The tropical humid forests of Mesoamerica are home to great biodiversity
Credit: Claudio Contreras
Fund Launched for Preserving Plant Genetics
By Sabrina Oo
More than forty million dollars are at hand to fund plant genebanks this year. But activists doubt that the fund will ensure equal North-South access to biodiversity.
PENANG, Malaysia, (Tierramérica).- The announcement of the creation of a Global Crop Diversity Trust during the recent biodiversity summit in Malaysia is applauded by many, but has also raised alarm among environmental activists due to its "corporate profile".
The Trust will dish out its first batch of grants to gene banks later this year, said Emile Frison, director of International Plant Genetic Resources Institute (IPGRI), during the 7th Conference of Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity, held Feb. 9-20 in Kuala Lumpur.
To date, it has raised 41 million dollars and another 60 million is currently being finalized with potential donors, he said.
The target is to raise enough for an endowment fund of 260 million dollars to permanently secure its financial position in the conservation of germplasm accessions in the form of plant or seed samples of crops, forage and agroforestry trees.
These genetic samples represent a valuable agricultural inheritance for the future of humanity.
The launch of the Trust was praised by authorities and experts from most of the 188 countries party to the Convention on Biological Diversity, who met this month to discuss the implementation of key measures, such as the sustainable use of biodiversity and equitable participation in its benefits.
Formerly known as the Global Conservation Trust, it was founded by the Future Harvest Centers of the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR) and the FAO (United Nations Food Agricultural Organization).
According to the Trust's original constitution, the collections of plant germplasm in the genebanks were to be held in trust under the auspices of the FAO for the benefit of the international community.
As of 2001, the Trust held 666,000 germplasm samples in 11 genebanks owned by the CGIAR, making it custodian to the world's largest international crop diversity collections.
But the Trust has taken on a corporate identity, say its critics. Its Constitution and Establishment Agreement have been redrawn to give it an international, independent, legal status. And then came the transnationals.
Syngenta AG -- the world's largest agriculture trade company, with a focus on genetically modified seeds -- has recently given the Trust a bit boost.
Heinz Imhof, Syngenta's chairman of the board of Trustees, announced his financial commitment at a seminar on food security and biodiversity:
"I would like to reconfirm Syngenta's financial support for the Global Crop Diversity Trust once it is established. In the meantime, our Foundation will also continue to provide support for the development of the Trust."
Presently, Andrew Bennet, the Syngenta Foundation's director for Sustainable Agriculture, sits in the Trust's Interim Panel of Eminent Experts.
"Is this going to guarantee that farmers will have easier access to these materials? Could it be certain that these materials will not be leaked and facilitate bio-piracy? It must provide iron-clad guarantees," said Patrick Mulvany, of the UK-based Intermediate Technology Development Group.
The high cost of sustaining these genebanks could mean the diversion of funding for other equally important conservation initiatives, and it is not clear that it can ensure equitable North-South sharing of genetic resources, he said.
"The policy context for the Trust is set by the International Treaty of Genetic Resources for which the Trust serves simply as a funding mechanism," responded Frison.
When asked if the Trust might be in the position to resist influence from industrial or governmental donors, he added that, there would be no strings attached to sponsors of the Trust and that companies like Syngenta are supporting the initiative solely for its nobility.
According to a report that year, led by Bonwoo Koo, research fellow at the International Food Policy Research Instate (IFPRI, a 149-million-dollar endowment invested at a real annual interest rate of four percent would generate annual revenue flows of 5.7 million dollars, enough to cover the costs of conserving and distributing its holding of all CGIAR genebanks in perpetuity.
The Parties to the Convention were also encouraged to consider ratification of the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources, an important instrument for the conservation and sustainable use of genetic resources leading to hunger reduction and poverty eradication.
Meanwhile, talks on the broader issues of access to genetic resources and sharing the benefits are at a deadlock at the Convention on Biological Diversity.
The treaty acknowledges the sovereign rights of developing nations over their genetic resources, and that they may have a share in the profits derived from its usage by foreign enterprise.
However, the industrialized countries want greater access to the rich genetic resources of the developing countries, but are unwilling to agree to the developing countries' requests for the profit-making products of these genetic raw materials to be covered in the negotiations.
They also rejected the developing countries' call for a legally binding international regime, preferring voluntary guidelines and bilateral agreements.
To facilitate an access and benefit-sharing scheme, each country was required to prepare an inventory on its biodiversity, in which countries ahead in this system were willing to offer help, said Alberto Cardenas Jiménez, Mexico's Environment Minister who represented 15 developing nations at the Kuala Lumpur meet.
"Countries like South Africa, Kenya, Mexico and Costa Rica have computerized systems in place to record their resources," he said.
However a critic warned that this may be akin to "declaring your assets to the robbers."
* Sabrina Oo is a Tierramérica contributor.