Samoa in Egypt Biodiversity Meetings and Environment and Conservation Bill 2016
Executive Director – Ole Siosiomaga Society
Our government officials are already in Egypt these two weeks to attend the Convention on Biodiversity 14th Conference of the Parties (CBD/COP14) and the 9th Meetings of the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety (MOP9) both at Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, 17-29 November 2018.
Over the past 25 years, CBD established a system of global oversight for living modified organisms (also known as genetically modified organisms (GMO)) based on the three principles of precaution, fairness, and free prior informed consent and the global meetings in Egypt will be critical to upholding those principles.
More importantly the global efforts to ensuring these principles are extending the pivotal issue of governance of the future generation genetically engineering technologies such as synthetic biology, which increasingly encompass genome editing and gene drive technologies.
The global negotiations in Egypt will explicitly address three broad and interconnected topics relevant to the oversight of these new and emerging genetic engineering technologies.
First, on synthetic biology where decisions are being pursued to include precautionary measures to govern engineered gene drives including stringent standards for their contained use and to prevent their environmental release; protect the free prior and informed consent (FPIC) of Indigenous Peoples and local communities; prioritize methods to detect, identify, monitor and track new synthetic biology components, organisms and products; and establish capacity for horizon scanning of new technological developments.
Second, on Biosafety of living modified organisms (LMOs) where the Cartagena Protocol asks Parties to agree on a path for developing timely risk assessment and risk management guidance for organisms arising from genetic engineering that include an explicit focus on living modified fish and LMOs containing engineered gene drives, and this work be extended to genome-edited organisms.
Third, on Digital Sequence Information where Parties are asked to agree on a process that aims to ensure that the transfer of digital (genetic) sequence information does not “facilitate misappropriation” (i.e., permit bio-piracy), and undermine the sovereign right of countries to control access to biodiversity or compromise the fair and equitable sharing of benefits arising from the use of biodiversity.
Last week, we were invited by MNRE to participate in the national stakeholders workshop on Access and Benefit Sharing (ABS) of the CBD. My colleague Aiono Telei’ai Dr Sapa Saifaleupolu and I accepted the invitation to represent Siosiomaga Society for the reason that we were very much interested in the topic and needed to learn from the workshop experts on ABS under the related Nagoya Protocol which Samoa became a Party on 12 October 2014. Our added interest was knowing that ABS was closely linked to the Egypt meetings and follows the excellent work legal consultant Luatutu Andrea Voluntras shared in a similar ABS workshop a few weeks earlier on the Legal Framework for ABS in Samoa.
For me personally however, I saw the workshop as an opportunity to further pursue some of the concerns I submitted two years ago in relation to the draft Samoa’s Environment and Conservation Bill 2016 (the Bill) and how our government officials will hopefully use any of the Egypt meeting outcomes to help finalize the important and ongoing discussions on the Bill. Let me recall the points I made at the time in my submission for the information of the readers.
I said the Bill was a timely initiative of government through MNRE to include Parts 4 on bio-prospecting and Parts 5 on biosafety. I cautioned that as the life sciences on pharmaceutical, chemicals, agriculture, food security, etc. now venture in the areas of bio-technology, bio-discovery and bio-prospecting, we in small island countries such as Samoa are inevitably faced with the complex technical challenges responding to related issues of bio-discovery, bio-safety and bio-piracy that are directly associated with biological, genetic and natural resources. So this was timely.
However, my fundamental concern on the related issue of ‘patent’ is this had always been about new innovations in industrial and manufacturing sectors.
Yet this is now venturing into patenting of life form and asked as to what position Samoa has taken in regards this fundamental concern! Whilst the lead consultant for the ABS workshop from Australia last week provided me some help in confirming that the ultimate patent belongs to the Creator God, his reference to micro-organisms being subjected to patenting is too technical for my simple mind to understand and I continue to harbor this concern.
I have not seen any latest development on what has transpired in further development of the Bill in respect of the comments made. My concerns at the time were linked to areas I considered as weaknesses in the draft Bill in terms of its objectives and functions to adequately respond to many related challenges.
These include issues of free prior informed consent (FPIC) of local communities; what help in the Bill to assist communities when they are subjected to complex technical pressures under the principle of mutually agreed terms (MAT); how is the Bill addressing the issue of equity in the fair access and benefit sharing (ABS) from use of biological and genetic resources especially from the standpoint of local communities; how can the Bill adequately address issues of intellectual property rights (IPR) patents and sui-generis; how is the Bill able to address the issue of GMOs and especially their immense complex derivatives; what about the trade related agreements on intellectual property rights (TRIPS) under WTO when it does not fully comply with the objectives of CBD; what protection the Bill is giving our peoples as owners of natural resources including customary lands when faced with the unbridled capacity of foreign investors and transnational corporations (TNCs) interested in exploiting our resources; how does the Bill protect our traditional and community knowledge; how has the Bill address the impact on our local research and development when TNCs and rich development partners are allowed to patent our resources and intellectual property; what about food security when rich companies patent and develop terminating agricultural seeds and our farmers are forced in the future to buy expensive plant varieties and seeds to continue to work our lands; etc.
I suggested that perhaps our government and MNRE need to consider integrating as part of the Bill some two pronged management strategy through first, an international mechanism to help monitor bio-piracy and ensure fair and equitable sharing of benefits from biological and genetic resources and assist to challenge bio-piracy-based patent claims, and secondly, to enable this international mechanism to complement national level actions to ensure recognition and protection of traditional and community knowledge.
