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Botanic Gardens and the Convention on Biological Diversity

Volume 2 Number 8 - July 1997

Peter S. Wyse Jackson

What is the Biodiversity Convention and How Does it Operate?

In June 1992 the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) was held in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil - the "Earth Summit" as it has often been called. One of the major outcomes of UNCED was Agenda 21, and another was the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), a new international law that is set to have a major impact on the way botanic gardens operate in all parts of the world. This article outlines the main provisions of the Convention and its significance for botanic gardens.

Objectives of the Convention on Biological Diversity

  • the conservation of biological diversity
  • the sustainable use of the components of biological diversity, and
  • the equitable sharing of the benefits derived from the use of genetic resources,
    including ensuring:
        - relevant access to genetic resources
        - the transfer of relevant technologies
        - that appropriate funding is available

The Convention defines biological diversity as "the variability among living organisms from all sources,... including within species, between species and of ecosystems".

At the UNCED meeting 153 countries signed the new agreement, many of whom have subsequently ratified it, thereby accepting its provisions and agreeing to work to promote its implementation. By December 1993, 128 countries had ratified the Convention and it came into force, a total which has now grown to the impressive number of 162.

One of the ways in which the CBD differs from other international conventions is that it sets goals, rather than any specific targets or objectives for the countries ("Parties") seeking to implement it. There are no lists of priority habitats, sites or species to be conserved (such as in CITES or the World Heritage Convention). The Convention leaves it up to individual national governments to decide how it is to be implemented. Measuring biodiversity or its conservation is a pretty impossible task but nevertheless, the CBD has provided an extremely important internationally accepted framework within which countries can operate and cooperate in implementing broadly similar actions for biodiversity conservation.

At the heart of the Convention are provisions on scientific and technical cooperation, access to genetic resources, technology transfers and a financial mechanism (the Global Environment Facility) to help implement the Convention in developing countries.

The Global Environment Facility

The Biodiversity Convention includes a financial mechanism to assist the implementation of the Convention in developing countries. Rather than establish a new independent fund for this purpose, the Conference of the Parties of the Convention have adopted the Global Environment Facility (GEF) as its interim financial mechanism. The GEF was established in 1991 and is run by the World Bank, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP). Its resources include almost US$3 billion pledged by donor countries which is available mainly to the governments of developing countries to support environmental projects.

Regular meetings are held of those who have ratified the Convention - the Conference of the Parties (COP) - to review the implementation of the Convention, including its financing and administrative arrangements. The most recent (3rd) COP was held in Buenos Aires, Argentina in November 1996. The previous meetings were in Nassau, Bahamas (1994) and Jakarta, Indonesia (1995). About 150 governments were represented at the Buenos Aires meeting, as well as several countries that have not yet ratified the Convention, including the U.S.A. Issues such as intellectual property rights, agricultural and forestry biodiversity and indigenous knowledge were considered, with some firm commitments made by governments in these areas. The 4th COP will be held in Bratislava, Slovakia on 4-15 May, 1998. Article 25 of the Convention also established a Subsidiary Body on Scientific, Technical and Technological Advice (SBSTTA) which meets regularly to provide the Conference of the Parties with expert advice on the implementation of the Convention and the conservation of biodiversity.

Will the Biodiversity Convention Have an Impact on Botanic Gardens?

So far the provisions of the CBD have apparently had little real impact on many botanic gardens anywhere in the world, although many people have heard of the Convention and know of its importance and significance. However, very few botanic gardens are really sure how it will affect their day-to-day activities in the future, if it will at all, or whether it is even something that they need to bother to understand. Will it just be perceived as a nuisance, limiting and apparently restricting the traditional free exchange of plant materials between institutions for scientific and research purposes? Will it have positive effects and create new opportunities for botanic gardens? What therefore are the major impacts on botanic gardens that the CBD is likely to have?

The Convention will undoubtedly provide new opportunities for botanic gardens to become involved in national issues of biodiversity conservation and sustainable development. Each signatory country is expected and obliged to prepare national strategies to plan future biodiversity conservation. The CBD will certainly offer botanic gardens with new chances to gain greater influence, profile and recognition of their central role in plant conservation and in the implementation of the CBD nationally and internationally. New funding sources for biodiversity conservation are becoming available and botanic gardens are well placed to receive support from them.

