Defending Malaysia’s rich biodiversity


THIS year marks 24 years since the historic United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) in Rio de Janeiro was held. As a country, Malaysia shone brightly during this conference.

The team from Wisma Putra, which led Malaysia’s delegation, worked well with technical experts from the various government ministries and non-governmental organisations. Together, we made a formidable team and were able to lead the charge for the developing countries.

As diplomats, Wisma Putra officers were not experts on the subject but we were trained to sense encroachments on our national sovereignty. And we briefed ourselves on the technical aspects of a subject so that we could speak with confidence.

When the international community wanted to talk about our trees, for example, the experts thought this was a good thing. What they did not see was that our forests were about to be put in the global and legal domain for discussion and management.

Without safeguards in place, other countries would have the right to dictate what we should do with our forests and how we should manage them. They could even dictate that we should not develop so that our forests could be the “lungs” of the earth, taking in the carbon from their industrialised economies.

This was where Wisma Putra came in – as negotiators we were entrusted to take care of the bigger picture, not just one specific issue. So we were able to better defend Malaysia’s interest as a whole.

I was fortunate to be a part of that historic delegation to Rio. My work as a lead negotiator, however, started much earlier for the negotiations on the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD).

In those days, biodiversity was not widely known. Malaysia, however, had a big stake in the protection of biodiversity and so we knew we had to take a strong stand from the very beginning.

Malaysia is one of the most mega diverse countries in the world. It ranks 12th globally, with more than 15,000 species of vascular plants and 152,000 species of animal life. As such, Malaysia’s right over its own rich biodiversity must be protected at all costs.

Before the agreement on the CBD, other countries could send in their researchers and explorers, collect these rare species and then develop them as medicines, drugs and even health supplements.

These products would then be patented and marketed for exorbitant amounts. The companies took all the profits while countries of origin like Malaysia could only look on helplessly, getting nothing in terms of benefits. The CBD changed that.

Now, because of the access and benefit sharing clause, Malaysia managed to negotiate into the CBD, the sovereign rights of states over their natural resources are fully respected and protected. The test is in the implementation.

The preferential terms negotiated by the developing countries marked the CBD as one of the most equitable conventions of its time. Article 12, for example, provides in particular for the research and training of developing countries in the area of conservation and biological diversity.

Article 15 spells out in intricate detail the sovereign right of states over their own natural resources, and their right to participate in any scientific research involving those resources. In fact, the CBD is liberally littered with phrases in favour of the developing countries.

The road to the adoption of the CBD was not easy. Negotiators spent months in intense discussion with negotiating partners and were only able to come to an agreement after much arm-twisting and horse-trading. But these difficult days paid off.

For the first time, the developing countries banded together and managed to make their voices heard and heeded. It set the stage for a successful meeting in Rio in June that year.

Dubbed the “Earth Summit”, the UNCED in June 1992 saw the single largest gathering of world leaders of the 20th century. Some 116 heads of state and heads of government converged on Rio to adopt the treaties that had been negotiated by their officials. And when the Summit was over, everyone went home thinking that the long and painful process of negotiations was finally behind us.

We could not have been more wrong.

The sense of victory following the adoption of the CBD, in particular, was short-lived. The follow-up process between June 1992, when the CBD was opened for signature, and December 1993, when the CBD finally entered into force, as well as the meetings of the Conferences of the Parties, became the stage for a re-play of the difficult negotiating process of the Convention itself.

It was a battle every step of the way, but it is a battle in which we have persevered. The battle continues.

However, with more and more people recognising the value of biodiversity as well as the need to protect it, the battle should get easier. Even when an agreement is forged, another agreement might come along to unravel the previous one and to set us back a few steps.

Malaysia’s next generation of negotiators need to be constantly vigilant and always alert. In the fight on biodiversity especially, it is civil society who can be our greatest strength. It is encouraging that civil society is continuing its vigilance on biosafety.

The issue of biosafety, first flagged by Malaysia at the CBD negotiations, ultimately resulted in a Biosafety Protocol under the CBD. Since biosafety refers to the consumption safety of our biological resources, it in turn leads us to the subject of biotechnology, which is the moneymaker, yielding big profits for businesses. As ordinary citizens, we should follow with interest and concern when biotech is applied to agriculture and ultimately our food consumption.

Many of our food crops are genetically modified. We need to know for sure the long-term health effects of their use.

Scientists from developed countries assure us that these food products are entirely safe but it would be reassuring to hear the same from our own scientists.

Meanwhile, the labelling of GMO food products should be mandatory, if only to provide consumers with an informed choice.

> Septuagenarian Datuk Ting Wen Lian was a career diplomat with the Foreign Affairs Ministry who served as Malaysia’s Permanent Representative to the United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organization and the United Nations Environment Programme. The views expressed here are entirely the writer’s own

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