The Interface with the Convention on Biological Diversity

Biodiversity, Culture, and Health

Von Susette Biber-Klemm

Biodiversity is an important factor in securing basic needs such as a healthy environment, food and health care of people around the world. But biodiversity is eroding and being lost at an increasing rate, and with it its not yet known options for use for the generations to come. The Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) aims at halting this loss; it stipulates the conservation of biodiversity and its sustainable use and creates a system for equitably sharing the benefits resulting from the use of genetic resources.

Between biological diversity (as defined by the Convention on Biological Diversity) (1) and human health many linkages exist. Biodiversity – through the so-called “ecosystem-services” - is an important factor in securing a healthy environment, as it contributes e.g. to stabilization processes and watershed services, cycling and filtration processes, purification of air and water. In direct health care, medicines of animal, plant, and microbial sources are important as well in drugs of the allopathic medicine as in the complementary and alternative medicine. And biodiversity has an important role to play in the production of food as well in agricultural production systems – e.g. by soil ecosystem services, by fertilisation processes and through the diversity of crop varieties and wild relatives - as in marine and freshwater production systems.

The interface between biodiversity, traditional knowledge and health

As to health care, according to the World Health Organisation (2) a great part of the populations throughout Africa, Asia and Latin America use, and depend on traditional medicine for their health care needs. An important reason for this widespread use is the accessibility and availability of traditional medicine in an economic, but also in a geographical and cultural sense. In developed countries – Australia, Europe and North America – demand for and use of complementary and alternative medicine, which is based on the traditional use of e.g. plant resources, is increasing, in particular for use in parallel to allopathic medicine for treating and managing chronic disease (3).

With regard to food security, the diversity of domesticated varieties of plants and animals, and the knowledge about their cultivation and breeding, storage and utilisation is an important element to secure access to food which is in quantity and quality adapted to the specific nutritional and cultural needs of the populations (4).

So, biological diversity and associated knowledge, in the sense of its direct use, has an important role to play in securing a healthy environment, for the production of healthy food, and for curing illnesses. But as the existing variability of all living organisms contains also its further evolutionary potential and enshrines genetic information and options for uses not yet known, it encompasses also the option of being able to respond to these basic needs of humankind in a yet unknown future.

The loss of biodiversity and traditional knowledge

However, biodiversity and associated traditional knowledge are getting lost at an increased rate. The reasons are manifold and complex. Habitat alteration is the predominant direct cause for the loss of biodiversity. Underlying causes are for instance migration processes which either lead to isolation and concentration of populations and so to over-utilisation of resources, or to the abandon of the traditional ecosystem; or the migration to urban centres and the accompanying loss of the traditional surroundings and to acculturation. In order to prevent this loss of resources and knowledge regarding health care and nutrition, it is important not only to conserve the resources and document the knowledge, but also to maintain the cultural context they are embedded in (for instance the language) (5), and to safeguard their continuous utilization.

From this it becomes clear that an important piece in the jigsaw to maintain traditional knowledge and the resources it is associated to is to ascertain its continuous use. This implies that utilisation and conservation of both, biological diversity and traditional knowledge is feasible, and a rational choice also from the economic point of view. This means that it must be economically competitive with other less sustainable options of resource use.

Incentives for conservation of biological diversity and traditional knowledge

On the background of such insights, the negotiation of the Convention on Biological Diversity took place in the eighties. Several occurrences substantially influenced its drafting: The then relatively young insight into the possibilities given by biotechnological methods, and the increased awareness of the value of genetic resources coming with this evolution; the awareness of economic benefits derived from the development of traditionally used remedies by pharmaceutical industry, and the brand-new model of InBIO (6), a private research and biodiversity management centre in Costa Rica, with its success-story of the bioprospecting agreement with Merck, which allowed for technology transfer and for funding of biodiversity research and conservation.

So the idea grew that the value of biodiversity and associated traditional knowledge might generate the economic means to sustain its conservation and create incentives for its sustainable use.

The regulations of the Convention on Biological Diversity

Accordingly, one of the main features of the Convention on Biological Diversity is that it combines the aim of conserving biological diversity with economic objectives. The goals are on the one hand the conservation of biological diversity and the sustainable use of its components, and on the other the fair and equitable sharing of the benefits arising out of the utilization of genetic resources (Art. 2).

