living traditions
Abya Yala Fund Newsletter
Spring 1999

Convention on Biodiversity: Protection or Threat to the Environment and Indigenous Territories

Indigenous reps at Conv. on Biodiversity, 1998, Slovakia

By Nilo Cayuqueo, Co-Director of Abya Yala Fund
Indigenous people, in our struggle to preserve biodiversity in our traditional territories, have recently come to regard the Convention on Biological Diversity as one of the most important and problematic international instruments. On the one hand, Indigenous people support every effort to protect their rights and territories at the United Nations and affiliated international institutions. On the other hand, Indigenous people are not allowed to represent ourselves, to participate, nor to have any decision making power at international government meetings, even when the issues being discussed affect us directly. Most importantly, the Convention on Biodiversity, although it is technically a legally binding document, it cannot be enforced by any international body. Governments lack the incentive to implement national programs and legislation which protect Indigenous rights and territories.

Indigenous people have found it necessary to work to change policies on every front that threaten our survival, whether it be at the international or national level. By joining forces with Indigenous groups from other parts of the world, and attending international meetings, Indigenous people can sometimes pressure governments more effectively than if they attempt to influence them within their own countries. Governments are more willing to concede to Indigenous people in the bright light of international scrutiny. While Indigenous people have made significant strides in the struggle for recognition by governments and International bodies in the last decade, we are still regularly excluded from effectively participating or even attending international government meetings.

This article will explain the significance of the Convention on Biodiversity to Indigenous People. It will also explain the threats faced by Indigenous people in this era of globalization and corporate control over governments and international bodies. Finally, we will explain how Indigenous people have responded to these new threats from corporations.

Significance of the Convention on Biodiversity to Indigenous People

The Convention on Biodiversity is a treaty under the United Nations that was adopted at the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro. It was ratified by almost every country in the world with the exception of the United States. The Convention is the only International treaty purporting to uphold "the conservation of biological biodiversity, the sustainable use of its components and the fair and equitable sharing of the benefits arising from the utilization of genetic resources." It calls on governments to "respect, preserve and maintain the knowledge, innovations and practices of Indigenous Peoples and other traditional, land-based communities." While governments are legally bound to enact the treaty through programs and national legislation, in practice laws conferring Indigenous peoples' rights over their territories are rarely enforced. This is true because governments have a commercial interest in exploiting natural resources. Furthermore, governments are often more than willing to respond to global markets and international corporations.

In November 1996 the signatory countries to the Convention on Biodiversity held a meeting in Buenos Aires, Argentina known as the Conference of the Parties (COP). Indigenous delegates were only allowed to participate as observers. In response, about two hundred Indigenous delegates from all over the world organized an unofficial Forum on Biodiversity, and decided to make it a permanent forum at which to discuss the implications of the Convention and economic globalization.

The same year, the Spanish government sponsored a Workshop on Biodiversity in Madrid. Participants at this meeting recommended that the following meeting named COP4, organize a Working Group which would include Indigenous participation. The Working Group would discuss how the articles of the Convention relevant to Indigenous Peoples were to be implemented. The COP4 was held in May 1997 in Bratislava, Slovakia. Indigenous delegates were allowed to participate in some of the sessions but were not included in any of the debates where actual negotiations were taking place. When Indigenous people protested, the COP4 agreed to form a special Working Group between governments and Indigenous representatives. Despite these developments, the rights of Indigenous people to their traditional territories have not yet been considered by the Convention.

This past February, the Conference on Biosafety, also part of the Convention, met in Colombia to discuss and approve a food safety protocol. The protocol is intended to regulate the transport and import of genetically altered foods like soy beans, corn and wheat known as "modified living organisms." As a result of pressure from the U.S. government acting on behalf of U.S. companies and other transnational corporations, the U.K., Canada, Argentina and Chile blocked the passage of the protocol. Indigenous people did not take part in this meeting because once again, they were not allowed to participate.

New Threats to Indigenous People Under Globalization

While globalization affects people all over the world, Indigenous people face more invasive threats, such as biopiracy and the patenting of traditional knowledge. Indigenous people became alerted to the issue of biopiracy during the late 80's when corporations intensified the bioprospecting of Indigenous resources and knowledge. During this period, the U.S. government claimed patent over the DNA of an Indigenous individual from Papua New Guinea and another from Panama. University researchers, through the Human Genome Biodiversity Project (part of the Human Genome Organization or HUGO), and private laboratories collected samples of blood, tissue and hair from Indigenous people. Fearing the manipulation of their genes, Indigenous people sent an alert around the world to other Indigenous organizations in order to discuss the implications of these "vampire projects" which plunder Indigenous communities with a new form of colonialism.

