TCS Daily

Green Gold and Cargo Cults

By Alan Oxley - March 29, 2006 12:00 AM

CURITIBA, Brazil -- The biggest environmental meeting of the year will run until the end of March in Curitiba, Brazil. If you ever wondered why efforts in the UN to protect the environment rarely succeed, all the reasons are on display. It is a case study for the Harvard Business Review.

Message (confused)

The meeting is described by code - "COP8MOP3". Like a message from Big Brother it is everywhere in Curitiba. It dominates the main conference room and is on the sides of buses and every branch in the city of the HSBC Bank, the conference sponsor.

The average citizen in Curitiba would be forgiven for thinking COP8MOP3 might be this week's winning number in Bingo. Bingo halls are the only sign, other than good beer, that people is this small orderly city, a legacy of German settlers, occasionally break out.

The environmental cognoscenti will instantly know the code means this is the eighth meeting of the members of the UN Convention on Biodiversity (CBD) -- MOP8, joined with the third meeting of the parties to the Cartegena Protocol on Biosafety to the Convention -- COP3.

So what is the meeting for? The Convention on Biodiversity enjoins the world to protect Biodiversity. It was never clear what that meant, leading the US Congress to warn the Administration -- any administration -- not to join it. That was sound advice.

The main business at this conference is not to protect biodiversity, but to endorse a return to the sort of economic philosophy that has impoverished many nations. Explaining this is a difficult message. Maybe that is why the UN officials have used code to define the meeting.

Relevance (lack of)

The idea of negotiating a convention to create international regulation of use of genetic resources is on the table. The mandate was a commitment by governments at the UN Environment and Development Summit in Johannesburg in 2002 to "improve access to and benefit sharing from of genetic resources." It was slipped into the fine print of the voluminous report without discussion.

Large parts of the environment movement appear seized by the cargo cult mentality -- the belief that prosperity will be delivered by providence. The term was coined to describe the belief of villagers in New Guinea in the South Pacific that food and cargo would drop from the sky. It arose from the experience of those who had little contact with the outside world and had never seen an aircraft when found food and provisions did indeed fall out of the sky during World War Two. They were parachute food drops by the US Air force.

Today's version is the cargo cult is that forests and jungles of the developing world hold bounteous lodes of "Green Gold" - the genetic resources of the Earth: wondrous plants, insects, snakes and barks that traditional peoples for thousands of years have used to cure illness and fend off starvation.

Their right to this cargo is threatened by "biopiracy". This is a political term which means that foreigners (mainly multinational companies, of course) obtain these products (even buy them in the local market), take them away and create blockbuster drugs that earn billions.

To stop this "biopiracy" governments in Africa and Latin America, including Brazil, and India propose an international treaty which will "improve access" (i.e. stop foreigners) to these genetic resource and increase benefits (by holding up patents and other intellectual property if any shard of a genetic resource is used in any product patented), until they get their fair share.

Sounds far fetched? Unfortunately it is not. The strategy is to nationalize the resource. Environmental officials evidently are unaware that many of their governments to nationalize their economies in the past, triggering falls in the standard of living and impoverishment.

The more alert reader may ask a question here? What is the relevance of nationalization of a resource for the purpose of making more money from it got to do with protecting biodiversity?

The answer is nothing.

Know your business (they don't)

The scientists and researchers whose business it is to understand the importance of genetic resources are perplexed. They point out that the compounds which constitute breakthroughs in modern drugs are the result of extensive, expensive and laborious research.

Even replicating a compound found in nature in quantities sufficient to supply world markets requires extensive research. Furthermore, no natural compound has been used in any very successful drug without further development.

The killer point is this. Economists will argue that it is the scarcity of valuable things that give them value. Today any compound or gene can be manufactured in a laboratory. Science has turned alchemy into reality with genetic resources. So just how valuable are the reserves of Green Gold?

