Oct 212010

Have you ever gone to your local pharmacy and picked up some new brand of medicine that really did the trick? Cured that hangover, or bruise, or upset stomach, cough or runny nose?

That wonder medicine came to the shelves of your local drugstore after years, sometimes decades, of research and development. Look at the label and read the active ingredients. Chances are the pharmaceutical company spent millions of dollars of research on developing that medicine. And to patent it.

But it’s also possible, indeed probable, the medicine in that tastefully designed bottle or package, the one you saw on TV being held up by that distinguished looking elderly actor speaking in a calm, soothing baritone (what was his name again? Had a hit TV show years ago?) originated far away from your local store. In fact, the plants, and the knowledge of their medical uses, may have well come from the lands of indigenous peoples who have harvested them for centuries, perhaps millennia, but who received little or nothing from the drug company that took them off native lands, brought them back to the lab, experimented with them and manipulated a few genes to create a new drug, got a patent, and is now making hundreds of millions of dollars annually.

Shouldn’t indigenous peoples receive some form of compensation for their discoveries and knowledge, and shouldn’t the rest of the world be willing to work out some sort of an agreement for now and into the future, as new plants that form the basis of miracle drugs are found, harvested, and then commercialized as patented medicines by drug companies?

Coming to agreement on the answers to these questions is, in a nutshell, the reason a reported 16,000 people have registered come to Nagoya for COP10. The questions, translated from United Nations dialect into common English, are:

  • Should we offer some sort of compensation to indigenous peoples for medicines from their traditional lands already on the market?
  • Should we sign contracts directly with them so the next time a drug company is hiking through a biodiverse rich environment, they’ll be doing so with the approval of whoever lives on the land those plants come from?
  • And how do we determine, legally, whether the knowledge of how to manipulate those plants came from ancient oral traditions or a peer-reviewed article in a scientific magazine?
  • And if payments are to be made to indigenous peoples, how are they to be paid, and what does this mean for drugstore prices in developed countries?

The name of the new protocol that is supposed to answer, as best it can, these questions and others even more complex is the Access and Benefit Sharing (ABS) Protocol. Never heard of it? Don’t be surprised. Few outside the scientific community and biotech industry ever have. But since Monday, it has been the focal point for discussions at COP10 and success or failure to reach an agreement after 18 years of disagreement will make or break COP10, and, possibly, the UN Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), which runs COP10.

Normally, at UN conferences, all-night marathon negotiating sessions take place just before senior ministers arrive. Two-week conferences like COP10 have a pattern: lots of posturing and bluffing in the beginning, lots of fiery rhetoric and, depending on how far apart the parties were before the conference, either genuine anger and frustration at the lack of progress, or tense statements but civilized discourse and reasonable negotiating hours that end with cocktails and friendly conversations.

But that’s not happening at COP10. Three days into the conference, and delegates have begun pulling all-nighters, with Tuesday’s ABS negotiations going until 5:30 a.m. and Wednesday’s also going late into the night Remember, COP10 still has a week and a half to go.

On the one hand, the overtime is proof that delegates are serious about trying to get something serious done. On the other hand, it also shows clearly that the deep divisions that have prevented an ABS treaty for the past 18 years remain deep, and that barring some major concessions and compromises soon, ministers will arrive in a week’s time to find little more than statements that commit nobody to anything concrete in the negotiating text.

More all-nighters are ahead, it seems.

Eric Johnston is a deputy editor for The Japan Times and is in Nagoya covering COP10.

Oct 192010

It’s not easy being a soil scientist at a meeting of the Convention on Biological Diversity. After all, when tigers, whales, and orchids are in danger, who cares about worms? “It would be an important step if anyone here at COP 10 noticed soil biodiversity exists,” said Luca Montanarella, SOIL Action Leader with the European Commission here to promote a brand new European Atlas of Soil Biodiversity that he edited.

No one knows exactly how many organisms live underground, but Montanarella said they probably represent at least a quarter, and probably over half, of all the species on Earth. Soil-dwelling species range from moles (one of the few vertabrates that spends its whole life underground) to ants, beetles, spiders and millipedes. The vast majority of species that live in dirt, however, are too small to see with the naked eye. This category includes fantastically bizarre creatures, like the Polyacanthus aculeatus (a spine-covered micro-armadillo), the Paracineta lauterborn (a globular protozoan which would not be out of place in a pack of Pokemon cards) and the Milnesium tardigradum (imagine a crumpled paper bag with feet).

