Klaus Toepfer
United Nations Under-Secretary
General and Executive Director, UNEP

A few months ago UNEP’s headquarters hosted delegates to the 4th International Alliance of Indigenous and Tribal Peoples of the Tropical Forests. These are among the most vulnerable and poorest people in the world. One of their growing concerns centres on the spread of infrastructure, the growth of mining, dams, and road-building in their communities – and the social and cultural forces that come in their wake.

They are calling for cultural damage or impact assessments similar to the environmental impact assessments already commonplace for big development schemes. I believe UNEP’s Governing Council, and its ministers and representatives, should heed this plea, listen and consider the merits of assessing cultural damage.

Cultural diversity
Cultural diversity matters. There are demonstrable links between it and biodiversity. I sincerely believe that it matters even more in a globalized world. Culture gives people their roots, and roots provide stability in the face of rapid change.

Cultural diversity also means ‘ideas diversity’. And without a diversity of ideas, without the ability to look at environmental and developmental challenges in fresh and new ways, humankind will always be fighting with one hand tied behind its back.

Giving indigenous people and local farmers a better economic chance is one, key, positive way of promoting cultural diversity.

You may never have heard of ‘Jeevani’, but in the multi-billion dollar business of health and sports supplements, this anti-fatigue, anti-stress, drink could soon be adorning the world’ slocker rooms as the next wonder tonic.

It was discovered in Kerala, India, when a team of scientists on a botanical collecting expedition were astonished to find that their guides, from the local Kani tribe, were perky and wide awake when they themselves were tired and fatigued after a hard day in the field.

The guides were constantly munching black fruits. When offered some, the scientists immediately felt charged and full of energy. The Kani initially demurred over showing them the source of the fruit – a forest plant called arogyapaacha.

Twelve active compounds have been isolated from it – some with anti-fatigue properties, others with disease-fighting potential. The scientists have licensed two companies to exploit their possibilities, and a trust fund has been set up to plough some of the profits back to the Kani. We will have to wait and see if this arrangement works – if, as the jargon goes, there has been real and sustainable benefit-sharing. But it is an attempt – in an area of environment and trade which all too often has been one-way traffic, benefiting the companies and collectors rather than the conservers who have nurtured genetic diversity for centuries.

Jeevani is one of several cases assembled by the World International Property Organization (WIPO) and UNEP to try and shed light on this complex but hugely important area.

Globalization and trade have the potential for great good and for reducing poverty, not least when they give local and indigenous people economic incentives for preserving the plants and animals which they have conserved for centuries.

The issue of access and benefit-sharing is explicitly referred to in the 11-year-old Convention on Biological Diversity – in Article 8 (j), to be precise. But, as is made clear by some of the WIPO/UNEP case studies, it is all too often not working – or working too imperfectly.

Sadly the genetic resources of one country or community are often treated as a public common good, owned by nobody, free for all, without property rights.

Setting rules
Last year, UNEP helped to broker the so-called Bonn Guidelines, which for the first time set out clear rules on how governments can balance the needs of those collecting genetic resources with those of the people who conserve and provide them.

It may be too soon to assess whether these voluntary guidelines are working, but I hope that the Governing Council can affirm a commitment to the principles of access and benefit-sharing, as well as its enthusiasm to see the guidelines work for the benefit of indigenous peoples, for the benefit of the poor


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This issue:
Contents | Editorial K. Toepfer | Looking through new lenses | Development with a human face | Trade can transform | Achieving win–win–win | People | Promises to keep | As precious as gold | Expanding the circle | At a glance: Globalization, poverty, trade and the environment | Acting local | Cooperation is catching | Books & products | Getting through the bottleneck | Investing in the environment | Bishkek Mountain Platform | You can’t breathe money | We will succeed | Fair trade? Fair question


Complementary articles in other issues:
Issue on Culture, values and the environment, 1996
Issue on Production and Consumption, 1996
Issue on Biological diversity, 2000

AAAS Atlas of Population and Environment:
About the AAAS Atlas of Population and Environment
Population and Biodiversity