DELHI -- For the next two years, India will steer efforts to save the Earth's biodiversity during a time when its "natural capital" is being lost at an unprecedented rate.
India is hosting the UN Conference on Biodiversity, which kicks off today in the southern city of Hyderabad. This gathering is the first in what has been declared as the "UN Decade of Biodiversity." 192 countries and the European Union are participating.
The conference slogan in Sanskrit is "Prakruti Rakshathi Rakshitha" which translates into "Nature protects if she is protected."
In the next few decades, losses of flora, fauna and ocean's ecosystems will impact food supply and the livelihood of millions who depend on these resources. "The situation is extremely critical," said Ashok Khosla, head of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), the world's oldest environmental network.
"It's the worst loss in the past 50 to 60 million years when dinosaurs went extinct," Khosla added. "But governments and ecosystems have not taken any action seriously."
To highlight his point, Khosla gave the example of the endangered (Atlantic) Bluefin Tuna. In Japan, one such fish (weighing about 600 lbs) was sold for $750,000 in January. "It's indicative of how scarce it has become," he said. "Many of the fisheries that feed people around the world have collapsed."
Researchers for Nature Journal, who conducted a study in 60 protected areas of Africa, Asia and South America, found that even these "final refuges" of threatened species are "vulnerable to human encroachment and environmental stresses."
"Habitat disruption, hunting and forest-product exploitation were the strongest predictors of declining reserve health," said the study released this year.
The fight to save biodiversity began in 1992 with the UN Convention on Biodiversity, which currently has 193 parties. The United States is not a party. The three objectives of the Convention are: conservation of biodiversity, sustainable use of its components, and the fair and equitable sharing of benefits arising from the use of genetic resources.
Since then, UN conferences held every two years have produced policies and programs. But little progress has been made to put these objectives into action.
Fast forward to the UN meeting held in 2010 in Nagoya, Japan where panic set in because governments had missed targets set for 2010. Countries decided on 20 news things to do, called the "Aichi Targets." Three of these targets have to be met by 2015 including minimizing damage to coral reefs and preventing ocean acidification. Read targets here.
However, funds needed to implement policies are still missing. Developed countries have closed their pockets in the swell of the economic crisis. Latha Jishnu, the biodiversity expert at India's top environmental magazine Down to Earth, said that parties were still trying to figure out how much money was needed, and that funding for protecting the marine ecosystem was top priority.
Jishnu said that CBD parties had been asked to submit suggestions on "innovative ways of funding biodiversity" but only a handful of nations had responded. "It's pathetic," she said. "It's all about money and politics."
Some innovative thinking has focused on evaluating the economic value of losing biodiversity. For instance, what does it cost to cut down a tree or a forest? Indian economist Pavan Sukhdev has led the global study on "The Economics of Ecosystem and Biodiversity." Understanding the cost of losing biodiversity, experts say, will be critical to saving it.
Now, it's India's time to demonstrate leadership in getting words translated into actions. The South Asian nation will be president of the Conference of the Parties (COP), the decision-making body on biodiversity, for the next two years.
The key issues picked for this conference are biodiversity and livelihoods, integration of value of biodiversity in national planning, strategy for resource mobilization, coastal and marine biodiversity and operationalization of Nagoya Protocol (explained below).
Khosla stressed that India in its role as a leader needed to push for a fair deal, new technology from developed nations and research from both developed and developing nations. "India must show leadership that demonstrates championing of the poor and marginalized," he said.
India, with over 7% of recorded species in 2.4% of the world's land, is among the "megadiverse" biodiversity rich countries. It also has a huge amount of traditional knowledge, which is coded in ancient texts, such as Ayurveda, Unani and Sidha, and also non-coded, existing in oral undocumented traditions.
Access and Benefit Sharing
With its abundance of traditional knowledge, mostly resting with tribal communities, India is focusing on Access and Benefit Sharing (ABS).
Countries rich in genetic resources and traditional knowledge want companies and researchers who use that knowledge to pay for what they take.
Biodiversity-rich countries are wary of companies from developed countries using their knowledge for free. They feel it's unfair for these companies to make huge profits, especially in the field of medicine, while not sharing the benefits.
"Biodiversity exists in developing countries and it's been destroyed in the developed world," said Khosla of IUCN. "The developed countries should pay us for it instead of pharmaceutical companies taking it for free."
India pushed hard for the adoption of the Nagoya Protocol on ABS in 2010. The Protocol has been signed by 92 countries but ratified by only six. It needs at least 50 ratifications to come into force. New Delhi is getting ready to ratify it before the conference in Hyderabad concludes on October 19.
"India has been a victim of misappropriation or bio-piracy of our genetic resources and associated traditional knowledge, which have been patented in other countries (well known examples include neem and haldi)," the environment ministry said in a statement. "It is expected that the ABS Protocol, which is a key missing pillar of the CBD, would address this concern." Read full statement here.
VS Vijayan, head of the Salim Ali Foundation for nature conservation, said that ABS was a "wonderful idea if it could be implemented properly."
Vijayan, one of India's prominent ornithologists, said that India's present legislation, Biodiversity Act 2002, didn't provide enough protection to communities against exploitative agencies within India as well as multinationals.
"There is no straightforward provision in the Act that the panchayat (village council) has to give permission," he said. "It should say that a resource cannot be sold by a government to a multinational unless there is written consent of the panchayat."
The scientist further added that a Biodiversity Register listing all of India's knowledge should not be prepared unless all protections are in place. "We should not announce to the world what it is and where," he said. "Otherwise it's too easy for foreigners to get it."
Down to Earth magazine, this month, reported the experience of Kerala's Kani tribe, which shared its knowledge of arogyapacha (Trichopus zeylanicus travancoricus), a perennial herb that gave them energy as they wandered through the forests.
This plant was later used by the Tropical Botanical Garden and Research Institute (TBGRI) in Thiruvananthapuram to develop Jeevani, a drug that could fight fatigue and protect the liver.
Palpu Pushpangadan, head of TBGRI, who had met the tribe in 1987, made arrangements for benefit sharing. In 1995, the medicine was ready. In 1999, a fixed deposit was created for the tribe to receive $3,000 annually till 2008. But the arrangement was scrapped after Pushpangadan left.
Other issues also emerged. For instance, the Indian government said that arogyapacha was an endangered species that could not be picked.
Experts also warned that India's patent regime wasn't strong enough. Pushpangadan, now Director General of Amity Institute for Herbal & Biotech Products Development, who remains wary of his past experience, recommends patents without any time limit.
Pushpangadan added that India presently has 550 tribes (83 million people) who were the repositories of the bulk of the country's traditional knowledge. "And not even 20% of them are educated so they don't understand if they are exploited," he said. "They need to get maximum protection."