Ecology summit stumbles in search for global deal

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The Independent Online

A United Nations conference aimed at protecting the world's plants and animals is running into difficulties from the ambitious breadth of its goals.

More than 2,000 representatives from 180 countries are trying to reach agreement in The Hague on complex measures addressing such environmental hot topics as deforestation, the invasion of alien species threatening ecosystems, habitats and species, and the use of natural resources by the pharmaceutical industry.

The pact under discussion at the 12-day conference, the Convention on Biodiversity (CBD), which was drawn up a decade ago at the Rio Earth Summit in Brazil, commits signatories to "sustainable" use of the world's natural resources.

Delegates are also considering ways of sharing the profits of vital resources with the world's poor. The conference agenda calls for the adoption of guidelines for private companies to give a fair share of profits to local governments and indigenous communities from the exploitation of their genetic resources and traditional knowledge.

But the goals of the pact are so intricate and wide-reaching that it has required years of research and definition to bring it close to a policy-making stage. Even now, that could be years away.

"The CBD has pioneered some areas where we have not yet developed the scientific, policy or practical instruments," said Kenton Miller, vice-president at the environmental think-tank World Resources Institute in Washington. "Each issue that comes up is a Pandora's box that opens up new problems."

There is added pressure as much of the debate on protecting endangered species and preserving habitats is based on the rapidly expanding body of scientific data gleaned from relatively new disciplines such as conservation biology.

The conference, which opened on Sunday, will be watched keenly by the pharmaceutical industry since genetic resources are among issues being discussed. These resources could be made available to companies and organisations through the world in return for a percentage of profits returning to the resources' countries of origin. But agreement is proving difficult.

"Because important principles and potentially large sums of money are at stake, an agreement on how to grant broad-based access to genetic resource while ensuring the resulting benefits are equitably shared by all the parties concerned has proved elusive," Klaus Toepfer, the United Nations Environmental Programme's executive director said in a statement.

He recognised that "the challenge we now face is to find additional mechanisms or instruments that will secure equitable sharing of benefits, especially for developing countries".