April 1, 2006

Swift Action Needed to Protect Biodiversity: Critics

By Terry Wade

CURITIBA, Brazil -- Dozens of countries tried to hammer out agreements on Friday on the last day of a U.N. conference to protect biodiversity but fell short, leaving critics to complain more action is needed to prevent widespread loss of plant and animal species.

Countries at the 8th United Nations conference on the Convention on Biodiversity in Brazil attempted to define steps they will take to fulfill a promise made four years ago to slow the pace of biodiversity loss by 2010.

Extinctions are more numerous now than at any time in recent history, experts say.

Scientists have identified only a fraction of the estimated 10 million to 100 million species and fear many more will be lost before others are discovered. Progress toward meeting the 2010 goal has been slow.

Global warming threatens many habitats and biodiversity is often most diverse in poor countries with few resources to protect it. "Many plans and programs are in place, but the financial support for developing countries is not provided yet," said Martin Kaiser, a forests advisor for Greenpeace, an environmental group.

Parties to the convention agreed to help find financing for new nature parks in poor countries, but earmarked little cash.

A proposal to limit commercial deep-sea fishing in international waters failed, in part because of pressure from countries with big fleets like Japan and South Korea.

Still, Pacific Island nations declared 30 percent of their marine areas as nature reserves. That will help lift the global percentage of protected seas closer to a U.N. goal of 10 percent from less than 1 percent now, a U.N. spokesman said.

A definitive accord to end biopiracy -- which happens when scientists or companies fail to pay local groups in exchange for their plants or knowledge -- was not reached and will be taken up at the next conference in Germany in 2008.

Until then, environmentalists say global trade bodies can still grant patents to companies that have created products by synthesizing molecules from wild medicinal plants.

"More and more decisions about genetic resources are being made by the World Trade Organization and the World Intellectual Property Organization and they are happening at a much faster velocity than here," said Fernando Mathias, a lawyer for the Brazilian environmental group Instituto Socio-Ambiental.

His group organized a side event behind the building that housed the U.N. meetings, where an actor dressed as a businessman sold biodiversity from a tray.

Environmentalists sold a book called "Biodiversity, to eat, wear or put on your hair?"

Hippies and Indians wearing feathered headdresses and face paint beat drums in huts made from reeds and complained their voices were not being heard.

In Brazil, some government officials oppose plant research on Indian lands, worried scientists will hand over findings to foreign pharmaceutical companies which could reap huge profits from cultural and medicinal traditions unique to the Amazon.

Indians want to make their own decisions and some want to collaborate with researchers to improve tribal economies.

"We aren't subjects of the state. Right now we are being treated as if we belong to the government. There should be a way to balance the needs of Indians and scientists using good international accords," said Alvaro Tukano, 54, of Brazil's Tukano Indian tribe.