2010 is the International Year of Biodiversity, and this week, signatories to the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) are meeting in Nagoya, Japan. It is hoped that this 10th Conference of Parties (COP10) will see the development of a plan to address drastic worldwide decline in biodiversity. The Indian Minister of Environment and Forests Mr. Jairam Ramesh will speak at the event, and is expected to boast of India’s efforts to protect its rich biological resources. However, even as the Minister and the COP10 discuss worldwide threats to biodiversity, the Indian Government is ignoring serious biodiversity threats of its own creation.
Holes in biodiversity protection scheme
The Biological Diversity Act 2002 was created to help India meet its obligations under the CBD1. The Act creates a regime to protect India’s biological resources, and to ensure the equitable sharing of the benefits of their use. It establishes the National Biodiversity Authority (the Authority), which, along with various state boards, has the responsibility to allow or disallow the use of any particular biological resource, depending on the threat to biodiversity the use creates.
However, a recent government action has shown a serious flaw in this scheme. Section 40 of the Act allows the Central Government to issue notification that the use of certain species will not require approval from the Authority. On 26 October 2009, the Indian Environment Ministry used this section to quietly issue a notification2 removing 190 plant species, including 15 confirmed endangered species, from the protection of the Biological Diversity Act, provided they are traded as commodities.
The removed plants include high value spices, crops, fruits and medicinal plants, used, for example, to treat heart disease. It is feared that this notification will greatly increase exploitation of these resources. The caveat that the removal only applies where they are traded as commodities is not an adequate protection. Firstly, the regulatory mechanism to ensure these plants are only used for this purpose is weak, as no authority has the capacity to monitor this. Secondly, it may be that the trading of the plants as commodities presents the biggest threat to these species’ survival. The Minister’s clarification [See Appendix I] that the notification only affects plants to be exported does nothing to allay these fears.
Under the Biological Diversity Act, the Authority is obliged to engage with local stakeholders and State Biodiversity Boards about these decisions. Despite this, no one, not even the State Boards, was informed of the decision, even after it was made. It is only through Environment Support Group’s (ESG) research and publications that anyone other than the issuer is aware of the notification.
Endangered species to be exported
Most alarmingly, ESG has discovered that 15 of the species for which protection is removed are already recognized as endangered. This fact has been confirmed by the preeminent world body on environment protection, the IUCN [see Appendix II]. Allowing endangered species to be freely traded is a severe derogation from the CBD, and is a patent violation of India’s Wildlife Protection Act. ESG pointed out this serious issue to Minister Ramesh in a letter dated 16 February 2010. A response was received stating that the issue of endangered species being on the list would be looked into [see Appendix III]. To date, despite repeated requests, no further response has been received.
ESG is continuing to push for this matter to be addressed by the government, and has gained the support of several parliamentarians, who have endorsed these concerns to the Minister. If the government is serious about protection of biodiversity, it must act now and withdraw this notification. It also must revise Section 40 of the Act so that future notifications cannot take place without proper consultation and assurance that they will not harm endangered species.
Genetically Modified Eggplant/Bt Brinjal
Another major question mark is currently hanging over the Indian government’s commitment to the CBD. This involves the planned release of genetically modified (GM) eggplant varieties (Bt brinjal) by a consortium led M/s Mahyco, an Indian seed company with substantial investment from US multinational, Monsanto. This is despite widespread concerns about the safety, fairness to local communities, and effects on biodiversity of this release.
A key concept in biodiversity protection described in the CBD is Access and Benefit Sharing (ABS); in fact, promoting ABS is one of the three main goals of the Convention, and is a focus of negotiations at the COP10 meeting. It is recognized that if biological resources are to be sustainably managed, local stakeholders must be allowed to share in the benefits of their utilization. With its large, usually poor, population which is dependent on the land, nowhere in the world is ABS more important than India.
Under the Biological Diversity Act, where an intellectual property right has been gained from a biological resource, i.e. where GM organisms are used commercially, the Authority can make an ABS order3. The Bt Brinjal was developed in India using local brinjal varieties spliced with modified genes. However, no ABS order was made, and the only beneficiaries of this project will be the international consortium.
The question then is: why didn’t the Authority impose an ABS order? The answer came in a letter from the project’s Research Director [see Appendix IV]. It reveals that the consortium did not seek approval from the Authority, despite being specifically required to do so under the Biological Diversity Act.
The widespread release of GM crops can have highly detrimental effects on intra-species diversity, as the monoculture crowds out the local varieties. Intra-species diversity was highlighted by the CBD as a vital component of biodiversity. Therefore, it is very troubling that the Indian Government has decided to let Mahyco sidestep the authorities charged with biodiversity protection in this case.
Moreover, the local farming populations which have developed the local brinjal varieties over centuries are left with no remuneration. Given that brinjal is one of the 190 species no longer protected by the Act, these local communities may soon lose control over what used to be a vital local resource.
No response from authorities.
ESG has raised this and the removal Notification with the Karnataka Biodiversity Board (KBB), as in both instances their approval should have been sought. The KBB informed us on 21 July 2010 that they had referred the matters to various other authorities for their opinion, including universities, and the National Biodiversity Board [see Appendix IV]. However, to date they have not received a single response to their enquiries. This lack of cooperation from authorities is highly troubling.
As COP10 winds down, the focus of the global response to biodiversity will turn to India, which is to host the next meeting in 2012. How will it look if the host of the convention is actively removing protections for endangered species? How will an agreement on ABS be reached while the host is allowing multinationals to exploit local biological resources without any redress for local populations?
India must act now if it is to avoid creating a disastrous chapter in the multilateral effort to maintain biodiversity.
Environment Support Group