Although ex situ conservation has and continues to be an important concern for botanic gardens, it is clearly not the limit of their current importance or potential. Many other key activities undertaken by botanic gardens are specifically recognised within the text of the CBD as of fundamental importance to the conservation of biodiversity, such as research, in situ conservation, training, identification and monitoring, public awareness and education and cooperation (see Box 3). The importance of botanic gardens for conservation has sometimes been diminished by their perception as being merely holders of miscellaneous plant collections, primarily of value for ex situ conservation. The CBD offers us a new chance to show how botanic gardens can play a unique role, using our skills and resources as broadly-based centres for the study and conservation of biodiversity.

Never before has such a widely accepted and powerful international framework existed into which the work of botanic gardens in plant conservation can be fitted. But we need to make others aware of how we are relevant and the roles we can and are playing. Vociferous and active self-promotion by botanic gardens, based of course on our record, achievements and potentials, will help us to gain the recognition and support we need to become increasingly effective biodiversity conservationists.

But How Will Botanic Gardens' Collections be Affected by the Convention?

The Convention affirms the sovereign rights of states over their genetic resources, a right that has not previously been recognized legally or subject to such international legislation. Hereby rests one of the major impacts on botanic gardens by the Convention. Access to genetic resources and benefit sharing are relatively new issues for most botanic gardens and ones for which we are in need of new policies.

Botanic gardens have traditionally enjoyed virtually free and open access to plant material for their collections from any part of the world. Often this material has been received and continues to be obtained via the international Index Seminum scheme whereby botanic gardens have offered seeds of plants from their collections or from the wild to other botanic gardens on an exchange basis. Other material has been received by botanic gardens undertaking collecting expeditions nationally or internationally, or by purchasing material from other collectors and expeditions. The reasons for the development of botanic garden collections have been many and various. Collecting has sometimes driven by a desire to discover new plants or plant products useful for economic purposes (for bioprospecting) - pharmaceuticals, ornamentals, crop plants etc. In other cases botanic gardens simply wish to develop collections on a geographical or taxonomic basis for display, research or educational purposes. An end result of this collecting is that today an estimated quarter to one third of the world's vascular plant species are represented in botanic garden living collections.

Recognizing the sovereign rights of States over their natural resources, Article 15 of the Convention notes the authority of each national government to determine access to its genetic resources. Many countries are now developing or reviewing their national legislation regarding the collection and export of wild plants. In this post-CBD time, it is very important that any botanic garden planning to collect plant material from other countries should do so in accordance with national laws of that country. If you do not know what the laws are in this regard, you must find out and not just rely on in-country collaborators who may have no knowledge of their own legislation, so that you can obtain what is termed, prior informed consent.

Although the Convention highlights the need for each country to allow access to its genetic resources by other countries, it stresses that such access to these genetic resources must be on mutually agreed terms. These "mutually agreed terms" are generally in the form of a Plant Material Transfer Agreement which govern:

  • how the receiving institution may use the plant materials (eg. not to transfer this plant material to other third parties without the express permission of the original suppliers);
  • how the receiving institution must report back to the supplying institution on the results of scientific research undertaken on the material transferred; and
  • how benefits gained from the use of the materials (financial or otherwise) are shared with the institution or country that supplied the material.

An increasing number of botanic gardens will now only distribute plant material subject to such agreements, a practice that is fully in line with the provisions of the CBD to ensure that benefits arising from the use (including commercialisation) of genetic resources and benefits arising from research and development are shared with the country of origin. A growing number of botanic gardens are also adopting official policies in regard to the benefits derived from plant transfers and bioprospecting, and the development of such new institutional policies must become a priority for every botanic garden (see Box 5).

It is clear that a fundamental and radical reorganization of the international botanic garden seed exchange scheme is required to bring it into line with the Convention and a vigorous debate on how this may be achieved is already underway between such organizations as Botanic Gardens Conservation International (BGCI) and the International Association of Botanical Gardens (IABG).

What is the Difference Between Pre- and Post-CBD Collections?

The Convention makes a definite distinction between benefits derived from the use of germplasm obtained before the Convention came into force (pre-1993) and material obtained after that date (Article 15:3). The Convention is not retrospective and thus collections holders are not legally (never mind morally) obliged to share any benefits with supplying countries from plant material obtained in pre-CBD days. This is regarded by many people as a major "loophole" to the Convention, particularly considering the high proportion of the world's plant diversity already held in botanic garden collections and so not covered by the Convention. Some countries are considering new legislation to treat all botanic garden holdings within their national boundaries as if they were post-CBD collections, despite the obvious difficulties in implementing such legislation once enacted (How can such legislation be policed? How do you share benefits obtained from plants that you don't know from where they originally came? How do you identify the appropriate stake-holders with whom to share benefits?).

