Countries endowed with genetic resources contained in rich flora and fauna will welcome the addition of 19 party-signatories to the Nagoya Protocol, which forms part of the UN Convention on Biological Diversity. India has been a votary of the accord, which aims at promoting fair and equitable sharing of benefits arising from the use of genetic resources, and informed, agreed terms of access to such wealth. The protocol also applies to traditional knowledge associated with genetic resources and the benefits flowing from their use. What is important is that the 61 countries that have signed on so far, and others that may follow, must ratify the text of the Convention, for it to enter into force. Once operationalised, it will provide a framework for the drafting of domestic laws in member states. Such legislation is necessary to ensure the transfer of benefits to communities that have nurtured natural resources. India has launched a domestic process under the Biological Diversity Act to document, regulate, and manage its genetic resources. But it has a long way to go in creating comprehensive documentation and involving local communities as stakeholders.
The Nagoya Protocol assumes importance in a globalised era of intensive exploitation of natural resources for commerce. Several requests are made to governments for the transfer of genetic resources abroad for research. Often these efforts are sponsored by corporates, particularly in the area of plant genetics for agriculture. It is vital that India strengthens its regime of access and benefit-sharing in such a scenario, a goal that can be aided by the Nagoya Protocol. What must be emphasised here is the importance of protecting the rights of farmers and traditional communities to extant natural resources, avoidance of restrictive patent regimes in agriculture, and the equitable sharing of proceeds of beneficial research. The danger of allowing one-sided commercial exploitation of genetic resources, such as pathogens for vaccine production, was underscored last year by Union Minister Jairam Ramesh who was holding the Environment portfolio at the time. This would merely aid for-profit activities at the cost of the host nation. India, which is scheduled to host the UN Biodiversity summit in 2012, must persuade all industrialised nations, which have a major stake in the plant and other genetic resources of the world, to ratify the Nagoya Protocol and make it a meaningful international instrument. Here is an unprecedented opportunity for all countries to begin to assign value to their natural capital, and work for the protection of mountains, forests, wetlands, birds, animals, and even lesser forms of life.