The genepool war

WHO should control the samples of germplasms that originated in the forests and wildlands of the developing countries, but are now preserved in the laboratories and seed banks of the industrialised nations? Who owns these precious plant genetic resources (PGR), that are vital for ensuring the planet's future food security? The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), a body of the uN, is all set to tackle these highly sensitive issues in a series of meetings throughout 1996. And if the first round - which took place in Rome from April 22-27 - is any indication of things to come, then the FAo bosses have an uphill task ahead.

The process seems confusing, what with myriad institutions (with their maze of acronyms confounding things further) involved in coming to some resolution of the thorny issues. The April meeting was the Second Extraordinary Session of the FAO Commission on Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture, a run-up to the mega-event - the International Technical Conference on PGR - Coming up in June in Leipzig, Germany.

In Rome, delegates from the 143 member states Of FAo had met to fine-comb through the first draft of the Global Plan of Action (GPA) for the Conservation and Sustainable Utilisation Of PGR. The same group is supposed to jointly take an oath to implement this Plan in Leipzig. But what emerged after the tumultuous week-long deliberations was a heavily bracketed document, each bracket highlighting key issues that remained unresolved.

FAo had first conceived of the GPA in 1993. In a bid to drive home to the policymakers worldwide the importance of conserving and nurturing resources, it had decided to draw up a 'costed' plan, based on a Report on the State of the World's PGR. The end result of this gargantuan exercise, which had involved national governments and a series of country-driven programmes, is a 5,000-page document. "It includes 150 country reports and the results of 11 regional and sub-regional meetings," said Cary Fowler, project manager of the preparatory process of the Leipzig conference, while presenting the report in Rome.
The South hits back But the representatives of the developing world were hardly impressed. They virtually tore apart the document. "It suffers from serious gaps and limitations," remarked K P S Chandel, director, National Bureau of Plant Genetic Resources and India's man in Rome. "It fails to provide critical information on the extent of genetic diversity and its present status, including wild relatives and wild species with potential value," Chandel retorted.

The GPA got the lion's share of brickbats. But that was more or less expected, as the mainstern of the GPA were two of the prickliest of issues in the arena of global environmental negotiations: ex situ and in situ conservation. Ex situ is conservation of genetic resources outside their natural habitat, preserved in artificial collections; in situ means the conservation of ecosystems and natural habitats and the maintenance of viable species in their natural surroundings. These are the split-lines of the North-South divide.

According to a recent survey conducted by the Canada-based NGO, Rural Advancement Foundation International, the South controls over 83 per cent of the in situ resources and technology which encompasses traditional knowledge systems of indigenous peoples, while the North controls over 75 per cent share of the ex situ resources.

The South's persistent grouse has been that Northern dominance over ex situ treasures is not merely due to more careful cataloguing of natural resources or availability of advanced technology, but because of what took place through the years before the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) came into force. The CBD recognised for the first time the sovereign rights ofthe individual state over its genetic resources and ruled that the permission of the 'country of origin' had to be obtained if anyone wanted to access these resources. It also laid down that there must be fair and equitable sharing of benefits arising out of the commercialisation resources.

Prior to this, natural resources were considered to be the 'common heritage' of humankind. International agencies like the Consultative Group Of International Agricultural Research (CGIAR) collected precious germplasms from the resource-rich Southern world and stored them in research centres and gene banks located mainly in the North. But the advent of the CBD has given rise to the tricky question regarding the future disposition of these germplasm accessions. The moot question is, how should the people of the South - 11 where it all came from" (the germplasm and the knowledge of their usage) be compensated for.

The GPA tries to tackle with this sensitive issue. But the delegates of the developing world are sceptical. "It (GPA) fails to recognise the contributions of farming communities and the issue of equitable sharing of benefits altogether," exclaims Chandel. He is convinced that India can endorse the document only after FAo does some serious rethinking on this component. His views were shared by many of his colleagues from other developing countries who are part of the G-77 forum.

They claimed that Northern governments are reluctant to accept what the CBD has set in place. Their misgivings were strengthened by the us delegates' repeated calls to remove any direct reference to the CBD in the text of the GPA. The fact that not a single representative of the CBD secretariat was present during this week-long FAO meeting, also added fuel to the speculation that all was not well between the two organisations.

However, the G-77 countries were divided on the conservation strategies chalked out in the GPA. Some felt that FAo had over-emphasised the CGIAR networks, rather than supporting national ex situ programmes, when there was a clear necessity to maintain their national gene banks for their own food security. Chandel is even sceptical about the Plan's inclination to "over- emphasise" the importance of in situ conservation so far as the developing nations are concerned. He believes that to facilitate any constructive conservatiop programme, higher priority must be given to ex situ management. This is especially relevant in the sphere of agro - bio diversity. "In situ strategy is effective in the context of wild relatives or wild species", Chandel maintains.

He is also deeply disturbed by the manner in which the preliminary cost estimates have been drawn up in the GPA. A sun of us $6.3 million has been allotted for 'supporting on-farm management and improvement of Plant genetic resources'. "It is the largest amount assigned to one particular item in the section of In situ conservation priority activity", he informs. This has been deliberately done by certain international agencies, which act as intermediary bodies disbursing funds. "Their only purpose is to gain control over the money, as they, too, survive on such funds provided by the donor governments," claims Chandel. Bitter battles
While wranglings over the issue of conservation strategies and compensation procedures were expected, what came as a rude shock to G-77 countries was the attempt made by some of the European Union and OECD nations like France, Italy, Germany and Canada, to push forests and forest genetic resources within the purview of the GPA. They saw it as a blatant move to gain free access over the tropical forests of the South by letting the CGIAR-run research teams loose on them in the guise of conducting conservation programmes. "The Commission has no mandate to include forests in the GPA. Besides, the Commission should not pre-judge the outcome ofthe critical process already underway in that area, which is the UN Commission on Sustainable Development's Intergovernmental Panel on Forests," was the firm stand taken by the Venezuelan delegate who headed the G-77 block in this session.

This did not deter the pro-forest group to push forward its stand. It would be extremely shortsighted to exclude forests from the GPA, argued Finland and France. But the G-77 stood its ground. When the pressure mounted, Malaysia proposed thai the Leipzig Conference should be postponed, so that this "new dimension" can be discussed in detail. Finally, the European Union gave in, but on the condition that the commission would take up the issue as a matter of priority after the leipzig conference.

Although the matter was temporarily settled, it certainly left a lingering bitter taste. Many veteran policy analysts in the Southern bloc are convinced that the industrialised nations deliberately flung this issue on the negotiation table to divert the attention of the representatives of the developing world from the more controversial items in the agenda like management of resources and funding.

Of course, funding was the most hotly-debated topic in the meeting. The G-77 proposed that a contact group should be set up to look into financing and the follow-up of the GPA. The prospective donors, led by the us, contended that the discussion on financing would depend on concrete proposals for action. But they were clearly reluctant to take on any new financial burdens, and as the GPA deliberations progressed, any language suggesting the creation of new funds, inevitably wound up in brackets - a label branding them as "unresolved" -But member countries have more hectic preparations to make till the curtain rises again on June 17 - this time in Leipzig.