International Treaties and Other Legal and Economic Issues Relating to the Ownership and Use of Genetic Resources
Lesser, William H.
Genetic resources were once treated as a common heritage, available without restriction for research and other usage. The system was perceived as contributing to a rapid extinction rate and as unfair to developing countries -the major source of genetic resources. Since the Biodiversity Convention declared that governments have the "sovereign right to exploit" the genetic resources under their domain, efforts to regulate access have begun. Conceptually, payments will lead to greater conservation efforts; practically, the incentive will depend on use and distribution of the limited funds generated. Benefits to countries of origin are associated with the "equitable sharing" stipulations of the Convention. Within countries, where rights of indigenous peoples to their traditional lands have not been clarified, equitable sharing may be difficult to achieve. To date, a limited but potentially troubling effect has been a slowing of access, especially for third parties. Current approaches to access include i) Intellectual Property Rights (a system not attuned conceptually or practically to genetic resources); ii) Farmers' Rights (a system grouping agricultural genetic resources transferred in the past, present, and future); iii) Bilateral Systems, such as material transfer agreements in place (Philippines) or in process (Andean Pact); and iv) Multilateral Systems, as endorsed by the FAD and outlined by IPGRI. A truly effective system(s) for access to genetic resources has not yet emerged; it is time for wider inputs into the process, especially by biological scientists.
Charles H. Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management, Cornell University