Representatives from over 180 governments have come together in the Netherlands to discuss how to strengthen global cooperation on managing the Earth’s biological resources in a fair manner.
The Earth's benefits need to reach those who deserve them.
Pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies will be closely following the United Nations-sponsored Conference on Biological Diversity in The Hague.
Over the next two weeks, officials and experts from over 180 United Nation member countries will attempt to create the first-ever guidelines giving such companies access to genetic resources.
These include plants that can be used to produce new pharmaceuticals or fragrances. In return, however, these companies would have to hand over a fair share of the profits and benefits to the country of origin and local communities.
Until recently, all plants, animals and micro-organisms were considered to be part of the common heritage of humankind. Foreign prospectors felt free to take these biological resources from their countries of origin and use them to develop drugs and other commercial products.
The resulting goods would then be sold by foreign companies under the protection of patents or other intellectual property rights. Meanwhile, the country of origin - often from the developing world, where most biodiversity is found - would receive no benefit from the commercial exploitation of its resources.
A long battle
But with so much to play for, negotiations on the subject to date have not been easy.
"Because important principles and potentially large sums of money are at stake, an agreement on how to grant broad-based access to genetic resources while ensuring that the resulting benefits are equitably shared by all the parties concerned has proved elusive up to now," said the United Nations Environment Program’s Executive Director, Klaus Töpfer.
But he added that negotiators were close to finalizing a package that promised to protect the interests of all relevant stakeholders, which could include indigenous and local communities, commercial firms, as well as consumers.
The international community has agreed that all states have sovereignty over their own genetic resources and are thus entitled to the "fair and equitable sharing of the benefits" that these resources provide.
Delegates to The Hague conference will also focus on issues such as a stepped-up war against so-called "alien invasive species". These are plants and animals that are carried or migrate to new ecosystems.
Once in a new ecosystem, new creatures can overwhelm native animals and fauna, competing for the valuable resources or simply consuming the weaker peers. These "aliens" have now put some 20 percent of all freshwater fish at risk of extinction.
Also on the discussion table are proposals to strengthen the economic incentives to convince companies and other stakeholders to pursue business opportunities that reverse deforestation.
The Convention on Biodiversity (CBD) dates back to a number of treaties adopted in the 1970s, which set out rules to protect endangered species and ecosystems.
The ever-growing stress on forests and marine systems and the species that inhabit them pushed biodiversity up the agenda, and led to the CBD's creation at the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992.