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Voices of a Subcontinent grappling with Climate Change


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Youth Intervention on “Synthetic Biology” in COP 12 CBD

Dispatches from Pyeongchang, S. Korea

Michelle Pazmiño & Kabir Arora

The following intervention was made on agenda item number 24 of draft decision text in Working group II dealing with “Synthetic Biology“.

Madam Chair, thank you very much for giving us the opportunity to share our position in regard to this item. We are speaking on behalf of the Global Youth Biodiversity Network.

We are representing future generations, and as so, we strongly urge parties to consider the precautionary principle when discussing this matter as we strongly feel that the risks and negative impacts imposed by synthetic biology are still unforeseeable and are not being taken fully into consideration. Scientific knowledge on the future implications of this issue is not yet mature, therefore synthetic biology is a new and emerging issue that has to be taken into account as highly relevant and influential to socio-economic and health issues.

Apart from robust unbiased scientific knowledge, it is essential to carefully analyze the economic and cultural impacts of this emerging issue before making any decision.

We echo the words of various representatives and call upon parties to remove the brackets from the draft decision text: item number 24, paragraph 3, (a, b, c, alt.)

“[(a, b, c alt) To ensure that field testing, environmental release or commercial release of organisms and products resulting from synthetic biology are not approved until a global, international, transparent, legal regulatory framework, and ensure that all guidance and assessments for organisms and products resulting from synthetic biology to comply with all obligations under the Convention and its Protocols, including environmental, socio-economic and cultural impacts;]”

In the same item, in paragraph 3 (e)

(e) To cooperate in the development and/or strengthening of human resources and institutional capacities in synthetic biology and its potential impacts in developing country Parties, in particular the least developed and small island developing States, and Parties with economies in transition including through existing global, regional, subregional and national institutions and organizations and, as appropriate, by facilitating private sector involvement. The needs of developing country Parties, in particular the least developed and small island developing States, and Parties with economies in transition, for: financial resources; access to and transfer of technology and know-how; establishing or strengthening regulatory frameworks; and the management of risks related to the release of organisms, components and products resulting from synthetic biology techniques, shall be taken fully into account in this regard;]

It is hinted that parties may facilitate private sector involvement for strengthening human resources and developing institutional capacities in synthetic biology. In this sense, we would like to remind parties that the involvement with all stakeholders including business sector is necessary, but due to their political power, we fear that their interests will steer the research and capacity building activities as well as the decision-making process regarding synthetic biology legislation which may hamper the process of strengthening human resources and developing institutional capacities.

We would also believe that is extremely necessary to have a legally binding framework if not at international level at least at the regional and sub-regional level between various governments with the aim of ensuring safety standards to avoid by all means the risk associated with synthetic biology as it moves beyond national boundaries and moves beyond time, posing as a threat to all the future generations yet to come.

Thank you Madam Chair.


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Review of implementation biodiversity action plans went missing, definitions hijacked the agenda of CBD COP

CoP 12 Working Group II

CoP 12 Working Group II

Dispatches from Pyeong Chang, S. Korea

The weather in Pyeong Chang (S. Korea) is very cold. The participants of Conference of Parties (COP) – 12 with their multiple agendas and contestations, counter statements are keeping the negotiation rooms very warm. The parties to convention are extremely thankful to Korean government for warm hospitality irrespective of the fact that everyone is freezing in plenary and working group tents. They are showing their deep gratitude by opening each and every statement they make (intervention as it is called in COP terminology), with ‘we show our gratitude to Korean Government for being a warm host’…blah, blah, blah. I’m sure the Korean government must be tired of listening to the same thing over again and again.  Ah! And then they thank the elected chair and keep reminding her that they will be very supportive.

Last day I was following the Working Group –II (Convention on Biological Diversity) where the first reading of decision draft text was undertaken with discussion on item number: 19 on the agenda of draft text i.e. Article 8 (J).

