Understanding the Nationally Consistent Approach for Access to and the Utilisation of Australia's Native Genetic and Biochemical Resources (NCA)
Department of the Environment and Heritage
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About the document
On 11 October 2002 the 14 Commonwealth, State and Territory Ministers of Australia constituting the Natural Resource Management Ministerial Council endorsed the Nationally Consistent Approach for Access to and the Utilisation of Australia's Native Genetic and Biochemical Resources (NCA).
Until 1993 genetic resources were commonly considered the 'common heritage of mankind' and their utilisation for new products was largely undertaken without regard to the communities from which the source material was drawn. Thus major discoveries based on natural resources (sometimes involving the use of Traditional Indigenous Knowledge) resulted in no benefits flowing back to the country or community providing that material.
One such example is the antibiotic Erythromycin, which was ultimately derived from a Philippine soil sample. Another is the anti-rejection drug Cyclosporin A. This was developed from a soil fungus found in a sample taken from a nature reserve in what is now Norway's Hardangarvidda National Park. 1997 sales revenue for Cyclosporin based products amounted to US$1.2 billion. Norway has no share in this.
In 1993 the 'common heritage of mankind' doctrine ended when the newly ratified CBD affirmed nations' sovereign rights over their natural biological resources, including their genetic resources. Under the Convention, in return for facilitating access to this material, countries are entitled to a fair and equitable share in the benefits that flow from the utilisation of those resources. This is the third of the three objectives of the Convention, the other two being, the conservation of biological resources and the sustainable use of biological resources. The third objective has proved to be the most difficult to implement.
Nevertheless, countries continue to place great importance on finding a way to establish an international market in the commercialisation of genetic resources under the Convention. This urgency is best understood by reference to the economic value of biodiversity to industry. For example, in relation to the pharmaceutical industry, in 1998 the value of sales of pharmaceutical products derived from genetic resources alone was US$75 billion – out of total sales of US$300 billion. Most of these products were developed from material collected before the CBD came into being or before nation states began to implement CBD effective regulatory frameworks.
Australia controls approximately 10% of the world's natural genetic and biochemical resources. Most of that material has yet to be evaluated for its commercial potential, indeed, a significant portion of Australia's biota still has to be described. As a megadiverse country, Australia therefore stands to gain considerable economic, social and environmental benefits from its utilisation.
Furthermore, controlling access to genetic resources and thereby sharing in the flow of benefits from the utilisation of genetic resources will help to conserve biodiversity by correcting the market failures that contribute to its erosion. Briefly, these market failures arise because the values of biodiversity, including resources for use in agriculture and medicine, environmental services, and existence values, result in diffuse and longer term benefits, whereas land use patterns which destroy biodiversity often bring immediate benefits to local communities.
By controlling access, governments can attempt to channel these diffuse and longer term benefits into more immediate and tangible ones and hence increase market and community incentives for biodiversity conservation.
This was reflected in the development of Australia's National Strategy for the Conservation of Australia's Biological Diversity, which states at Objective 2.8:
'Ensure that the social and economic benefits of the use of genetic material and products derived from Australia's biological diversity accrue to Australia.'
To pursue this goal, the Department of Environment and Heritage (Environment Australia), as lead Commonwealth (federal) agency for CBD implementation, initially undertook action in four areas:
- firstly, it played a significant role in international negotiations leading to the development and adoption by the CBD of world's best practice guidelines for access to genetic resources(CBD COP6 DecsionVI/24 – the Bonn Guidelines);
- secondly, it has developed a legal framework to manage access to and the use of genetic resources in Commonwealth (federal) areas. This will be introduced by regulations under section 301 of the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999;
- thirdly, it integrated genetic resources management into Australia's National Biotechnology Strategy; and
- fourthly, it has worked with Australian State and Territory Governments and with other involved Commonwealth departments and agencies to establish a common approach to genetic resource management.
Key aspects of the Nationally Consistent Approach for Access to and the Utilisation of Australia's Native Genetic and Biochemical Resources (NCA)
- complements action by all Australian Governments to conserve biodiversity;
- identifies the policy principles of a nationally consistent approach;
- identifies practical considerations to be taken into account in applying the agreed principles;
- is consistent with governments' obligations under the National Strategy for the Conservation of Australia's Biological Diversity;
- supports the ecologically sustainable use of biodiversity;
- provides greater certainty for industry and researchers;
- requires the introduction of terms and conditions of access to Australian resources that Australia would be prepared to meet if introduced by other countries;
- respects indigenous biodiversity knowledge and its holders;
- requires consultation with stakeholders and indigenous peoples; and
- is flexible while encouraging cooperation between jurisdictions.