Summit to Save the Earth: Rich vs. Poor

North and South will meet in Rio to confront the planet's most pressing ills. The event could change the world -- or be a disaster of global proportions.

  • Olivier Morin / AFP / Getty

    Smoke from a Finnish factory.

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    The lines have been so sharply drawn on all the forest-protection of issues that what was originally intended to be a legally binding forestry convention was watered down months ago to a nonbinding "statement of principles" that will probably be adopted at Rio. Whether a full-fledged treaty will be negotiated later is still uncertain.


    Not since the dinosaurs were killed off, say biologists, has the world experienced an extinction "spasm" like the man-made one that will wipe out 10% to 20% of the earth's estimated 10 million species of plants and animals by the year 2020. Since at least 50% of those species live in tropical rain forests, past efforts to save them have run into the usual lines of resistance from governments in the South, which resent any kind of meddling from the North. What makes the losses so unacceptable is that they are irreversible; once a species becomes extinct, it is gone forever. After years of negotiation, an international agreement to conserve imperiled species and ecosystems has finally been reached.

    Much of the debate in presummit meetings centered on the issue of who owns and controls the genetic information stored in those species. Traditionally, the benefits that come from genetic materials -- seeds, specimens or drugs derived from plants and animals -- go to whoever finds a way to exploit them. Vanilla, for example, was a biological resource found only in Central America. It later became an important cash crop in Madagascar. Now a U.S. biotech company has developed a process to clone the vanilla flavor in a cell culture. If the firm sells the bioengineered version for less than natural vanilla and takes some of the market share, who will compensate the Madagascar farmers? Or the Central American Indians from whose lands the genetic material originated?

    Earlier this year it was hoped that the Earth Summit treaty would include a provision making genetic materials of all kinds the sovereign resource of the originating country. Nations would have control over who had access to their genetic resources, and if someone else found a way to make money from them, the originating country would collect royalties on each sale.

    The effect of such a treaty could be striking. Rather than viewing concern about endangered species as a barrier that the industrial world is placing in the way of progress, the developing nations might see biodiversity as a resource that, if properly inventoried and managed, could generate real income. The idea, says Thomas Lovejoy, a tropical ecologist at the Smithsonian Institution, is "to start thinking about the problem as a joint venture in which both sides have property rights."

    But disagreements arose in the late rounds of negotiation that weakened the final text of the treaty. The agreement now states that the North must give the South money and technology to preserve biodiversity and that communities and indigenous peoples should have a financial stake in conserving their native plants and animals. However, the treaty sets out no formula or mechanism for payments for the use of genetic materials.

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