At the UN biodiversity summit this week, India’s prime minister Manmohan Singh urged all countries to ratify the Nagoya Protocol of the Convention on Biological Diversity on access to genetic resources and benefit-sharing. The protocol requires countries to implement measures to ensure that the benefits arising from the use of genetic resources and traditional knowledge are shared fairly with indigenous people and local communities.

But despite agreement of the Nagoya Protocol in 2010, communities are still not receiving benefits from the commercial use of genetic resources and traditional knowledge they have developed. This is partly because it will take time for these measures to be put in place, but also because communities lack the ability to negotiate fair agreements. At the same time, biodiversity and traditional knowledge is fast disappearing.

However, developing community protocols – or charters of rules and responsibilities that set out a community’s rights and responsibilities relating to natural resources – can help communities defend these rights and negotiate with others on an equal footing. They can also help communities to get greater recognition of their customary rights to land and natural resources. And, by reasserting a community’s cultural values and responsibilities towards biodiversity, they can revitalise community efforts to conserve biodiversity and traditional knowledge.

Raika pastoralists in northwest India

The Raika, the largest pastoral community of western Rajasthan in north-west India,  have developed many unique and hardy livestock breeds adapted to their dry environment, including camels, Nari cattle, Botic sheep and Sirohi and Marwari goats. But over the last 60 years, their grazing land has been restricted by various development projects. Most recently the establishment of a new wildlife sanctuary has made it illegal for Raika to access important grazing land.

In 2009, the Raika developed a community protocol to assert their customary rights and responsibilities over their grazing land. The protocol documents their role in conserving animal genetic diversity and forest and rangeland ecosystems, and their customary rights under national and international laws and policies. The Raika have used their protocol when negotiating with government officials, especially the Forest Department. The protocol has also been used to teach young people about traditional conservation values.

However, as the community continues to struggle to secure grazing rights, it has become evident that there is a severe lack of local awareness and implementation of internationally binding agreements like the CBD, even though India is a signatory to the convention. Overall, the protocol is just one of many tools in the arsenal required by the Raika to claim their rights under the Indian Forest Rights Act.

Healers and farmers from South Africa to Peru

In South Africa, traditional healers have developed a community protocol; this has led to the creation of a Healers’ Association with nearly 300 members. The Association is actively negotiating with a cosmetics company to ensure that the benefits from medicinal plants are shared fairly amongst all the healers. The protocol has also led to reduced overharvesting of plants by the healers by raising awareness of the need to apply traditional harvesting practices.

In Peru, a community protocol developed by farmers in a Potato Park, has helped conserve rich potato diversity and share the benefits from their use. The protocol has also strengthened the capacity of the park communities to negotiate access and benefit-sharing (ABS) agreements with the International Potato Centre.

In Ghana, the Tanchara community protocol not only revitalised stewardship of biodiversity but also forced a mining company to suspend activities that threatened to destroy local sacred sites and pollute drinking water until 2013. The process of documenting biodiversity and cultural resources allowed the community to re-evaluate their traditional crops, which they had previously taken for granted.

For outsiders, such as companies, seeking access to genetic resources, community protocols can clarify expectations, provide legal certainty, minimise potential conflicts with and among communities, and help establish long term partnerships.

Investing in community protocols can empower states

Given that community protocols bring numerous benefits ­– they support community livelihoods, biodiversity conservation, adaptation to climate change, and establish partnerships between communities and others – they deserve proper legal recognition and support. They should not be seen as a threat to state power, but as an opportunity for governments to achieve to biodiversity goals and preserve traditional knowledge by working in partnership with communities.

In India, where the UN biodiversity talks conclude this week, communities are required to develop registers of biodiversity and traditional knowledge, but have no power to control access to the information in these registers. Community protocols are urgently needed to safeguard the rights of communities over these registers, and ensure those living among biodiversity feel a sense of responsibility and stewardship over it, rather than a sense of alienation.

India has just become the seventh country to ratify the Nagoya Protocol, but it remains to be seen how it will respond to the provisions on community protocols and prior and informed consent. When national laws fail to recognise customary rules, rights and responsibilities, community protocols offer a way for communities to actively promote such recognition.

National law and community leadership are key

But can community protocols really ensure that local communities access and share the benefits of genetic resources? Much will depend on how the Nagoya Protocol is interpreted and implemented by national governments. Community protocols are not yet widely recognised – they are only included in Bhutan’s policy on ABS and in draft ABS legislation in Malaysia and Namibia.

Some countries are likely to be more supportive of community protocols than others. In Latin America and the Caribbean, where most ABS laws require the prior informed consent of indigenous and local communities for access to genetic resources, community protocols are more easily translated into national policy, than in countries such as India where there this is not the case.

Experience suggests that protocols have the greatest impact when communities design and facilitate the process to develop them. This means that external support should be flexible enough to enable community-led participatory processes.

Krystyna Swiderska is a senior researcher in the Natural Resources Group at the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED).

Further reading

Swiderska K, et. al. (eds). 2012. Biodiversity and culture: exploring community protocols, rights and consent. Special Issue of Participatory Learning and Action Vol. 65.

Swiderska. K, 2012. Consent and conservation. Getting the most from community protocols. IIED Briefing Paper.

Image shows a Raika leading his sheep and goats to grazing in the contested Kumbhalgarh Wildlife Sanctuary by Ilse Kohler-Rollefson

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