Another threat faced by Indigenous people is the appropriation and patenting of traditional plants, medicines and related knowledge by outside researchers and corporations. Such is the case of the ayahuasca, an Amazonian sacred plant which was patented by a U.S. pharmaceutical company. And this trend is on the rise. The multibillion dollar Genetic Engineering Industry, which is protected by the World Trade Organization, has taken control of crop seeds and medicinal plants many of which have been cultivated by Indigenous people for thousands of years. Accordingly, Indigenous people's agricultural systems are being devastated by the transgenic crop industry, placing the food security of Indigenous people at risk.

In a positive move by the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR), a network of scientists and institutions related to agriculture and biodiversity have collected thousands of seeds, plants and germplasms. Most of those species are from Indigenous territories and there is an agreement between CGIAR and the FAO to hold those seeds and germplasms for four years and ban their patenting. Four years was the maximum amount of time allowed by the governments represented at the FAO. The FAO, under the UN, has set up a Special Committee on genetic resources, but Indigenous Peoples and traditional farmers were only allowed as observers and rarely consulted. The Committee meets twice a year to discuss the issues of seed genes, conservation, biogenetics and patenting.

Although the Convention on Biodiversity is under the United Nations' Environmental Program, signatory governments are driven by market principles and the rules of the World Trade Organization (WTO). Most European governments have shown sympathy and cautious support to Indigenous people. Yet, in June of 1998, the European Union passed a new directive on intellectual property rights expanding the power of individuals and corporations to claim monopoly rights over genetic resources and biodiversity related knowledge. The World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) under the U.N. has initiated discussions to include the point of view of Indigenous people in their policies. In July 1998 it invited Indigenous delegates to Geneva to review the Intellectual Property Rights. Although WIPO had good intentions, Indigenous delegates were skeptical because WIPO has little influence over the WTO. Their skepticism was compounded by the Indigenous worldview that ancient knowledge does not belong to a single individual or group. To Indigenous people, the concept of Intellectual property is a Western definition that appropriates the natural world.

International Indigenous Networks

Indigenous organizations have responded to the growing threat from governments and corporations by organizing regional and local meetings and forming alliances with non-Indigenous groups. By making alliances with other Indigenous people, peasants, environmentalists and scientists, we can better repel this current onslaught of colonization. Some of these coalitions include: the Indigenous Peoples' Biodiversity Network, the Alliance of Indigenous and Tribal Peoples of the Tropical Forests, and the Coordinating Body of Indigenous Peoples of the Amazon Basin. Abya Yala Fund has been participating and providing technical and small financial support to the Global Network of Indigenous Peoples and communities. Together we have turned to the Convention on Biodiversity, in an attempt to establish a legal basis to stop "biopiracy," and create alternatives for greater control over traditional knowledge and biological resources.

At the Second Indigenous Forum in Bratislava, Indigenous people demanded a moratorium on bioprospecting resources by transnational corporations in Indigenous territories. Senator Lorenzo Muelas, a Guambiano Indian from Colombia observed: "We can demand a moratorium here, but right now the corporations are going to our communities offering money in exchange for our resources. We need to make a global alliance with concerned citizens and contact our communities to inform them about the dangers of this new wave of colonization."

While Indigenous people are still victims of violence in many countries, displacement from their traditional territories, malnutrition, poverty and cultural decimation, there are new threats which Indigenous people have to fight against. Biopiracy and patenting of medicinal plants and knowledge cannot be fought at the national level because these threats come from transnational corporations. Governments and corporations are rapidly depleting the natural resources of traditional Indigenous territories and are leaving Indigenous groups without a way to subsist. Fortunately, Indigenous people have been organizing at the International level for over two decades and have made great progress forming alliances with other Indigenous groups and concerned individuals around the world. Now we must achieve planning and decision making powers to refine the Convention on Biodiversity and compel governments to implement and enforce the articles referring to Indigenous People.

Article written by Nilo Cayuqueo, Mapuche Indian from Argentina and Co-Director of the Abya Yala Fund. He has been active in the Indigenous Movement for thirty years and in the Global Network of Indigenous people on Biodiversity for five. He also helped to coordinate the book ³Protecting what¹s Ours, Indigenous Peoples and Biodiversity² published by the South and Meso American Indian Rights Center (SAIIC).

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