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Press Release
Dated: February 19, 2004
Contact: Debra Harry,

CBD’s International Regime: Indigenous Activist Organizations Call for No Access Zones to Genetic Resources and Indigenous Knowledge

(Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia) Representatives from Indigenous organization, expressing urgent concern, are calling upon Indigenous peoples around the world to declare their territories “Access-Free Zones for Genetic Resources”. This call to action is a response to the preliminary mandate to develop international instruments that facilitate access to, and the commercialization of, genetic resources. The mandate for the international regime is nearly finalized by the governments attending the Convention on Biological Diversity in Kuala Lumpur at the Seventh Conference of the Parties.

Indigenous peoples believe the discussions on an international regime for access and benefit sharing are a thin disguise for the exploitation of genetic resources and traditional knowledge in the name of fair and equitable sharing of benefits. Debra Harry, No. Paiute and Director of the Indigenous Peoples Council on Biocolonialism states that “It’s outrageous that the CBD has become the vehicle for the wholesale exploitation of life forms. No aspect of life will be safe from the genetic gold rush.”

Indigenous peoples successfully demanded that specific language is included in the final mandate of the proposed international regime that ensures the protection of Indigenous peoples rights. This was necessary to counter the state’s assumption of absolute state sovereignty over natural resources. Arthur Manuel, from the Secwepmc Nation (Canada), stated “We cannot accept the notion that governments have national sovereignty over our resources and traditional knowledge. This contradicts international human rights laws and is a violation of our rights to self-determination.”

The Parties discussions focus on the right of states to access genetic resources without acknowledging that much of the world’s biodiversity exists in Indigenous peoples’ territories and sidelining the voices of Indigenous peoples in these discussions. “Developing countries claim they hold the keys to unlock Indigenous territories, the treasure chests of the world’s biodiversity, to allow for corporate biopirates from the developed world to plunder for profit,” says Le`a Kanehe representing Na Koa Ikaika o Ka Lahui Hawai`i, a Native Hawaiian non-governmental organization in the United States.

One of the key objectives of the Convention is to ensure the fair and equitable sharing of benefits arising out of the utilization of genetic resources. However, the benefits are in reference only to states and not to Indigenous peoples. Because Indigenous peoples are not contracting parties in access agreements, they would receive little or no benefits from such arrangements. Alejandro Argumedo, Quechua from Peru, of the Indigenous Peoples Biodiversity Network, likened the regime to “burglers who break into our house calling themselves stakeholders, and say ‘lets share the benefits’; they offer to let us keep a couple of our spoons, but steal everything else that is valuable.” In the absence of the recognition of Indigenous peoples rights, this is the scenario that plays itself out.
Indigenous peoples have consistently asserted the position that traditional knowledge is inseparable from our genetic resources. Deliberations in the COP have made this separation in the scope of the regime. “They don’t want any legal obligation to compensate for the use of Indigenous knowledge that led them to the resources they want to exploit. The regime legalizes the appropriation of Indigenous knowledge for profit.” says Lourdes Amos, Igarot of the Phillipines, a member of the Asia Indigenous Knowledge and Biodiversity Committee.

Indigenous peoples have demanded that the decisions of the Conference of the Parties must respect and protect the rights of Indigenous peoples to control their territories and protect their knowledge and resources from exploitation. Cecilio Solis, of the Nahuat People in Mexico stated “The States have refused to fully recognize and protect the rights of Indigenous peoples. Our voices and presence are completely disregarded.”

For the Indigenous peoples anxiously following the discussions in Kuala Lumpur, the agenda of the parties is clear. The parties are developing a regime that will facilitate a biopiracy free-for-all. Harry says, “Sadly, all we can do is call upon Indigenous peoples to prepare themselves. The biopiracy regime is coming. They must do whatever is necessary to protect their resources and knowledge at the local level. Their most basic rights to self-determination are not going to be recognized at this level.”

Endorsing Organizations:

Asamblea Nacional Indigena Plural por la Autonomia (Mexico)
Asia Indigenous Knowledge and Biodiversity Committee (regional)
Asociacion Napguana (Panama)
Centro de Estudios Multidisciplinarios Aymara CEM-Aymara (Bolivia)
Human Rights and Democracy Movement (Tonga)
Indigenous Network on Economies and Trade (Canada)
Indigenous Peoples Biodiversity Network (Peru)
Indigenous Peoples Council on Biocolonialism (US)
International Indian Treaty Council
Instituto de Desarrollo Integral de Kuna Yala (Panama)
Na Koa Ikaika o Ka Lahui Hawai`i (Hawaii)
Nga Wahine Tiaki o Te Ao (Aotearoa)
Red Nacional de Mujeres Indigenas Sobre Biodiversida de Panama
Tebtebba Foundation (Phillipines)