With regard to traditional knowledge, the contracting parties are obliged to respect, preserve and maintain the knowledge, innovations and practices of indigenous and local communities embodying traditional lifestyles which are relevant for the conservation and sustainable use of biological diversity. They are further obliged to promote its wider application, with the approval and involvement of the holders of such knowledge, and also to encourage the equitable sharing of the benefits arising from its utilization (Art. 8 j).

To this end, the Convention introduces a system for the regulation of collection and other types of access to genetic resources. This system is known as the Access and Benefit Sharing (ABS) system. What is involved here is the joint regulation of access to genetic resources and the sharing of benefits arising from their use by the researchers or companies from user countries and the representatives of the states, in which the genetic resources have been accessed. The system is applicable similarly to the traditional knowledge of indigenous and local communities associated to genetic resources.

The Access and Benefit Sharing system prescribes specific steps for the legitimate research and utilization (access) of resources and traditional knowledge: the Prior informed Consent, the Mutually Agreed Terms and the Benefit Sharing. Prior informed Consent means that the competent national authority of the providing country must be informed of the planned research as part of the application process. Its consent is a prerequisite for the execution of the research. The consent of relevant stakeholders, such as indigenous and local communities, should be obtained as required by individual situations and subject to domestic law. The Mutually Agreed Terms are a contract established between the users and providers of genetic resources by means of which users obtain access to/permission to use genetic resources in order to collect, study and utilize them commercially. They define the conditions for access and benefit sharing. Finally the economic or academic advantages arising must be shared in a fair and equitable way with the country providing the genetic resources and – the case being – with the holders of traditional knowledge.

A complex endeavour

The obligations of international contracts as a rule are not directly applicable on the national level, but oblige the contracting parties to “take legislative, administrative or policy measures, as appropriate…” So the regulations need to be implemented by provider and user States. And this implementation proves to be a complex endeavour. Users complain about either non-existing access regulations, institutions and procedures – or about complicated, defensive and prohibitive procedures leading to a decrease in interest of research in the academic and industrial context. And providers criticize the lacking control of the use made of genetic resources and traditional knowledge by of the user countries e.g. in patenting procedures. Holders of traditional knowledge are in an even worse situation – as frequently they are in a politically and economically marginalized position on the national level.

Nevertheless, on international level and – accordingly - also in the national context, intense debates take place as to how the system could best be implemented. The goal is to create transparency in the procedures and a basis for mutual respect and trust and so to make possible win-win situations for all stakeholders involved - for holders of traditional knowledge as well as the pharmaceutical industry – for academic research as well as for the local farming communities.

Platforms to discuss the issues by all stakeholders involved have been created in the framework of the Convention on Biological Diversity – the Working Groups on Access and Benefit Sharing and on Traditional Knowledge. Issues regarding the introduction and implementation of traditional knowledge aspects in the system of intellectual property rights are discussed within the World Intellectual Property Organization (the Intergovernmental Committee on Intellectual Property and Genetic Resources, Traditional Knowledge and Folklore) (7), and in the framework of the World Trade Organization (WTO) and its Agreement on Trade Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS).

The CBD-process itself has resulted in a concretisation of the Access and Benefit-Sharing system. In 2002 the Conference of the Parties adopted the so-called Bonn Guidelines on Access to Genetic Resources and the Fair and Equitable Sharing of the Benefits arising from their Utilization – a non-binding instrument which spells out the necessary steps in more detail and also defines more clearly the integration of holders of traditional knowledge. The next milestone in this process is the elaboration of an International Regime on Access and Benefit Sharing; the negotiations started in 2005. As to the control mechanisms, the integration of disclosure of the origin/source of the genetic resources or traditional knowledge in patent applications is discussed in the framework of the WIPO and TRIPS.

Some user groups have created guidelines and good practices to inform their members of the steps to take when accessing genetic resources and traditional knowledge, so for instance the “MOSAICC Micro-Organisms Sustainable use and Access regulation International Code of Conduct” (8); the Botanic Gardens “International Plant Exchange Network (IPEN)”, an exchange system for non-commercial purposes according to the Convention on Biological Diversity (9); and the “Good Practice for Academic Research” by the Swiss Academy of Sciences (10 - see box), step by step guidelines specifically designed for the needs of academic researchers.

