by GRAIN | 10 Apr 1991


Amongst the issues being considered by the 1992 UN Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) are biological diversity and biotechnology. But will the "Earth Summit" truly address these issues and their underlying problems or merely confuse current initiatives? In this article we look at the preparations for UNCED '92 and the negotiations toward a Convention on Biological Diversity facilitated by UNEP.


Great things are hoped for from the UN Conference on Environment and Development in 1992 - "perhaps our last chance to save the earth" according to UN Environment Programme (UNEP) chief Mostafa Tolba. There is indeed an impressive array of critical issues to be considered: climate change, deforestation, technology transfer, even the living and working conditions of the poor. But will the Conference achieve any real benefits for the world and its people? Sceptics predict merely increased rivalry between the UN agencies and they point to the issues left out - like the crippling effect of the debt crisis. Many Third World governments fear greater interference in their countries' affairs with only more conditional aid to compensate. And many observers criticize the process for its approach: top-down and lacking any real intention to empower people.

However UNCED does bring environment and development issues to the attention of world leaders and provides an opportunity to harness political momentum to achieve policy change. New funds and new mechanisms are likely to emerge from the process. One of the major aims of NGOs could be to bring the UNCED process down from its summit heights to earth by highlighting the role of local communities in environmental management and calling for their rights to be strengthened.

The official agenda

Heads of states and of governments will meet for the Conference in June 1992 at Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. A Preparatory Committee (PrepCom) is meeting four or five times before then to prepare for the Brazil jamboree. Maurice Strong, a Canadian who heads the secretariat sees the Conference as a way of putting into practice the findings of the Bruntland Report Our Common Future. His vision is to move environmental issues into the centre of economic policy and decision making. He is organising the agenda of the meeting along the following lines.

Firstly, an "Earth Charter" will be agreed upon as an "inspirational and popular" declaration of principles. Secondly, an agreed programme of action on the major environmental issues for the rest of the decade and into the 21st Century will form the so-called Agenda 21. The key to the Conference will be the measures required to implement this: technology transfer, financial mechanisms, and reform of institutions such as UNEP. Behind this, it is suspected that Strong wants to set up a new organization to hand out funds to implement Agenda 21. But many are wary of setting up another bureaucracy and UNEP fears for its existence.

Finally, the "Earth Summit" will be a signing ceremony for the Conventions on Biodiversity and on Climate Change - if, and it's a big "if" - agreement has been reached by the time the Conference is held. Officially, these Conventions are being put together separately from the UNCED process. Confusingly however, biodiversity and biotechnology are also being considered by UNCED itself as part of Agenda 21. Some participating countries regard this as a sort of insurance policy against the breakdown of the Biodiversity Convention talks.

UNCED versus UNEP?

Official negotiations for a Convention for the Conservation and Sustainable Utilization of Biological Diversity finally got under way in Nairobi last February following several difficult meetings of an "ad hoc group of experts". The Convention will cover the full range of biodiversity - including domesticated plants and animals and contain measures for conservation, both in situ and ex situ, and for sustainable utilization, including the use of biotechnologies, all this backed up by a firm commitment on financing.

Ambassador Sanchez of Chile, elected Chair at the February meeting, is currently touring capitals to gather support for the Convention and to pre-empt potential stumbling blocks. There are plenty of these, centred around questions of access to genetic resources and technology transfer. Countries like Brazil regard transfer of biotechnology as a prerequisite for the Convention, while many developed countries remain implacably opposed to what they see as obligations being imposed on private companies.

The debates in the Preparatory Committee of UNCED essentially follow those in the negotiations for a Biodiversity Convention. There is disagreement over the relationship between biodiversity and biotechnology, and within the latter on whether regulatory aspects - "biosafety" - should be treated together with the promotion of biotechnologies - "technology transfer". Many developing countries, backed by the Nordics, are calling for an integrated approach to biotechnology covering both biosafety and technology transfer. They want some sort of Code of Conduct for Biotechnology which could be developed in FAO, UNIDO (UN Industrial Development Organisation) or UNCED itself. Eventually, such a Code might be converted into a protocol of the proposed Convention.

The UNCED Secretariat prepared a paper on Environmentally Sound Management of Biotechnology for the second PrepCom held in Geneva last March. It was unashamedly upbeat on the promises of the new technologies for health, food and agriculture, forestry and industry. More attention will need to be given to the potential negative effects of biotechnology on trade, the displacement of indigenous technologies, and consequences for genetic erosion before a useful code is to be produced.

Developing countries are certainly concerned about the safety of the new technologies. At the PrepCom meeting in March, India affirmed that "the risks of biotechnology are greater than that of toxic chemicals" while the Malaysian delegation demanded measures to prevent developing countries from being used as testing grounds. They want to promote the principle of "Prior Informed Consent" for the import of genetically modified organisms. The US was against this claiming that GMOs are not inherently dangerous.

Concern over patenting of biotechnology products was also expressed during the March meeting - what Malaysia called "private ownership of life". They called for "mechanisms for the effective cooperation with reciprocal benefits between biotechnology-rich developed countries and gene-rich developing countries to mitigate the effects of technical secrecy and harsh competition for the appropriation of germplasm", and asked the Secretariat to prepare a report on the role of the transnational corporations for the next PrepCom.

Give Agenda 21 to the people.

As the UN agencies continue to jostle for position in the run-up to the 1992 Conference, a plethora of non-governmental organizations are busy steering, coordinating, facilitating and networking to influence the UNCED process. The major aim of NGOs should be to ensure that the rights of local communities are recognized and their needs met. The two-way link between environmental degradation and poverty must be recognized and local people must be empowered to manage local resources. A start could be made with the "Earth Charter" itself. It should embody the right of local communities to management over resources vital to their livelihoods.

New funding schemes will ultimately be ineffective without mechanisms to support small-scale, grassroots projects. As regards technology, what is required is not the wholesale "transfer" of the new biotechnologies, but measures to build upon the indigenous technologies of local people. The measures required include: capacity building in research and development; participatory research approaches for small-scale farmers, particularly women; and support for local communities.

Government delegations have begun to give more attention to the role of local communities in natural resource management. During the debate on biodiversity at the PrepCom in March, several countries underscored the links between biodiversity and cultural diversity. The Secretariat's paper Conservation of Biological Diversity calls for the provision of financial and technical resources to enable indigenous people to conduct their own research; the compilation of an inventory of traditional knowledge systems; flexibility over intellectual property rights; and strengthening of farmers' rights. But so far there has been little or no action. These policies need to be elaborated into concrete measures for the next PrepCom.

Successful policies to promote conservation and use of biological resources by local communities will have a double benefit. Firstly, grassroots efforts in maintaining and developing food crops, medicinal plants and their wild and semi-wild relatives make a direct and vital contribution to practical conservation of the world's biological resources. Additionally, local communities form a large part of a growing population; sustainable development of their systems of production is the key to improving food security, reducing poverty, and reducing its consequential effects of environmental degradation in large parts of the world.


GRAIN has produced two "Briefings on Biodiversity" which are available from the Barcelona office. The first looks at the background to the proposed Convention, while the second makes specific recommendations on the issues of access to genetic resources, technology and support for local communities. It also gives an outline of the content of the proposed Convention. [No longer available]

An excellent "Users Guide" to the UNCED process has been produced by the International Institute for Environment and Development. It provides useful background to the Conference and explains its structure. Enquiries to Koy Thompson, IIED, 3 Endsleigh Street, London WC1H ODD, UK. Tel: (44-71) 388 2117, Fax: (44-71) 388 2826.

Author: GRAIN