Bones of Contention

International meeting debates adoption of global laws on biological heritage

from Curitiba

MIGUEL BOYAYANMuriqui: Brazil has from 15% to 20% of the planet’s biodiversity MIGUEL BOYAYAN

Few people disagree with the principle that there must be some international regulation disciplining the access and sharing of the gains coming from the commercial exploitation of the genetic resources of a nation or from the appropriation of the knowledge of the indigenous peoples about biodiversity. Although it seems reasonable, the idea generates attrition points when debated in its details. This is what happened at the end of last month in Curitiba, during the 8th Conference of the Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity (COP 8), a forum sponsored by the United Nations (UN) to discuss the drafting of texts that aim to create an environmental protection policy common to the almost 190 signatory countries of the agreement.

Brazil features among the nations that signed the convention, and, for having from 15% to 20% of all the biodiversity of the planet, fears becoming a preferential victim of international biopiracy. For this reason, the federal government is favorable to the implantation of global laws capable of safeguarding the rights over its biological heritage. Despite being praiseworthy, this posture, if taken to extremes, can, according to some scientists, create obstacles to the establishment of international collaborations with project that are creating large information systems, with universal and free access, on the forms of life of the Earth.

In the view of these researchers, interlinking the Brazilian database – like the speciesLink, which makes access available electronically to 40 biological collections of institutions of the state of São Paulo – to global ventures would not bring risks or losses to the country. “This kind of partnership is fundamental to environmental conservation itself and for the taxonomists (specialists in classifying organisms)”, says Vanderlei Perez Canhos, the coordinator of the Environmental Information Reference Center (Cria), from Campinas, who developed speciesLink and the database of the electronic version, launched during COP 8, of Flora brasiliensis, a reference book on Brazilian biodiversity produced by the German botanist Carl Friedrich Philipp von Martius (1794-1868). “By opting to take part in these international projects, we could restrict the access to information that we consider sensitive, such as the geographical location of species threatened with extinction or data on organisms of economic importance.”

The partnerships would also speed up the repatriation of the knowledge about Brazilian species that have been removed from the national territory and today enrich the shelves of institutions abroad. Although it houses one fifth of the Earth’s biodiversity, Brazil has only 1% of the material deposited in the world’s biological collections.

One of the international ventures that are awakening the attention of Brazilian scientists is Species 2000. Incidentally, the project take advantage of the event in the capital of Paraná to announce a feat: its electronic system has just cataloged the scientific names (and some taxonomic information) of 880 thousand species of animals, plants, funguses and microbes, half of the total number of species identified by now by science. “We have done the first part of the work”, explains Frank Bisby, from the University of Reading, England, the coordinator of Species 2000. Today, some 3 thousand taxonomists from the most diverse areas are taking part in the venture, which brings together 37 databases. There are Brazilians involved in the project, but there is no institutional participation from the country, nor any Brazilian databases.


The situation repeats itself, as far as an even larger project, the Global Biodiversity Information Facility (GBIF), is concerned. In the GBIF, besides the taxonomic information, the system integrates data from biological collections from international museums and records of observations made in the field. “We have a dearth of information about some groups of animals”, explains Jim Edwards, the executive secretary of the GBIF, which contains about 100 million items of data on species of the planet. “Brazil’s entry into the project would help us in certain critical areas.” Supported by 47 countries and 32 international entities, the digital venture is fed by 169 providers of information and 686 databases.

Species 2000 and the GBIF are not the owners of the information that they disseminate. The control over what can or not appear lies with each provider of the databases integrated with the projects. According to Ione Egler, the coordinator-general for Research Policies and Programs in Biodiversity at the Ministry of Science and Technology, until four years ago the scientific community was divided as to the expediency of entering into this kind of international undertaking. “But the idea matured, and now the scientific societies want to take part in the GBIF”, says Ione, who is running a program for digitalizing the collections of national research institutions.

There are, however, still obstacles to be overcome.  The Ministry of Foreign Relations, which is heading the Brazilian delegation charged with negotiating the points of the Convention on Biological Diversity, thinks differently from the scientists. “There is no reason for us to make available data on Brazilian species”, says Luiz Alberto Figueiredo Machado, head of the Itamaraty’s Environment and Special Themes Department. Bráulio Ferreira de Souza Dias, the biodiversity conservation manager at the Ministry of the Environment, has a more moderate position. He admits that there is resistance to Brazil’s entry into international inventories about biodiversity, but says that there is no way of preventing this decision.

One point that concerns him is the dissemination abroad of the so-called traditional indigenous knowledge, above all via scientific texts. “There is still no legal landmark on this question”, says Bráulio. “That is why there have to be ethics in the scientists’ relationship with the indigenous peoples.” In the GBIF, though, the information providers are instructed not to release information coming from the practices of the peoples of the forest.

Labeling of transgenics
Also in Curitiba, one week before COP 8, there was the 3rd Meeting of the Parties to the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety, MOP 3. The main decision of the meeting regulated the question of the labeling of living modified organisms (LMOs), popularly known as transgenics, intended for export. It was agreed that the countries will be able to use, in their agricultural cargo aimed at the foreign market, the expression ‘may contain LMOs’ until 2012. That is to say, the nations have a six-year time limit for separating the transgenic products from those that have not been modified, and only then will they have to adopt the expression ‘contains LMOs’ for genetically altered grain and seeds.