India, others get UN rules on tribal rights diluted


Hindustan Times, Cancun, Mexico

India has opposed international guidelines that require free or uninfluenced consent of tribal communities for commercially using their traditional knowledge at the global biodiversity negotiations in Cancun, Mexico.

In the face of the protest from India and others, diluted guidelines allowing countries to obtain consent as per their national legislations were agreed upon.

More than 160 countries negotiated, under the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), ways to ensure sustainable use of bio resources, including traditional knowledge of indigenous communities and equitable sharing of benefits from commercial use of such resources with local communities in Cancun last week.

An expert group under the CBD had recommended guidelines that sought countries to formulate laws that require “free, prior informed consent” of tribal communities for accessing their traditional knowledge to ensure benefit sharing and prevent unlawful appropriation of such knowledge. Term ‘prior’ implies the approval of tribal communities is taken well in advance, ‘informed’ means all relevant information is placed before them and ‘free’ means the consent is obtained without any coercion or manipulation. 

While most countries agreed that rules should be framed for “prior informed” consent, they had differences in including the term “free” in the guidelines. Several developed and developing countries such as European Union, Peru, Costa Rica, Guatemala, Mexico, Morocco, Philippines, Ecuador, Switzerland and Bolivia supported using ‘free prior informed’ consent in the guidelines but India, the African Group, Timor Leste and Indonesia opposed reference to “free” prior informed consent.

Eventually, the CBD approved a compromised text of the guideline that says the countries can seek “prior informed consent,” “free prior informed consent” or “approval and involvement,” depending on “national circumstances”. 

Kanchi Kohli, legal research director at the Namati Environmental Justice Programme in India said ‘free’ was a critical term to acknowledge that the circumstance under which consent was sought was transparent and independent of coercion. “Notwithstanding the challenges to operationalise this in practice, it is important for country governments to put into places a process by which knowledge holders can arrive at a decision. This is at the heart of democratic decision making,” she added.

“Government claims that activities like relocation of tribals from protected forests and acquisition of their land for development projects are ‘voluntary’ but they are actually induced. In case of traditional knowledge, such inducements could be in terms of false promises of relevant schemes, favours to the village elites, in the name of national interests, creating jobs or bringing development,” added Ashish Kothari of environmental group Kalpavriksh.