Some International Biodiversity Policy Developments for 2017 and onwards

Elpidio V. Peria
8 January 2017


The facade of the Moon Palace Arena, a luxurious resort and golf course,  in Cancun, Mexico,  where CBD COP 13 was  held (EVPeria)

The UN system held big environment policy-related meetings near the close of 2016 and we reported on some of them, like the 22nd Conference of the Parties (COP22) of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) held in Marrakesh, Morocco in November 2016, but another equally-relevant international arena, the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity, held its 13th biennial meeting (COP 13) in Cancun, Mexico from December 4 to 17, 2016 and the Philippines, as a megadiverse country, participated actively in the said meeting and what follows in this post are some key developments where the Philippines fought hard during late-night negotiations, along with fellow developing countries, to shape international biodiversity policy, at least closer, with their national interests.

Resource Mobilization

Easily the topmost concern of all countries who are Parties to the Convention is this : where will the money come from to do all those biodiversity conservation efforts to minimize biodiversity loss until 2020? The Parties themselves back in 2012 answered that, and said that the countries themselves will have to cough up all that money with some commitments from developed country parties (though during the late-night negotiations where countries actually reveal their real stance contrary to their usually-glowing press releases, developed country parties said that it is not only they who are obligated to mobilize some funds for international biodiversity conservation efforts but actually all countries both developed and developing) to double the international financial flows to biodiversity conservation work.

The assessment made by Parties of this self-appointed task, found in Decision XIII/20, para. 3 is that there is insufficient information gathered from the financial reporting frameworks submitted by Parties, which limits the basis for a comprehensive assessment of progress towards achieving the targets, thus it all boils down to countries complying with what they said they will come up with. Towards this end, they set 1 July 2017 as the new deadline for reporting on their resource mobilization efforts. The Philippines reiterated the obligation towards the doubling of international financial flows notwithstanding these difficulties in reporting, and that can be found in para. 5 of the same decision.

Synthetic Biology

If there was one agenda item where the room was jam-packed with participants and observers, it was synthetic biology, and the Parties had a very tough discussion on whether to adopt the working definition on the subject matter which was arrived at by an experts’ group that met last September 2015 to discuss how the Convention should address the issue. The working definition went this way:

“synthetic biology is a further development and new dimension of modern biotechnology that combines science, technology and engineering to facilitate and accelerate the understanding, design, redesign, manufacture and/or modification of genetic materials, living organisms and biological systems.”

The said definition was agreed to be a starting point for the purpose of facilitating scientific and technical deliberations under the Convention and its Protocols and this can be found in para. 4 of Decision XIII/17.

Another aspect of the synbio decision above involved the matter of gene drives. Gene drives are unique characteristics of gene sequences that hastens the replication of these sequences in a population. As explained by Sonia Ben Ouagrham-GormleyKathleen M. Vogel, a gene drive is a process by which scientists force an altered gene into an animal population to permit the inheriting of a desired trait at a higher rate and with greater certainty than through natural reproduction alone. Normally, a specific gene has a 50 percent chance of being transmitted to an offspring. Over time, however, some inherited genes may dissipate and eventually disappear from the population, particularly if they make the population less fit. With a gene drive, not only can scientists ensure that an altered gene will be transmitted with greater certainty, even if it makes the animal less fit, but also that it will spread at a faster pace across an animal population to reach an inheritance rate of nearly 100 percent.

The issue relating to gene drives in the negotiations is whether to apply the same precautionary approach that was agreed by the CBD on the issue back in 2012 in Decision XI/11, para. 4 and reiterated in the preamble of Decision XII/24 and the Parties negotiated hard on this and came up with the compromise text which is para. 2 of Decision XIII/17, which reads :

Reiterates paragraph 3 of decision XII/24 and notes that it can also apply to some living modified organisms containing gene drives.

Digital sequence information on genetic resources

Another issue that arose from the agenda item in synthetic biology but became the subject of a distinct negotiating group in the COP because of its cross—cutting nature, as in it will affect the work of the Conference of the Parties to the CBD as well as the Parties to the Nagoya Protocol, is the matter of what is called digital sequence information on genetic resources, the data on genetic sequences that was initially taken up by the experts’ group on synthetic biology in September 2015 where Parties raised the issue of the need to discuss the fair and equitable benefit-sharing aspects (we wrote on this in the previous post last year on biopiracy of genetic resources over the internet) of the exchange since, if these genetic sequences relating to the unique biochemical compounds from the natural products of a developing country’s unique biodiversity can be easily transferred between a research entity and the product developer, they will no longer need to get the usual permits or agreements to share benefits from these originating countries and this is already being done to the gene sequences of, for example, vanilla, which is difficult to reproduce fast to meet international market needs.

