Updated: November 26, 2010 11:33 IST

Equitable sharing of biodiversity benefits

D. Murali
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Two instructive examples of ‘benefit sharing’ cited in ‘Protection of Himalayan Biodiversity: International environmental law and a regional legal framework’ by Ananda Mohan Bhattarai ( are about Costa Rica and Cameroon.

Extracts from Costa Rica

The first is the story of agreements signed in the late 1980s and early 1990s between Costa Rica’s National Biodiversity Institute (INBio) – a private, non-profit organisation established by the government as a focal point – and the US-based Merck Pharmaceuticals.

Under the agreements, INBio would provide Merck with chemical extracts from wild plants, animals, insects and micro-organisms from Costa Rica’s conserved wild lands for Merck’s drug screening programme, which in the first phase was to be processed by INBio scientists in Costa Rica and then screened by Merck scientists in the US and Spain, the author narrates.

Park Fund

Further details are that Costa Rica was to provide Merck with 10,000 plant, animal or microbial samples, in return for a two-year research and sampling budget of $1.135 million and royalties on any resulting commercial products. “INBio agreed to contribute 10 per cent of the budget and 50 per cent of royalties to the government’s National Park Fund for the conservation of national parks in Costa Rica. Merck agreed to provide technical assistance and training to help establish drug research capacity in Costa Rica.” This example is a good precedent on the fair and equitable distribution of the benefits of the use of genetic resources among all those who invest in their continued existence, notes Bhattarai.

Plants from Korup forest

The second example is about the contract signed in the late 1990s between the US-based National Cancer Institute (NCI) and the Government of Cameroon following the discovery in 1993 of a forest plant species with a potential anti-AIDS chemical, ancistrocladus korupensis discovered in the Korup forest. “Under the contract, Cameroon undertook to provide the NCI with plant samples without destroying the resource in the forest, for which NCI paid to Cameroon. The payments were used for community development projects in the Korup forest region where collection was carried out. The Cameroon-NCI agreement also provides for future removal of Cameroon’s biological material for external pharmaceutical development.”

Nature product research

It should be of interest to know that 61 per cent of the 877 small-molecule new chemical entities introduced as drugs worldwide during 1981-2002 can be traced to or were inspired by natural products, as a recent survey NCI has shown. One learns that in certain areas such as anti-bacterials and the anti-cancer, the productivity of nature products is quite high; and that while nature products may not be relevant to many human diseases, they can be very effective for treating infectious diseases which are still a major killer in developing countries.

The book informs that nature product research has benefited from the development of efficient automated high throughput receptor-based screening techniques, robotics and computers, all of which have increased multi-fold the speed with which chemicals can be tested. “Although only one in about 10,000 chemicals yields a potentially valuable ‘lead,’ these new techniques have made large natural products screening programmes affordable. Researchers are thus returning to natural sources of biologically active chemicals such as plants, insects, marine invertebrates, fungi and bacterial. Over time ethno-pharmacology – the study of medicines used by traditional communities – has also been instrumental in reviving interest in nature product research…”

CBD framework

Equitable sharing of benefits through sustainable use of the components of biodiversity is considered by many developing countries as the most prized achievement of the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), the author observes. He explains that under the CBD framework benefits would accrue to the biodiversity-rich countries through a regulated regime of access to genetic resources and benefit sharing supported by technology transfer and increased partnership between the biodiversity-rich South and the technology-rich North, which would in turn create sufficient resources and motivation for conservation of biodiversity.

Himalayan accounting

Towards the end of the book, a section titled ‘accounting and payment for ecosystem services’ describes how the Himalayan system, besides sustenance to the people living in the region, also provides a very valuable ecosystem service in the form of food, forest, water, power (through hydroelectricity) to the people downstream and adjoining regions. Also, it modulates the flow of monsoon clouds and checks cold winds from flowing in from the Tibetan plateau during winter, adds Bhattarai.

He argues that the time has come to value the services, develop an incentive-based approach and pay for what the Himalayas and its people have provided; for, it is being increasingly realised that if services are left unacknowledged till the last moment they cease to exist, it becomes difficult, and sometimes even impossible to reverse the damage.

“Accounting the services that the Himalayan system provides such as maintenance of biodiversity, water quality, reduced effect to downstream life due to floods in well-maintained watersheds through sedimentation control, recreation, benefits that downstream gets through regulated flow of water, or opportunity cost incurred by the people for being engaged in terraced farming or continuing with low-yielding variety or organic farming, and so on, is necessary in this regard.”

Payment options

The author suggests that suitable schemes can be developed by identifying the sellers and buyers of the ecosystem services by creating awareness about such services and the need to pay back, and negotiating agreements. He mentions a range of options for payment schemes, in this regard, such as direct cash payment, a cap-and-trade scheme, carbon trading, certification or eco-labelling scheme, private funding, public payment schemes, payment through trust fund with the involvement of national government, or international agencies (e.g. Global Environment Facility or GEF, and Forest Carbon Partnership Facility or FCPF).

Reminding that the creation of local entitlement and prevention of economic leakage through suitable legal and institutional mechanisms are necessary components of this process, Bhattarai urges that the payment for ecosystem service should be taken as a viable scheme for conservation of biodiversity, alleviation of poverty and promotion of sustainable development in the Himalayas.

He also calls for a constructive new management approach to the issue, and the use of tools such as debt for sustainable development, micro-credit and microfinance to farmers establishing small ventures or improving the available technology, micro-insurance and such products tailored to the local needs of specific regions. “Community level projects on eco-tourism, forestry, micro-hydro development and so on, should also be brought under the banner of the payment of ecosystem service and generate funds for the promotion of sustainable development in the Himalayan region.”

Suggested addition to your ‘green’ shelf.


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