No one has assessed this. The market is suggesting it is small. Only a limited number of licenses to bioprospect (where that is allowed) have been sought. To revert to the analogy of gold, prospectors are numerous when strikes are announced.

So we face the prospect of an international convention which will chill private sector R & D, and wreck intellectual property law based on little more than modern version of cargo cult mentality.

Effective systems (lack of)

Untroubled by lack of agreement on what this agreement will cover and ignorance of technical understanding of the properties and values of what is to be regulated, UN environment officials want negotiations on a new international convention to start immediately.

This is the same system which created the most famous environmental flop yet -- the Kyoto Protocol to stop global warming. It sought to regulate global production and consumption of the world's carbon-based energy resources without the involvement of energy agencies. Accordingly the world's leading producers and consumers refused to support the Kyoto strategy.

Footnote for the curious

COP8MOP3 is due to conclude on 30 March. Many important countries have serious reservations about negotiating such a convention. But Environment Ministers will determine this and they have a bad habit of being persuaded that any action on the environment, no matter how poorly devised or inexpertly developed, is better than none.

At least the US Congress will not be troubled. The proposed treaty would be a Protocol to the Convention on Biodiversity so the US will not be a party.

We can live in hope that other governments will decide that the concept is such a sham that that they too will not go along. Unfortunately most Environment Ministers in many countries are not so enlightened.

Alan Oxley is Chairman of the Australian APEC Study Centre which is observing COP8MOP3 as a Non Governmental Organization.



No Subject
It is surprising that an Australian statesman shold misplace the origin of "the cargo cult mentality " the belief of villagers in New Guinea in the South Pacific that food and cargo would drop from the sky."

Its locus classicus is Yanna , in Vanuatu, formerly the Anglo-French Condominium of the The New Hebrides where it was founded by John Frum , a US Navy stevadore now said to inhabit the erupting crater of Yasir volcano on the island of Tanna .

But Mr Oxley is very astute in his observation that this bizarre belief system " arose from the experience of those who had little contact with the outside world."

Its widespread currency in Washington makes one wonder- could John and David Frum be related ?

More confusion and lies brought to you from your friendly neighborhood environmentalists
What is surprising is the number of goofballs who believe this trash and the media outlets who report this sorry excuse for science fiction. Marxism is alive an well in the environmental movement. I guess every environmentalist is truely a watermelon; green on the outside and red on the inside.

Greed and envy
Greed and envy are alive and well in 3rd world governments - to the detrement of their citizens.

greens and socialists
Greens will do whatever it takes to stop development.
Socialists believe that they can force other people to take care of them.
Mix the two and you come up with a philosophy that you can make the world rich, by just wishing it, and at the same time preventing development.

Market Alternative
Extremist green groups, socialists and other NGOs will continue to grow in strength because of the supposed uncaring attitude towards the environment by those promoting economic growth. It is possible for economic growth and development to co-exist with environmentalism, however their needs to be more pro-active options coming from pro-market groups.

Burning down the house
Mr Oxley: Perhaps the reason "the message is confused" is that there is no uniform agenda on display at the conference. All it is is a bunch of people standing around discussing important issues.

Is the fact that the US is selling off the last temperate rain forest of any size on earth to the Japanese for four dollars a stick "important"? If so, someone is probably talking about it at the conference. Is the fact that these cheap trees are just going toward making sanitary napkins significant? Maybe it is to me, I'm sure it's not to some other folks.

Could an alternative source for such a product be found that would (a) allow a few greedy bastards to still make money while (b) allowing the Tongass to remain in existence? Surely they could. This is the purpose of the gathering. Anyone who thinks the Tongass alive is of no intrinsic value is worse than a fool-- he is a twit.

There is more than just the value of scarcity in the existence of undamaged nature. But to a shallow person, that green stuff is just crap that's not making him any money. As it gets ground up we are all the poorer. Only a few individuals think that this way they will get richer.

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