Article 8 (J) which deals with the traditional knowledge, innovation and practices of convention (on biological diversity) is one of the most contested pieces where agreement was reached over a period of time. Restating it in the archaic language of COP terminology- it has no Square Brackets.  “Article- (8) Each Contracting Party shall, as far as possible and as appropriate: (J) 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;

In addition to the first reading of draft text, the parties were also supposed to undertake the mid-term review of implementation of Article 8 (J) in their countries. While most countries from developing global south very nicely avoided the review and came up with recommendation of replacing the term ‘Indigenous and local communities’ to  a more ‘appropriate’ term coined by UN Permanent forum of Indigenous Issues  ‘Indigenous Peoples and Local Communities’.

For many of us it may not mean anything but for international environmental governance framework every word and term matters. There was visible divide on the issue. While most developing countries preferred the term given by UN forum, Canada raised the red flag. According to Canadian negotiator the change in terminology will open a new Pandora box which initiate more issues and make the discussion longer.

India while supporting the draft text on Article 8(J) actually asked for voluntary commitments according to the needs and local conditions of the country. Sujata Arora who is representing India (negotiator in Working Group II) shared the reason behind the statement and said that the voluntary commitments will give countries space to maneuver depending on the local conditions during implementation. The Article 8 (J) is about indigenous communities sadly, the agenda of representatives of indigenous groups who also give recommendations is dictated by the ones from Americas who are always present in big numbers. That was one of the others reasons of why India took this particular stand. Still Indian stand is questionable irrespective of the fact that one size will or may not fit all. Certain homogeneity in the guidelines for implementation of article will help in evolving monitoring programmes and better comparative studies.

Besides that according to her, India already has very strong provisions like Forest Rights Act which empowers indigenous communities to sustainably harvest the biodiversity produce. The National Biodiversity Authority through which access to the resources and traditional knowledge can be availed is another instrument which India has in place, to implement the given article. The domestic laws like those reiterate that commitments and road map of implementation should be voluntary as per her words.

When asked about the High Powered Committee constituted by Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change and their proposed amendments for most environmental laws in India, she declined to make any comment and said that she has no right to comment on domestic policies. I find it utterly strange as the domestic policies are going to be linked to international laws and conventions. India- for sure, will use the mentioned domestic instruments during the midterm review of implementation of Aichi Targets- especially in the conversation over Strategy Goal E: ‘Enhance implementation through participatory planning, knowledge management and capacity building’- Target 18 which includes Article 8 (J).

South Africa like India also has domestic legislation and wants the implementation to be voluntary as otherwise if a new language and changes in terminologies is undertaken then they have to change the norms at home, this makes the implementation more tedious.

The proceedings went on. And parties which include India, Brazil, Canada, Indonesia, Norway, New Zealand, Australia, Uganda and others were invited by the chair of the meeting to have a separate discussion to finalize whether the Convention on Biological Diversity will use ‘Indigenous and local communities’ or ‘Indigenous peoples and local communities’.

Further adding to the update, South African negotiator emphasized a lot on ‘resource mobilization’ for ‘capacity building’ which if I may take liberty to declare that- it is very cliché term- is in use in environmental governance framework from a long time. It is the most over-abused term under the ambit of which the failure to achieve agreed targets can be clubbed in.

Sadly we shall never have enough resources to implement the given goals, still the clock is clicking and something needs to be done. International environmental governance is driven by the spirit of volunteerism. The environmental governance mechanisms under UN & UNEP are toothless unlike the World Trade Organization agreements where countries can earn legal economic sanctions or boycott if they don’t implement the agreed framework in word and spirit. And that makes the feeble proceedings far more frustrating for those who want to bring change.

If not anything else after following the working groups, by the end of COP 12 I’ll be using a lot of jargons which will be un-understandable for the most around me. I’ll also accomplish the art of complicating the matters further with the spirit of volunteerism.