World Meets to Ensure Diversity of Living Organisms

Provider: Environment News Service

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia, February 9, 2004 (ENS) -"The survival of the human species depends on biological diversity. Without biodiversity, there would be no trees to produce oxygen, no water catchments and no biodegradation, so that organic waste would just accumulate," says Hamdallah Zedan, executive secretary of the Convention on Biological Diversity. "The services provided by biodiversity are inestimable and yet, because they are free, they are often overlooked, to the point where biodiversity is still being lost at an alarming rate."

Zedan is in Kuala Lumpur at the Putra World Trade Centre today with more than 2,000 delegates from around the world for the opening of the seventh meeting of the Conference of the Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity (COP7).

Cabinet ministers and other government representatives, world renowned scientists, and delegates from nongovernmental organizations will consider as priority issues mountain ecosystems, protected areas, the transfer of technology and technology cooperation, and the provision of benefits to people, particularly indigenous people.

The convention is expected to solidify a 10 year strategy to create a global system of marine protected areas by 2012 that includes the worlds oceans and seas beyond national jurisdiction. This high seas protected area network was agreed at the last Conference of Parties in April 2002.

The conference is expected to follow up on the call for action issued at the 2002 Johannesburg World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD) to negotiate an international regime on access and benefit sharing, to help developing countries and indigenous peoples share in the wealth created by their native plants and organisms.

Threats to biodiversity and to indigenous people affect industrialized as well as developing nations. Hawaiian sovereignty activist attorney Mililani Trask is among those urging the state of Hawaii to pass legislation prohibiting the sale or transfer of biological resources and biological diversity, including human genetic material.

At a biodiversity forum in Honolulu last week in advance of COP7, Trask said a law is necessary because the University of Hawaii is proceeding with contracts to sell the rights to Hawaii's biogenetic resources to private corporations.

The issue of biopollution by genetically modified crops is of concern to Trask and to all Hawaiians whose health has been shown to improve when they eat a diet of indigenous, natural foods. "Hawaii is the state that has the greatest number of extinct species and the highest number of endangered species, Trask said, and now, Hawaii has more genetically modified crop field trials of any of the states. "At the present time," she said, "we have over 4,500 biotech experiments in our state, more than 400 in the past year."

Today's keynote speaker Dr. Emile Frison, director general of the International Plant Genetic Resources Institute, addresses these issues in his talk, Biodiversity, nutrition and health: making a difference to hunger and conservation in the developing world. A Belgian national who has spent 18 years working in the field of plant genetic resources, Frison sees both agricultural biodiversity and genetic engineering as important in the overall goal of reducing hunger and poverty in a sustainable manner.

Jeffrey Smith, author of the new book "Seeds of Deception" is an invited speaker in Kuala Lumpur. He will tell delegates how genetically modified crops such as corn and soy grown in the United States have flooded the world market without long term safety testing. He explains how the modified proteins in these crops have led to increased incidence of allergies and other diseases that are not attributed to these biotech crops.

"We know that food related illnesses in the United States doubled between 1994 and 2001, corresponding to the introduction of a lot of these foods. We know that soy allergies skyrocketed in Great Britain by 50 percent right after soy that had been genetically modified was imported from the United States," says Smith. "We all are the guinea pigs."

Award winning Canadian scientist, environmentalist and broadcaster, Dr. David Suzuki, chair of the David Suzuki Foundation presented the opening keynote speech, The Challenge of the 21st Century – Setting the Real Bottom Line.

"Right now," Suzuki says, "human activities are degrading these natural systems and destroying biological diversity. Pollution, habitat destruction, global warming and other human-induced problems are pushing many species and services to their limits. As we degrade these services, we create a less healthy world for humans, as well as other animals. To leave a healthy planet for coming generations, we desperately need to develop sustainable practices that don't damage the ecosystems on which we depend." "In other words," Suzuki says, "we need to learn to live within our means."

Representing multiple stakeholders from the World Health Organization to the IUCN-World Conservation Union, the Global Biodiversity Forum wound up three days of meetings last night in Kuala Lumpur just prior to the formal opening of COP-7.

Three key issues were addressed – livelihoods, poverty, and biodiversity; technology transfer and capacity building with equity; and the value of biodiversity for securing the future.

One emerging issue is that of working with, engaging, empowering and meeting the needs, aspirations and expectations of neighbors and residents of protected areas, and at the same time fulfilling management and conservation goals, the IUCN says.

An issue of concern to delegates at the September 2003 IUCN World Parks Congress in Durban and brought forward here by local and indigenous communities is that protected areas may conserve biodiversity for the national global good, but they may also deepen poverty and increase marginalization locally, resulting in lost livelihoods, lack of development due to remoteness, poor economic opportunities, dislocation and dispossession of traditional areas.

At the Global Forum, the IUCN offered to establish an ad hoc open ended working group on protected areas to support and review implementation of the program of work on protected areas and report to the Conferences of the Parties.

Martha Chouchena-Rojas, who heads the IUCN delegation in Kuala Lumpur, said, The COP7 provides an important opportunity to implement the three objectives of the Convention in a balanced way, including through the development of a work program on protected areas, adoption of sustainable use principles, and consideration of the mandate of WSSD to negotiate an international regime to promote and safeguard fair and equitable sharing of benefits arising from the utilization of genetic resources."

The Convention on Biological Diversity is one of the key agreements adopted at the Earth Summit, in Rio de Janeiro, in 1992. It has been ratified by 187 countries and the European Community who, together, constitute the Conference of the Parties.

COP7 will decide on a multi-year program of work for the Convention up to 2010. It will also consider a framework for setting targets, sub-targets, and indicators. "These will define what we hope to achieve in the near future," said Zedan, "and provide ways of measuring our level of success."

The definition of biodiversity as adopted in the Convention on Biological Diversity – "The variability among living organisms from all sources including, inter alia, terrestrial, marine and other aquatic ecosystems and the ecological complexes of which they are a part; this includes diversity within species, between species and ecosystems."

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