Research Handbooks in Environmental Law series
Edited by Michael Bowman, Peter Davies and Edward Goodwin
Chapter 13: Biodiversity, knowledge and the making of rights: reviewing the debates on bioprospecting and ownership
This chapter reviews some of the debates surrounding access to genetic resources and the ethics of bioprospecting, and unpacks some of their complexity. It questions what the debates and legal answers provided to these debates indicate with regard to the status of biodiversity in global discourses, and in turn for our understanding of the role that law may play in controversies around biological resources. The term bioprospecting covers practices of systematic search through natural resources, with a view to pursuing further scientific development. In many cases, though not always, such developments also have a commercial aim – this constitutes the main focus of much of the controversy in this domain, and the main focus of the analysis below. Since the late 1990s, bioprospecting has become a highly contentious practice and politically loaded issue, in globalised as well as local settings. Since it brings together questions of ownership, access to natural resources, rights over nature and knowledge, the problem is a very ‘messy’ one, which seems to evade straightforward solutions. The 1992 Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), without being the only forum in which these issues were debated, has been a focal point for some of the concerns raised by communities, (some) governments and NGOs over the years, but the solutions proposed still leave many core questions unanswered. Key paradigms such as ‘benefit-sharing’ and ‘prior informed consent’ have been developed that seek to ensure that the uses of biodiversity are compatible with aspirations for both environmental conservation and global justice.
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