Updates from Sheikh (COP 14 of the CBD)

The Parabukas team in Egypt

The Parabukas team in Egypt

When one hears the word “biodiversity,” most people tend to think of lions, giraffes, zebras running on an African plain or whales, dolphins, turtles and fish swimming in the ocean. For country representatives to the 14th Conference of the Parties (COP 14) to the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity (UNCBD) in Egypt just this November 2018, however, this term acquired new levels of significance. 

Established in 1992 at the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development, later known as the Rio Earth Summit, the UNCBD focuses on meeting three main objectives, which are “the conservation of biological diversity, the sustainable use of its components and the fair and equitable sharing of the benefits arising out of the utilization of genetic resources.” These three objectives served as a guide throughout the whole COP in deliberating text that would be mutually agreed upon by all 196 Parties or countries who have signed on to the Convention.

Two Protocols, or more specific agreements, have also been developed under the CBD. The Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety was finalized in 2003, and the Nagoya Protocol on Access to Genetic Resources and the Fair and Equitable Sharing of Benefits Arising from their Utilization was adopted in 2010.

Compared to the negotiations on Climate Change, most people might have never even heard of the CBD and its Protocols yet. It is normally a much more technical discussion that receives less publicity from the media, especially when compared to the COP for the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change or UNFCCC, which is being held in Poland this December 2018.

Biodiversity and climate change, however, are intrinsically linked. With the recent release of the report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) on the implications of staying within 1.5 degrees of warming, it became clear that climate change would be one of the biggest threats to the conservation of biodiversity all over the world, mainly due to habitat loss arising from rapidly changing ecosystems.

The Philippines is one of only 18 recognized megadiverse countries in the world. Collectively, these countries hold around 70% of our Earth’s biological diversity. The Philippines is also one of the most vulnerable countries in the world when it comes to the impacts of climate change, making its role at the CBD COP very important as a leading voice in the fight to save our planet’s biodiversity and ecosystems in this era of climate change.

The Fair and Equitable Sharing of Benefits from Genetic Resources

Discussions on the third objective of the Convention, or the fair and equitable sharing of benefits from genetic resources, are rich and rapidly changing. This is largely due to the advancements in technology that must continuously be considered to move forward.

 These discussions on genetic resources include two of the more controversial topics discussed at COP 14, namely: Synthetic Biology and Digital Sequence Information. These two topics are related but have very different and separate nuancing in the debates and discussions.

Synthetic Biology

Synthetic biology arose as the most publicly controversial topic at the Convention. Civil society groups, non-government organizations, indigenous peoples and youth groups came out with strong statements against the use of any form of synthetic biology, some even going as far as calling for a complete moratorium on its use.

There were some tense moments during the first few plenary discussions on the topic. In particular, accusations against the scientific community were hurled by a civil society organization, who stated that scientists were trying to exterminate them with the use of synthetic biology. In response, a scientist from the actual project in question, answered plainly that this was very much untrue.

What is synthetic biology even? We might find it surprising to know that we have most likely encountered some form of synthetic biology in our everyday lives without even knowing it. In simple terms, it refers to the creation of a man-made biological system that allows us to exert some form of control over a given biological process. It can be used practically anywhere, from research to agriculture to medicine.

So why the controversy? The controversy over synthetic biology lies in the use of Living Modified Organisms or LMOs. To illustrate, the project mentioned above that was criticized so harshly at the plenary is one that aims to wipe out malaria by reducing mosquito populations through the use of synthetic biology. To do this, male mosquitoes are genetically engineered in the lab to become sterile, and are then released out into an environment where they out compete wild male mosquitoes and mate with female mosquitoes. The subsequent eggs produced by the females fail to mature and the next generation of mosquitos spreading malaria are significantly fewer.

So what then is the problem? The main criticism for these initiatives claim that we will be unable to control the spread of this genetically engineered mosquito gene. What if the technology ends up wiping out all mosquitoes and causing a catastrophic cascade that destroys an ecosystem? This is a valid concern, which is why the Cartagena Protocol under the CBD has numerous guidelines in place for the use of LMOs, and other forms of synthetic biology.

 The main guideline discussed and agreed on by the Parties at COP 14 was the commitment to apply the precautionary approach before any LMOs are released into natural environments. Following this, if there is a modicum of risk that the use of synthetic biology will pose harm to the environment or human beings, then it must not push through until further scientific studies are completed that show that the risks are incredibly minimal, or that no adverse impacts will occur as a result. 

Parties also recognized the importance of free and prior informed consent, or FPIC, in these situations. Anytime LMOs are to be released into any natural environments, FPIC must first be obtained from the local community where the research would be taking place. This gives people, especially indigenous peoples and local communities, a foot in the door and a say on whether a project involving synthetic biology in their area may push through or not. Risks versus benefits can be discussed with the people who will most be affected by the use of synthetic biology. This is especially critical as majority of the most biodiverse areas around the world are under the stewardship of indigenous peoples, and any form of environmental risk would undoubtedly affect them first.

The Philippines is a strong advocate for securing FPIC from Indigenous Peoples communities. Under national laws, FPIC is a required process before development projects or research activities can be conducted in Indigenous Peoples’ Ancestral Domains. However, this is not to say that the Philippines rejects outright advances made in the field of synthetic biology. It only means that we seek to balance our way forward, to make sure that scientific progress goes hand in hand with helping our people benefit, and minimizing risk as much as possible every step of the way.

Digital Sequence Information on Genetic Resources

Heated negotiations at the COP also centered on the use of digital sequence information on genetic resources or DSI. DSI is a fancy term that pertains to the genetic sequence of a biological resource that has been completely coded, analyzed and inputted into a digital database. This way, it can be accessed by people throughout the world without actually having to obtain a physical sample of the biological resource in question.