Botanic gardens are increasingly being approached by commercial concerns (such as pharmaceutical companies) to obtain useful plants for product development, many of whom find direct access to plant material from biodiversity-rich countries difficult to organize and manage. Cash-strapped botanic gardens can provide an easy and convenient way for companies to obtain the new plant materials they require.

Although some agreements negotiated between botanic gardens and companies include provision for the paying of royalties to the garden and ultimately to the country of origin of the plant material, many of these agreements pass the responsibility for implementing on-going royalty sharing from the company onto the botanic garden. Apart from the potential administrative and bureaucratic burden this places on botanic gardens, how does one share royalties for a plant where its origins are not known and when such a plant is known to occur in more than one country?

This "loophole" presents a great threat to botanic gardens and it is one that needs to be addressed urgently by the botanic garden community (before others impose a "solution" on us), probably through the development of an internationally agreed voluntary code of conduct and practice governing benefit-sharing. Such a code will need to be developed in line with the spirit of the Convention, and implemented with pragmatism, openness and common sense. It may be the only way that in the future we can avoid having to operate subject to restrictive and bureaucratic national legislation limiting botanic gardens' freedom to use their collections in ways they believe prudent and fair.

CBD Working Group for Botanic Gardens

In 1996, following recommendations passed at BGCI's 4th International Botanic Gardens Conservation Congress (Perth, Western Australia, September, 1995), BGCI established an international Working Group on Plant Material Transfers. The aim of the group is to consider issues relevant for botanic gardens relating to the CBD and, in particular, on plant material transfers. The group is currently developing guidelines for individual botanic gardens on:

  • the adoption of policies on the collecting,
    acquisition and supply of plant material;
  • enhancing institutional responses and policies to the
    CBD, and;
  • promoting general awareness and understanding of the
    CBD and its provisions and implications.

One of the ideas being considered by the Group is the development of a system of CBD-registered botanic gardens to facilitate the exchange of genetic resources between gardens able to meet standard criteria on access and fair and equitable sharing of benefits.

Meetings of the Group are being organized for major botanic garden conferences around the world in 1997 and 1998 and those who would like to participate in its work or become members are invited to contact BGCI.

What Can You Do? - a CBD Checklist for Botanic Gardens

  • Obtain and read a copy of the text of the Convention on Biological Diversity and make it available to others in your Botanic Garden.
  • Ensure that staff of your Garden know about the CBD and understand its provisions and implications.
  • Initiate a debate in your Garden towards the formulation and agreement of an official policy on the CBD and a strategy for its implementation.
  • Prepare and follow an institutional Code of Conduct on collecting and the acquisition of plant material.
  • Develop Material Transfer Agreements to ensure that benefits arising from plant material distributed is fairly and equitably shared.
  • Review your Garden's current activities that are relevant or contribute to the implementation of the CBD - undertake a "CBD-audit" or strategic review for your Garden and its collections.
  • Consider how the mission of your Garden is relevant to the CBD and to biodiversity conservation in general or/and consider reviewing your mission to become more involved in biodiversity conservation.
  • Make sure that all staff are aware of and follow the Garden's policies, procedures and practices relating to implementing the CBD.
  • Ensure that all the actions of your Botanic Garden are in line with the spirit and letter of the Convention.
  • Seek to publicise the CBD and its objectives to your Garden's visitors and supporters.
  • Become involved in the development of national biodiversity conservation strategies and offer advice on plant diversity matters to national policy-makers.
  • Ask for your government's support and official recognition for your Garden's role in implementing the CBD.
  • Seek to be included or represented in official delegations sent by your government to the Conference of the Parties of the CBD or to SBSTTA, or seek accreditation and attend meetings in your own right as a non-governmental organization.
  • Become involved in processes and working groups established by organizations such as BGCI to develop international policies for botanic gardens.
  • Develop and strengthen partnerships with institutions in other countries, particularly those that are rich in biodiversity but poor in resources and assist them in all ways possible to meet their challenges and obligations in implementing the Convention.

- remember that the CBD is relevant to the national situation, that it is not just for Gardens with international programmes.