Access and Benefit Sharing (ABS)


Prior to the commencement of the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) in 1992, access to genetic resources and associated traditional knowledge was free for all mankind. Genetic resources and knowledge were often taken from communities and countries by organisations , food, pharmaceautical, perfume and other industries  and individuals who monopolised the benefits. The research and commercialisation of genetic resources and associated traditional knowledge has existed in many forms for hundreds of years. From the begining of 18th century systematic exploration begun. In the 18th Century, European colonial explorers travelled to different parts of the world seeking exotic plants. They brought back decorative flowers, medicinal herbs, and new types of food. These expeditions were a one-way transfer of knowledge, with biological explorers taking knowledge from local communities. There was little or no exchange of knowledge and no offer of compensation to such communities.

During the later part of the 1900’s, a few countries developed legal provisions for access and benefit sharing (ABS). However, benefits were usually narrowly defined as tangible benefits (such as royalties) and benefit sharing was largely carried out at the government level. Benefits did not reach the traditional owners of genetic resources and associated traditional knowledge (TK). Local communities and countries of origin were often not informed about the use of their genetic resources and associated traditional knowledge, limiting their bargaining power and preventing them from sharing in the benefits of their own resources.

Convention on Biological Diversity

Growing concern over the monopolisation of benefits led genetic-resources providing countries to restrict access to genetic resources and associated traditional knowledge. This led to the negotiation of an international regime to regulate access and benefit sharing known as the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD). The CBD integrates the objectives of conservation, sustainable use, and benefit sharing. It balances the right of resource-providing countries to share in benefits, with the right of technology-rich countries to access biodiversity resources in biodiversity rich countries. The CBD recognises the importance of the knowledge, practices, and innovations of indigenous and local communities (Article 8(j)), and makes provision for prior informed consent to be obtained by any public or private enterprise seeking access to biodiversity resources (Article 15). The CBD is supported by the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture (ITPGRFA), which commenced in 2001.

Today, genetic resources are no longer considered the common heritage of mankind and cannot be treated as freely accessible commodities. The CBD and the ITPGRFA recognise the sovereign right of countries to regulate access to their genetic resources and associated traditional knowledge. Article 15 of the CBD provides a framework for national governments to implement ABS mechanisms to regulate and protect knowledge and genetic resources in order to facilitate access and ensure the fair and equitable sharing of benefits. One hundred and ninety-three countries are party to the CBD, including all Himalayan countries, and 116 countries are party to the ITPGRFA. Eastern Himalayan countries are now engaged in formulating and implementing national policies and laws to implement the CBD and ITPGRFA.Desapite this however, the ABS has been a contentious issue. Many things are unclear therefore a protocol od CBD is being developed which hope fully facilitate to resolve many of the Issues realted to ABS.

Regional Context

The Hindu Kush-Himalayan (HKH) region, and more specifically the Eastern Himalayas, is one of the 34 global biodiversity hotspots and a treasure house of genetic resources and traditional knowledge. The region also has great linguistic and biocultural diversity. There are many common genetic resources and associated traditional klnowledges across the countries in the himalayan region. Sharing benefits from such common knowledge at the time of bioprospecting is a major challange.

 These resources provide the basis for the livelihood security of mountain communities. Mountain communities have used local plants and wildlife since time immemorial—collecting, selecting, growing, and raising varieties of food crops, livestock, and medicinal plants for their livelihood and wellbeing. In recent years, awareness has grown about the value of these genetic resources and associated traditional knowledge. The challenge now is to convert these resources into meaningful economic wealth in an ecologically sustainable and socially equitable way and to channel benefits to the communities that are the conservers and creators of these genetic resources and traditional knowledge.

ICIMOD’s Access and Benefit Sharing Programme

For a more socially inclusive notion of biodiversity conservation and usage, it is important to facilitate the implementation of the CBD in letter and spirit in all the major biodiversity hotspots in the HKH region. Towards this, from 2004, ICIMOD launched a regional programme on Access and Benefit Sharing (ABS) from Genetic Resources and Associated Traditional Knowledge (TK) in Eastern Himalayas, with support from the German Agency for Technical Cooperation (GTZ). The overall objective of the programme is to facilitate the development and implementation of the CBD’s ABS regime in these regions.

The main goals of the programme are:

  1. To enhance the capacity of governments in the region at the national, provincial, and local levels to design and implement practical strategies, legislation, and guidelines on ABS in favour of those most in need; to improve the relationship between local, provincial, and central levels of governments; and to strengthen reciprocal trust and social legitimacy between countries in the region.
  2. To create conditions necessary for local marginalised communities to contribute to the realisation of government policies on ABS; to participate in the development and implementation of national (and regional) ABS regimes; to define their own solutions; to protect the rights of the most marginalised groups within the community; and to develop partnerships and other mechanisms to strengthen existing human, biological, cultural, financial, and territorial resources.
The thrust of ICIMOD’s programme has been to raise awareness on ABS with reference to the various marginalised segments of society in the Eastern Himalayan region. In this context, ICIMOD is working with 13 partners active in the field of biodiversity management and the promotion of equitable access rights for various marginalised groups in 7 project sites in the 4 Eastern Himalayan countries (Nepal, India, Bangladesh, and Bhutan). The partnership is expanding in other parts of HKH region.The focus in the project sites has been to reach out to hitherto marginalised groups like mountain women, Dalits, Indigeneous and local communities, and tribal communities. Awareness raising activities, such as regional, provincial, and local level workshops and the sensitisation of the media, have been initiated in all project sites. At the same time, support has been provided to governments to develop policies and legislation on ABS. The programme has been working to ensure that the awareness of policy makers, civil society groups, and marginalised local communities is raised, following which they can begin the journey towards equitable ABS agreements reflecting mutual concerns with the different organs of the state and with bioprospectors.

Recently in collaboration with the concerned government, national and local level NGOs are working towards doccumenting traditional knowledge. Icimod has also emphasised on assessing the status of gendered knowledged on the medicinal plants. Some encouraging results are emerging.In addition, Icimod is also involved in the drafting o A regional ABS frmae work which has been presented in the SBSSTTA - 14 meeting in Nairobi.

The programme has also initiated a process of developing policy-based research through a set of consultations and field assessments of traditional knowledge and customary arrangements in project sites in collaboration with its partners. These policy-based research documents will influence the long-term implementation of ABS regimes in ICIMOD’s regional member countries through the creation of an empirical foundation for the rights of marginalised communities to genetic resources and associated traditional knowledge.