Behind the concept of Access and Benefit Sharing of genetic resources (ABS) lies the idea that it is essential for the welfare of the current generation and future generations to allow everyone access to these resources while ensuring the conservation and sustainable use of biological diversity.

1992-2010: the culmination of a long process

The concept of Access and Benefit Sharing (ABS) was introduced for the first time in the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) negotiations in 1992. It is its third goal.

For many years, the various Conferences of Parties (member countries) have addressed the issues of conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity, without developing the ABS concept further.

It was not until 1999 that work began and led to the adoption of the "Bonn Guidelines" in 2002 on access to genetic resources and the fair and equitable sharing of benefits arising from their use. These guidelines provide a clear and voluntary framework that defines roles and responsibilities with respect to access to genetic resources and sharing of benefits arising from their use. Their goal is to facilitate and guide countries in developing and implementing legislative, administrative, general policy or contractual measures.

In 2002 the World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg was also held. Considering that biodiversity is being lost at an unprecedented rate due to human activities, also aware that this trend can only be reversed if local people benefit from the conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity, especially in countries of origin of the genetic resources and drawing upon the Bonn Guidelines, the Heads of State undertook to establish, within the framework of the Convention on Biological Diversity, an international system specifically to promote and ensure fair and equitable sharing of benefits arising from the utilisation of genetic resources.

This long process eventually led to the adoption of the Nagoya Protocol in Japan on 30 October 2010 during the 10th Conference of Parties at the CBD. This protocol provides a legal framework for access to genetic resources and the fair and equitable sharing of benefits arising from their utilisation to the Convention on Biological Diversity.

The concept

Issues surrounding biodiversity generally divide countries from the South, rich in biodiversity, and countries from the North, rich in biotechnology. However, until 1992, access to genetic resources and associated traditional knowledge was considered free almost everywhere in the world. This situation led to theexploitation, use and/or monopolization of resources and knowledge without sharing of any benefits with countries providing the resources or with owners of traditional knowledge.

The ABS concept was especially introduced to remedy this situation deemed to be unfair. It is formalised through Article 15 of the CBD, which tries to balance the interests, on the one hand, of the users of genetic resources, who want to continue accessing these resources, and on the other hand, of the suppliers, who wish to receive an equitable share of the benefits that can be derived from their use.

To summarise, according to the ABS concept, the supplier countries undertake to facilitate access to genetic resources, while the users undertake to share, in a fair and equitable manner, the benefits arising from the access and utilisation of these resources. The additional revenue thus obtained, whether in hard currency or in kind (transfer of skills, supply of equipment, etc.) would be redirected to priority to conservation activities of biological diversity.

Costa Rica: a concrete example

Costa Rica covers maybe no more than 0.04% of the earth’s surface, yet it is home to 4%-5% of the biodiversity on land, with half a million plant and animal species.

In 1991, the National Biodiversity Institute (INBio) in Costa Rica, which also has the mandate for the conservation and study of biodiversity, signed an agreement with the pharmaceutical company Merck to organise and manage systematic prospecting for species with major potential for medicinal and agricultural use.

In this agreement, INBio granted Merck the right to evaluate the commercial potential for plants, insects and other organisms living in certain conservation zones within Costa Rica. In return, the company pays financial remuneration and provides non-monetary benefits (equipment, training, etc.) to INBio. The agreement also ensures that Merck returns to INBio part of any benefits arising from any products that might be developed from a sample taken from Costa Rica. However, the agreement implies that INBio has set aside a part of the income for the conservation of biological biodiversity.