What Parties agreed to, which is laid out in Decision XIII/16, is a fact-finding process where submissions will be made by Parties (there is a parallel submission process among Parties to the Nagoya Protocol in COP-MOP2 Nagoya Decision 2/14) and other stakeholders and then the Executive Secretary will commission a fact-finding and scoping study and both of these inputs will be given to the Ad Hoc Technical Experts’ Group on Digital Sequence Information on Genetic Resources who will meet and make further recommendations which will be submitted to the Subsidiary Body on Scientific, Technical and Technological Advise or SBSTTA for its further deliberations. It was clearly stated in the Nagoya COP-MOP 2 Decision that COP-MOP 3 of the Nagoya Protocol will definitely take this up as part of its agenda, particularly the potential implications of the use of digital sequence information on genetic resources for the objective of the Nagoya Protocol but the COP Decisions are silent whether the next COP, COP 14, in Egypt, to be held in 2018, will take it up. What the shape of the recommendations will be by SBSTTA will depend on the recommendations that will be arrived at by the above-mentioned experts’ group.

Global Multilateral Benefit-Sharing Mechanism (GMBSM)

This is another agenda item that the Philippines also fought hard such that the process of making the determination of whether there is a need for this mechanism will continue, since the Experts’ Group that was tasked to take this up said there is not enough information at the moment to make a decision on whether there is a need for this mechanism.

This global mechanism was part of the compromise that went into the adoption of the Nagoya Protocol and this was largely supported by the African Group when it first came up, though the way the text in the treaty came out is that there should be an agreement first whether there is a need for this kind of mechanism.

Developed countries have the view that this mechanism should not be the platform to raise past issues of biopiracy, especially those that happened before the Convention on Biological Diversity and even the Nagoya Protocol, entered into force, which was 1993 and 2014, respectively, and the way the issue of lack of benefit-sharing is to be identified, is only in instances that occur in transboundary situations or for which it is not possible to grant or obtain prior informed consent. Developing countries have the opposite view and they are determined to show that their pre-CBD cases of biopiracy, which continued up to the present time, should also be considered in the discussion.

The compromise text, in Nagoya COP-MOP Decision 2/10, mainly invites Parties to submit such information on the implementation of the provisions of the Protocol related to traditional knowledge associated with genetic resources held by indigenous peoples and local communities to the Executive Secretary and further requests the Executive Secretary to compile this information for consideration by the Subsidiary Body on Implementation and by the third meeting of the Conference of the Parties serving as the meeting of the Parties to the Nagoya Protocol.

The Philippines inserted the invitation to indigenous peoples and local communities, so they can also submit such information directly to the Executive Secretary to broaden the picture on this issue and inform the next COP-MOP of Nagoya to make a decision on this agenda item.

There were other relevant decisions for the Philippines, particularly Decision XIII/3 on the mainstreaming of biological diversity into various sectors, namely agriculture, forests, fisheries and aquaculture and tourism, including business, sub-national and local governments, indigenous peoples and local communities and gender; Decision XIII/18 on the adoption of the Mo’otz Kuxtal (meaning “root of life” in the Maya language, one of the indigenous groups of Mexico) Voluntary Guidelines for the development of mechanisms, legislation or other appropriate initiatives to ensure the free and prior informed consent of indigenous peoples and local communities when their traditional knowledge is accessed and also Decision XIII/10 on marine debris and Decision XIII/12 on ecologically or biologically significant marine areas and Decision XIII/13 on invasive alien species.

The most noteworthy achievement of the Philippine delegation however in Cancun is the support work provided to the nomination and eventual election of Director Theresa Mundita Lim of the Biodiversity Management Bureau of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) to be the next Chair of the Subsidiary Body on Scientific, Technical and Technological Advise or SBSTTA. This is a very prestigious and significant achievement since the SBSTTA can be likened to the UNFCCC’s Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), though very recently, part of the work of SBSTTA was parceled out to the Inter-governmental Panel on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES), which was designed by the UN Environment Program to be the analog of the IPCC. The SBSTTA is important since most of the decisions that will be taken up in the next COP in Egypt in 2018, will have to be vetted by it, and it will also be tasked to guide the development of the next global biodiversity assessment and it will have to work with other international bodies to produce this in time for that meeting.

This COP in Cancun is also the first instance where colleagues from the Department of Science and Technology, the Department of Health and the Department of Agriculture, including the National Committee on Biosafety of the Philippines, overseeing the country’s commitments to the Cartagena Protocol, attended the conference together with other agencies implementing the Convention on Biological Diversity. We will gather updates from them how the agenda items on Cartagena Protocol turned out, and if time and space permits, we will report on this here in this blog. This Cancun meeting has shown that such coordination and collaboration should continue at the international level for its positive results and become the norm also at the national level.


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