at national level, and indeed the Swiss Science Foundation has no track record for supporting the main contribution of natural history collections to biodiversity conservation and research, that is monographic work. Clearly, with its strong bias on 'hypothesis driven' research, SNF dismisses an entire field of research which is at the base of many of the ecological and conservation work. At least, the conservationists recognize that without such research, a substantial part of ecological and conservation studies are up in the air (see eg Maze, 2004)

Since the delegation at the COP (Conferences of the parties, or in more plain text, the so far eight follow up meetings of the governments of the Convention on Biological Diversity) are not scientists but led by diplomats and administrators, be it here in Switzerland or in Brazil, biodiversity is rather perceived as a commodity rather than what it is, a very complex, little known piece of our planet earth which needs protection. A recently raised issue by the governments of Brazil, India and others at the current Doha round of the World Trade Organization (WTO) is about the issue of Access and Benefit Sharing, that is the declaration of the origin or genetic material, which is heavily fought by the developed world.

Furthermore, the development of protocols for ABS does not live up to another goal of the CBD, monitoring (Art. 6 of CBD). This in fact demands surveys of relevant parts of biodiversity. If, like the Swiss Government, puts all its efforts into ABS, and doesn't contribute at the same time substantially to resolve this issue, than I see this Swiss brochure as very short sighted, if not contra productive to the idea of the CBD. It is to nobodies avail, if areas such as legal Amazonia is out of research, whereas at the same time huge logging concession are provided.

Switzerland ought to be much more pro-active. We have one of the six globally most important botanical gardens here in Switzerland (Geneva) with hundred thousands of types, desperately needed to chart and monitor global biodiversity (see Swiss Biodiversity Hotspot). By making these resources globally accessible, which is technically no problem any more, we could also gain a heavy weight in the discussion about collecting permits for scientific collections (and monitoring) and the separation of permits for bioprospecting. But siding with the industrialized countries in the WTO to avoid reference to the origin of genetic material, and a luke-warm position in the question abut terminator crops, we behave exactly the way the developing world is afraid of.


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