Not an easy way to go…

So, the Convention on Biological Diversity includes options and obligations which are of importance in a health context: respect and promotion of traditional knowledge which includes also a strong cultural element; the Access and Benefit-Sharing system which aims at the fair and equitable sharing of benefits; and the cooperation between traditional and formal research and methods as part of these benefits.

However, the task to bring the background idea of the Convention to fruition is not an easy one. What is involved here is the task to find congruency between different approaches – differences in the cultural understanding of and in the scientific approach to the values embedded in biological diversity and the knowledge associated to it, differences in languages and parlances and last but not least in the legal and administrative systems. In my opinion only an approach based on the mutual understanding and respect of all parties involved will lead to the much needed success and so to win-win situations for all parties.

*Susette Biber-Klemm is lecturer for interdisciplinary environmental law and law of sustainable development, University of Basel and Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, Zürich, senior research fellow, World Trade Institute University of Berne, and consultant with the Swiss Academy of Sciences for legal aspects regarding genetic resources. Contact:

Notes and References

  1. Convention on Biological Diversity, concluded in Rio de Janeiro on 5 June 1992. Art. 2 para 2 defines biological diversity as follows: "Biological diversity" means the variability among living organisms from all sources including, inter alia, terrestrial, marine and other aquatic ecosystems and the ecological complexes of which they are part; this includes diversity within species, between species and of ecosystems,
  2. World Health Organization, Traditional Medicine Strategy 2002-2005. Geneva 2005.
  3. Traditional Medicine – Growing Needs and Potential. WHO Policy Perspectives on Medicines No 2, May 2002. World Health Organization, Geneva.
  4. Emile A. Frison, Jeremy Cherfas, Pablo B. Eyzaguirre, Timothy Johns (2004) Biodiversity, nutrition and health: making a difference to hunger and conservation in the developing world. Keynote Address to the Seventh Meeting of the Conference of the Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity (COP 7). IPGRI and CBD,
  5. Maffi, L. (ed.) 2001. On Biocultural Diversity: Linking Language, Knowledge, and the Environment. Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington, DC.
  6. See:
  7. WIPO: Intellectual Property and Traditional Knowledge,
  8. MOSAICC, Micro-Organisms Sustainable use and Access regulation International Code of Conduct,
  9. International Plant Exchange Network,
  10. Swiss Academy of Sciences (2006) Good Practice for Academic Research,

Access and Benefit Sharing
Manual: Good practice for academic research on genetic resources

The Purpose of this manual is to inform the academic community about the system governing access to genetic resources and the sharing of the benefits arising form their use as established by the Convention on Biological Diversity. It explains the steps that must be taken when accessing biological resources for research purposes.

The situation is actually quite clear: according to the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), biological resources belong to the states on whose territory they are found. In this they are no different to mineral resources or oil. And yet, in recent years cases have arisen, in which the ownership of biological or genetic resources was not respected. Resources were exported, developed and commercialised without the consent of the countries that provided them, and without enabling them to partake in the resulting benefits.

In order to prevent this “biopiracy” – and create a climate of mutual trust which is essential for research in the long term – the community of states undertook to regulate the handling of genetic resources in the Convention on Biological Diversity. This convention is a binding international agreement. Its implementation is not only a moral obligation for the Contracting Parties – which include Switzerland – but also a legal one. The goal of the Convention on Biological Diversity is to conserve biological diversity and to promote its sustainable use in conjunction with the fair and equitable sharing of benefits arising from this use.

Responsibility for this is given to the states in whose territory the biological material is found. However, all states have a responsibility to cooperate to this end. For the industrialized countries this means supporting the biodiversity-rich, but often economically poor countries in this endeavour. The keywords in this context are technology transfer and cooperative research. The CBD contains rules that clarify the rights and responsibilities of all of the parties involved. One of these rules involves the system governing access to genetic resources and the sharing of the benefits arising from their use.

Swiss Academy of Sciences, April 2006,