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.

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