I also submitted that the focus of the Bill on terrestrial fails to give adequate consideration of marine and ocean resources to recognize the Bill extending its mandate to include EEZ. I called on MNRE to heed the advice and village community concerns raised in the consultation with regards sand mining operations as it is MNRE issuing permit for this.
Other additional concerns include invasive species and the need to build technical capacity to monitor GMOs as serious culprit for this. As well, caution was raised on ready acceptance in the Bill of valuing environment services under the guise of being useful for management and planning purposes when valuing methodology and accounting approaches are often subjected to fraud and could be used illegally to commoditize and commercialize our biodiversity resources especially when exposed to ungovernable interests of free trade such as WTO.
Moreover, this can also lead to privatization of public good so fundamental to the livelihood of our citizens and the very people we are supposed to serve and whose interests we are responsible to protect. There should also be adequate technical training and exposure given to the ‘authorized officers’ in the Bill as they will shoulder the burden of ensuring this Bill works! As a final caution, I asked that the biodiversity and natural resources accounting in the Bill should not only focus on monetary valuation, but more importantly envelop a flora and fauna counting as a basis of future sustainable management and planning.
Watching with interest the Egypt meetings from the comforts of home, I see that questions have been asked by our civil society and indigenous peoples communities attending te Egypt meetings on - Who benefits from gene drives as a modern biotechnology?
One of our African colleagues in the Global Forest Coalition that Siosiomaga Society is a member and which I was past chair and Board member, registers his valid concern that the world today is suffering because biodiversity is poorly protected and poorly preserved. He asked as to how do we plan to conserve biodiversity for a better life on earth, is it by traditional knowledge or by modern technology?
He laments that modern bio-technology today is put forward as the contemporary solution to improve the life of human beings on earth yet this technology invades agriculture, forestry and fishery with the purported aim of improving productivity, but are at the root cause of the destruction of biodiversity and the imbalance in the harmony of nature.
He added that the introduction of bio-technologies like GMOs, synthetic biology and gene drives (digital sequence information technologies) have an huge detrimental impact on the livelihoods of communities claiming that GMOs were originally promoted to benefit people and biodiversity but not the case.
He quoted example of failed BT cotton in India and Burkina as examples why we do not need these risky technologies and further argues that there is clearly a conflict of interest between the conservation of biodiversity and the use of GMOs and other forms of modern bio-technology like gene drives which could have long term and serious impacts on human health, environment and biodiversity.
Gene drives are reported as new tools that force genetically engineered traits through entire populations of insects, plants, animals and other organisms. This invasive technology represents a deliberate attempt to create a new form of genetic pollution. Gene Drives may drive species to extinction and undermine sustainable and equitable food and agriculture. Gene drives threaten natural systems. If released experimentally into the environment they may spread engineered genes uncontrollably through wild and domesticated species. This could alter ecological systems and food webs, harm biodiversity and eradicate beneficial organisms such as pollinators.
Gene drives could disrupt lands, waters, food and fiber economies and harm Indigenous and peasant agro-ecological practices, cultures, and are being developed for use in agriculture. Yet If applied, they make farms even more genetically uniform and foreclose farmers’ rights, as enshrined, among others, in the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture and in the UN Declaration on the Rights of Peasants and other People Working in Rural Areas.
Use of gene drives may further entrench a system of genetically-engineered industrial agriculture, extend agro-toxin use and concentrate corporate control over global food systems, undermining the food sovereignty of farmers, food workers and consumers. Gene drives hinder the realization of human rights including rights to healthy, ecologically-produced and culturally appropriate food and nutrition.
There has been a call for a global moratorium on any release of engineered gene drives because of these concerns and the moratorium is necessary to affirm the precautionary principle enshrined in international law, and to protect life on Earth as well as our food supply.
Samoa and other governments are urged to establish participatory technology assessment processes and to respect and fulfill the full free prior and informed consent (FPIC) of Indigenous Peoples and other affected local communities and populations for all emerging bio-technologies, including gene drives - as enshrined in the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP), that Samoa after abstaining in the United Nations 2005 vote finally supported it in 2007, and other international agreements to protect our rights to preserve biodiversity and traditional knowledge.
Many of us oppose current experiments to ‘test’ risky transgenic organisms as a step towards future release of gene drive organisms and commit ourselves to the protection of food systems, cultures, ecosystems as well as the rights, livelihoods and food sovereignty of those who work our customary lands with their livelihood depend largely on agriculture and food production.
The Siosiomaga Society has lent its support to many other civil societies in the world that stand in solidarity with Egyptian civil society objecting to the incalculable risks that Egyptian activists, journalists, human rights defenders, academics, representatives of local NGOs and all other citizens face when they criticize the political situation in Egypt. While international civil society and representatives of the international community gather for the COP14 in Sharm El-Sheikh, Egypt, an event tightly sealed off from the country’s increasingly oppressive reality, tens of thousands of political prisoners are languishing in Egyptian jails. Egypt’s independent and critical civil society cannot participate freely in the COP14 activities.
So we want to learn from the Samoa officials participating in the Egypt meeting when they return and hope there will be some public forum to share what they acquired in said meetings. Of particular interest is how they envelop the past 25 years of CBD system of global oversight for GMOs based on the three principles of precaution, fairness, and free prior informed consent and the global efforts in Egypt to ensuring these principles extend the pivotal issue of governance of the future generation genetically engineering technologies.
More importantly, we hope that from their Egypt experience together with the ABS workshop last week and many other similar consultations held in the last two years will help government finalize the excellent work on the Legal Framework for ABS in Samoa and progress the Environment and Conservation Bill 2016 to formal legislation that enables some legal protection on Samoa, its resources and its peoples.