Lest you think these underfoot critters have little relevance for your life, recall that healthy soil forms the literal base of our food supply, and soil critters are indispensable for healthy soil. Soil is also a crucial carbon sink, a sponge for rainfall that regulates water supplies, and even a source for medicines. For instance, rapamycine, a key drug used to prevent rejection of organ transplants, is produced using a microbe discovered in soil from Easter Island.

It’s impossible to say just how many soil organisms are endangered, Montanarella said, because most haven’t been tracked with the same attention given to more glamorous species. Nevertheless, agrochemicals, soil compaction from heavy farm machinery, and pavement all pose major threats to the creatures that live inside the earth.

About 25 or so people came to hear Montanarella talk today at a lunchtime event  (which, for undisclosed reasons, had been relegated to a distant and secluded wing of the conference hall). Enthusiasm in the room was high, and several delegates in the audience asked what they could do to raise the political profile of dirt. For now, Montanarella said he’d be happy if policy makers just stopped ignoring.

Oct 182010
A view of the Nagoya Congress Center (Setsuko Kamiya photo)

A view of the Nagoya Congress Center (Setsuko Kamiya photo)

You would think that a conference that was once billed as a meeting designed to come to an agreement  on a “Kyoto Protocol” for all living things would get just a bit more media respect. Or public attention.

There is no doubt that the  COP10 conference taking place in Nagoya between Oct. 18 and 29 will tackle some issues basic to the surivial of the planet, and of the human species. The goals of the conference include reviewing the progress, or, more properly, lack thereof, in conserving biodiversity resources over the past decade, assessing what went right and what went wrong, and then coming to an agreement on how much to protect the world’s terristrial and marine areas over the next decade.

You would also think that such a conference would attract the tens of thousands of people who showed up in Copenhagen last December for a climate change conference, including nearly 150 world leaders. But, in fact, COP10 appears to a be conference few people have ever heard of, and one whose importance to the politicians, and therefore the international media, is distinctly less than climate change.

Why? Several reasons have been offered. First, the thing is being held in Nagoya of all places. A conference focusing on biodiversity and preservation and conservation of the environment being in Nagoya?  One can already hear those in other Japanese cities snickering at the irony. However, jokes aside, a combination of financial factors (a high yen keeping NGOs and many delegates away, the costs involved in getting to Nagoya from abroad, a busy autumn schedule of other environmental conferences related to climate change, biodiversity’s more glamorous twin) means international politcal and media attention on COP10 has been far less prominent than is the case with climate change.

But if COP15 in Copenhagen was a three-ring circus, COP10 in Nagoya, as it begins at least, has the feel of an academic conference at a medium-sized university. Discussions in the sessions and hallways are far more scientific and technical than COP15, and the solutions to problems like what to conserve and how to conserve it in a way that leads to revitalized biodiversity are often highly arcane and always very political.  The NGO presence is noticably less than what it was in Copenhagen at the beginning, and, as one media representative asked, where are all of the protestors?  With the exception of Falun Gong members passing out literature in front of the the station closest to the convention center, NGOs at COP10 have to take it to the streets. That, of course, is likely to change as the conference gets underway. But it’s hard to imagine 200,000 people marching through downtown Nagoya on behalf of biodiversity, which is roughly the number that were reportedly in Copenhagen last December marching for an agreement to halt global warming.

In short, the discussions at COP10 do not lend themselves as easily to summarization in a short newspaper piece or a 30-second soundbite. So, bear with us hacks here at COP10, as we attempt to make sense of scientists and policymakers speaking about complex issues with complex solutions in UN-speak.

JT Staff Writer Eric Johnston will be in Nagoya for the COP10 conference, which runs from October 18-29, and blogging on a semiregular basis.

Oct 062010

This is where we’ll be covering the stories that fall between the cracks at the 10th meeting of the Conference of the Parties to the United Nations’ Convention on Biological Diversity, being held in Nagoya from Oct. 18 to 29.

Stay tuned for updates.

 Posted by at 7:24 pm