A highlight of the Fifth Meeting of the Conference of the Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity (COP 5) was the signing of the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety by 64 governments plus the European Community. In addition, close to 50 ministers participated in the high-level segment.
"Biotechnology has the potential to boost agricultural production over the coming decades far more dramatically than even the Green Revolution of the 1970s," said Executive Director Klaus Toepfer of the United Nations Environment Programme, at whose headquarters the meeting has been held.
"At the same time, without effective safeguards, there is a risk that genetically modified organisms could enter the environment and upset the natural ecological balance. The Biosafety Protocol is therefore one of the Convention's most important tools for promoting the conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity," he said.
Protecting biodiversity is essential because of the innumerable goods and services that it provides to humanity. It has been estimated that nature's services - such as flood control and air purification - are worth some 36 trillion US dollars a year, and that 40% of the economy of the developing world is directly based on biodiversity. Despite this dependence, humanity is destroying and weakening most ecosystems; based on current trends, an estimated 34,000 plants and 5,200 animal species - including one in eight of the world's bird species - face extinction.
The Nairobi meeting has also agreed on other actions to address the threats to biodiversity. For example, it launched a new international programme for reviving the natural environment of the world's drylands, which are home to many of the world's most impoverished people and are severely threatened due to climate change, drought, and human activities.
The meeting also reviewed and strengthened existing cooperative programmes on agricultural, freshwater, forest, and marine and coastal ecosystems. Not only are these ecosystems particularly vulnerable, but they provide food and other natural resources that are absolutely essential to human well-being.
A special emphasis was placed on sustainable tourism. Tourism is one of the world's fastest growing industries, accounting for some $443 billion of income in 1997. Because it is global and highly competitive, international cooperation is needed to promote the philosophy and practice of sustainable use.
In addition to the conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity, the Convention also seeks to ensure access to genetic resources based upon the fair sharing of the benefits resulting from exploiting these resources. The idea is that by granting an international company or other organization access to its genetic resources (such as plants that can be used to produce new pharmaceuticals or fragrances), a country or local community will in return receive a fair share of the profits and other benefits.
The meeting established a Working Group to consider draft guidelines and other approaches. The eventual result promises to be an international legal regime on access and benefit sharing, although this is still a few years away.
Other decisions sought to encourage scientific and technical cooperation, attract more financial resources, protect traditional knowledge, strengthen the Global Taxonomy Initiative, and address the problem of alien invasive species.
Those governments that did not sign the Biosafety Protocol in Nairobi can sign it at UN Headquarters in New York from 5 June 2000 to 4 June 2001. They will follow-up their signature by also ratifying the agreement. The Protocol will enter into force 90 days after it has received 50 ratifications.
The Nairobi biodiversity conference will be immediately followed by the first-ever Global Ministerial Environment Forum, to be held in Malmo, Sweden, from 29 - 31 May. The Forum, which also serves as a Special Session of the UNEP Governing Council, will be attended by up to 100 environment ministers who will, among other things, identify the major environmental challenges of the 21st century.
The next Meeting of the Biodiversity COP will take place in The Hague, The Netherlands in the second quarter of 2002. In the meantime, various scientific and technical meetings at the Convention Secretariat's home base, Montreal, and elsewhere around the world. The first meeting of the Intergovernmental Committee for the Cartagena Protocol, which will help to prepare the Protocol for its entry into force, will be held in Montpellier, France from 11 - 15 December.
Note to journalists: For more information, contact Michael Williams in Geneva at +41-22- 9178242/44 or firstname.lastname@example.org. See also the CBD web site at www.biodiv.org
UNEP News Release 00/61