Africans missing at key bio-safety talks

Many African countries are absent from the International Biosafety Protocol meeting in Brazil because they cannot afford to send delegates to it, with major implications for the meeting’s outcome for all developing countries.

“There just weren’t enough (financial) pledges in” from developed donor countries, said a delegate from Namibia who wished to remain anonymous.

“There were more (pledges) on Sunday, but it was too late.”

“I have not seen my fellow delegates from Burkina Faso, Democratic Republic of Congo, Lesotho, Swaziland or Morocco,” he added.

The meeting, which began on Monday, is the third of countries that are parties to the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety, a global agreement that seeks to protect biological diversity from the potential risks posed by genetic engineering.

The gathering will be followed by a larger and equally significant meeting of the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) from 20 to 31 March.

But developed countries have failed to stump up the cash in time to ensure full participation by developing countries, although they are expected to do so under article 28 of the Biosafety Protocol.

Ensuring a full house is considered necessary under the Protocol for the consensus decision-making process to receive adequate credence.

However, eminent Ethiopian environmental scientist and leader of the African group, Tewolde Egziabher, said: “Quite a few of the African group haven’t turned up.”

In an urgent letter to donors and developed countries on 3 March, Ahmed Djoghlaf, head of the CBD Secretariat, expressed “concerns about the lack of adequate financial resources for the participation of all developing countries” to CBD meetings. At the time just over half the expected money had come in, leaving a US$350,000 shortfall.

A number of participants warned that slow disbursement of funds from donor countries could influence the proceedings in Curitiba.

“Some may arrive next week as there was more money pledged for bio-diversity ‘ which developed countries have an interest in,” said one delegate. “By then the important decisions on GMO (genetically modified organism) labelling will have been made.”

The Liability and Redress Working Group is a case in point with delegates from Venezuela, Cameroon and Ethiopia highlighting poor attendance leading to a stalled timetable towards progress on this tricky topic.

Speaking at the plenary session on Tuesday, they complained about the lack of funding under article 28 ‘ a point that was noted by Malaysia’s Fatima Raya Nasron, who presided over the session.

Who is liable for harmful GM contamination, should it arise, and who should pick up the bill for potentially costly compensation are issues that remain contentious at negotiations on the Protocol.

The funding issue has also led participants to speculate about wider implications of the costs involved for full implementation of all the provisions of the Protocol.

Building the capacities of developing countries for labelling, packaging, testing, policing and a host of other issues will need to be paid for.

Governments promoting GM have fought hard to avoid responsibility for these extra costs.

They argue instead that if importers are concerned about GM material entering their country they should be prepared to pay for that information.

With the GM industry also refusing to pick up the tab, some delegates said it appeared likely that the cost would have to be borne by developing country taxpayers.

Another controversial topic that could figure in the CBD meeting is the current de facto moratorium on what is commonly known as “Terminator Technology”.

This GM technique is designed to make seeds infertile after their first harvest to prevent sharing and re-use by farmers.

As many farmers in developing countries depend on seed sharing, it could potentially have a major long-term impact on their livelihoods. There are also safety implications should the terminator genes spread into the natural environment and render other plants infertile. ‘ Panos.

August 2006
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