Such an advancement in technology has helped scientists and researchers throughout the world advance fields such as chemistry and medicine by allowing them access to information without having to travel to obtain physical samples. They can simply access the information from a lab, and conduct experiments to see what kind of qualities certain genetic codes have and whether there is some form of beneficial use to them or not. This allows them to save significant resources in time and money.

This online access, however, also allows them to bypass community interactions in the areas from which the original genetic resource was obtained. Because of this, they may bypass speaking with, and securing consent from, people on the ground.

This begs the question, who then owns this online genetic sequence? Are scientists required to obtain permission from Indigenous Peoples and local communities to access a digital genetic sequence for research from the country of origin from where it was first taken? And if so, should they be required to share benefits from any commercial or non-commercial use of the digital sequence?

These are the questions brought up by advancements in technology, with a clear line in the sand being drawn for those in favour of, and those against benefit sharing. Because the field of DSI is relatively in its infancy, there is no clear definition as to whether a digital genetic sequence equates to an actual, tangible, genetic resource. Under the CBD and the Nagoya Protocol, the use of a tangible, genetic resource require that benefits be shared with the country of origin.

The ownership of Digital Sequence Information on Genetic Resources resulted in the longest negotiation at COP 14.

Developed countries led by the European Union, Switzerland, Japan and South Korea argued that digital sequence information does not equate to actually accessing a physical genetic resource, meaning that there is no obligation to share benefits with the country of origin. This is disputed by the members of the Like-Minded Megadiverse Countries or LMMC, including the Philippines, and the countries from the African Union. These groups strongly assert that access to digital sequence information is akin to accessing a physical genetic resource from the country of origin, creating the obligation for benefit-sharing, whether the research was for commercial or non-commercial purposes.

A “huddle” at COP14

A “huddle” at COP14

This disagreement resulted in the longest negotiation at COP 14, with a session starting at eight in the evening and ending the following day at five in the morning. In the end, a compromise document was reached, where Parties agreed to prioritize a study by experts in the field toward determining whether digital sequences should be treated in the same way as physical genetic resources.

If DSI is found to be equivalent to a genetic resource, the Philippines stands to benefit as a source of genetic sequences, given the country’s rich biodiversity and higher volume of potential genetic resources that can be accessed. On the other hand, if DSI is not considered a genetic resource, the Philippines may still benefit through bilateral agreements and mutually agreed terms with Parties who wish to utilize genetic sequences. This may also benefit the Philippines later if in the future, the country develops a strong biotechnology industry that accesses multiple digital sequences in developing new products.

Ecologically or Biologically Significant Marine Areas

Also a key discussion at COP 14 was the creation and management of Ecologically or Biologically Significant Marine Areas or EBSAs. EBSAs allow Parties to identify key areas within their territory that meet specific criteria, for the purpose of enhanced conservation and management efforts.

Having an area declared as an EBSA can give a country more scientific information that may aid policy making on how to better manage marine ecosystems. This ensures better ecosystem services from ocean ecosystems, and can also buffer food security in turn.

One recognized EBSA, and Filipinos might be happy to know, is the Sulu-Sulawesi Marine Ecoregion, an EBSA we share with our neighbours Malaysia and Indonesia. While this falls within Philippine waters, it also cuts across national borders, as the criteria for an EBSA is strictly scientific.

At COP 14, the Philippines argued for the inclusion of text recognizing archipelagic states in the decision on EBSAs and Coastal and Marine Ecosystems. Initially, the text and its Annexes made no clear distinction of archipelagic states, only referring to archipelagos as part of coastal states.

However, coastal and archipelagic states are considered differently under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. Archipelagic countries such as the Philippines and Indonesia insisted on text that recognized the distinct status and characteristics of archipelagos under international law.

These small differences in text could serve to clarify responsibilities in terms of managing marine areas, especially those that have been found to be ecologically or biologically significant.

Beyond 2020 - Policy Responses to Live in Harmony with Nature

The next COP, in 2020, will come at a critical time. In 2010, countries developed the Strategic Plan for Biodiversity and the Aichi Biodiversity Targets, to guide action from the 2011 to 2020 period. At COP 15 in Beijing, countries will take stock of their progress, and identify what more need to be be done to meet the vision for 2050 of living in harmony with nature.

Moving forward will entail balancing our need for economic development with the conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity, while also ensuring that any benefits derived from these efforts are shared fairly.

The Philippines has already made good progress in this regard, with domestic laws that address such issues. One of these is the Expanded National Integrated Protected Areas System, or E-NIPAS Act, that creates an additional 94 new Protected Areas around the country.

Another key development is the department circular issued by the Department of Energy, that recognizes Indigenous Peoples ancestral domains as host communities for power projects, thereby requiring power companies to allocate a certain portion of their income in favor of the host community. This would allow Indigenous Peoples to claim a just share of benefits, assuring their financial security and better equipping them to continue safeguarding biodiversity and ecosystems for future generations to come.

Even the Philippine General Appropriations Act for 2019 requires the mainstreaming and integration of biodiversity conservation in the development plans of all government agencies. All these are a good start at making sure that the environment is not left behind as we push forward as a nation.

How national policy will approach up and coming issues such as Synthetic Biology and DSI will be an area to watch closely. Executive Order 247, issued in 1995, already provides guidelines for bioprospecting biological and genetic resources. In light of new developments in scientific research and technology, these guidelines and other related policies may need to be revisited.

Finally, all these must be considered in the context of the challenges presented by climate change. With climate change being identified as one of, if not the biggest threats to biodiversity in the years to come, it becomes imperative that the negotiations on the CBD inform the ongoing UNFCCC negotiations in Poland.