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INDEPENDENT NATIONAL NEWSPAPER OF EAST MALAYSIA
Established since 1963 

Planting a fair share

20th. September, 1998

By KAN YAW CHONG

IN 1992, there was a convention signed in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, called  the  Convention  on Biodiversity.

    The intent and purposes of that convention led to the creation of people like Sarah Laird - an international expert on the question of bioprospecting, sharing benefits locally and setting up research agreements with local communities.

    An American from Massachusetts with an under-graduate degree in cultural history who later studied forestry at Oxford University, Sarah explained:” This is why I am interested in the relationship between people and plants."

    Every country she goes, her work is guided by one common quest - to determine how commercial use of plants can contribute to conservation in biodiverse countries and how the benefits generat-ed by such uses can be shared in an equitable fashion.

    "The Convention was designed to conserve biodiversity but it developed a trade-off between use and conserva-tion,," she said.

    "The idea being that countries with a lot of biodiversity need incentives for conserving their biodiversity and that the whole world community should contribute to helping to conserve it," she explained.

    "What we are looking at are equitable partnerships connected with the commercial use of biodiversity and tra-ditional knowledge," she said.

    She said commercial uses such as pharmaceuticals, biotech, horiculuture, new kinds of orchids, medicines etc which generate benefits should be shared locally where the plants are found and where the knowledge of their use is found.

    Since these commercial activities are largely based in developed northern, less biodiverse countries, they should be contributing in particular to conservation.

    "The 1992 treaty was signed and now, national governments around the world are drafting legislation to try to implement the Convention - what is called the Access and Benefits Sharing provisions which are described as trade-offs between companies seeking access to materials but being required to share benefits on the other side," she said.

    One idea of the Convention is to discourage commercial and research activi-ties which go on without consulting the government and the people in the coun-tries where these collections are taking place are awared of what is going on, so that they can negotiate with companies on the terms and their relationships, Saran said.

    "Countries like the Philippines have already come up with laws to try to regulate this type of activities," she said.

    On the other hand, such regulations mustn't be so protective it discourages research and bioprospecting, as has been the case in the Philippines.

    "In Malaysia, there is a process under way at the federal level. Sarawak had developed measures to address these issues while a number of countries in Africa and Latin America are working on these issues and developing law," she added.

    What brought her to Sabah last week were two workshops - one conducted with the academia at the Universiti Malaysia Sabah and the other with local communities living around the 734 sq. km Kinabalu Park, at Masilau.

    "Last Monday, we had a workshop in Universiti Malaysia Sabah where we discussed some of the issues that are involved in moving forward within Sabah to address these issues,” she said.

    "But I must say it is a very complicated issue that involves many types of institutions, stakeholders such as the government, researchers and universities, botanic gardens or other institutes, the Park and local communities," she pointed out.

    "What we tried to do is to look at all the spectrum of issues and highlight some of the complexities and some of the possible solutions to the problems faced by Sabah," she said.

    The next step is to form some kind of a working group to start a process by which these issues can be developed, she said.

    "At another level, we had this work-shop with local communities at Masilau for two days, looking at how communities can set their relationships to researchers because you have the government and research institutions but many of the activities going on at the community level who are hardly aware of them," she pointed out.

    "What it means is that communities must be aware of these issues, need to be able to negotiate terms with companies and researchers so that their knowledge is protected.

    "In the workshops, we talked about what might go into a general research agreement between communities and researchers, whether they are academic or commercial and I think we made some initial steps as reckoned.

    Asked whether the local villagers picked up the issues well, she responded with a spirited "YES!"

    "There's a lot of interest and an amazing amount of awareness. I was very surprised," she enthused.

    "I've never seen it to such an extent because people usually know that companies are interested in traditional knowledge and resources but they don't think too much about how they can protect themselves (intellectual property rights) with that sort of uses," she added,

    "So the community came up with a protocol for the distribution of their medicinal plant manual which would restrict access to commercial use of people who didn't use it according to the community's ideas on how it should he used.”

    Another product from the workshop was a general framework for a research agreement that communities could use, Sarah said.

    “They have taken hack both these to discuss with other community members and it's a process."

    “A committee was established in which the communities can decide their policy, monitor how effective it is in terms of distribution of this manual and I might say it was a very productive two-day workshop," Sarah said.

    Known to have worked on such issues all over the world, Sarah said she had carried out similar projects in the Cameroon, South Africa end Nigeria.

    "The issues are different by countries but the general frameworks are the same - that is, trying to think of how commercial use can contribute to con-servation and can be conducted on an equitable fashion," she pointed out.

    Incidentally, at the Oxford University, one of her lecturers was Dr Nick Brown who in the late 80's did a research study at the Danum Valley near Lahad Datu, on the effects of canopy gap size on the regeneration of dipterocarps.

    The interesting connection is this writer spent several days with Dr. Brown at the forest for a feature story.

    An interesting find was because of less need to compete for sunlight, seedlings in large gap area tended to grow sideways instead of straight up - not good for the timber industry espe-cially over harvesting that create big gaps in the forest canopy.

    Bigger gaps areas also attract more insects such as borers that bored the growing shoots thus retarding their growth.

    "Dr Brown talked a lot about his works in Sabah," said Sarah.

    Like most who knows the value of rainforests, Sarah Laird is passionate about its future.

    "What's important is the forest system. It is the most amazing and wondrous thing the way the animals, birds and plants all relate to each other and depend on each other for their survival and that's what cannot be reproduced when the forest is cleared," she said.

    "I do believe now that people have to make a serious decision, that when we clear the forest, we are losing it forever, potentially and its not something that will grow back in 50 or a hundred years or a thousand years," she said.


Copyright 1998, Daily Express, Sabah, Malaysia. All Rights Reserved.

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