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What is Biodiversity?

Posted on: Saturday, December 8, 2007

Keywords: Economic Justice, Environmental Justice, Latin America and Caribbean, Africa, Middle East, Climate Change

Biodiversity (short for biological diversity) refers to the variety and patterns of life on Earth, encompassing everything from small genetic differences within and between species to the range of ecosystems—including forests, wetlands, deserts, mountains, lakes, oceans, and agricultural landscapes—that form our planet.

This combination of organisms and the relationships between them sustain life on Earth. However, biodiversity is being severely eroded by human-induced climate change. In fact, most scientists agree that the rate of species loss is greater today than at any time in human history, with as many as 140,000 species disappearing each year.(1)

Biodiversity is critical for human survival, providing us with:

  • Food
  • Medicine
  • Climate stability
  • Purification of water and air
  • Protection and recovery from floods and other potential disasters
  • Soil formation and protection
  • Nutrient storage and recycling
  • Wood products, building material, and many industrial products
  • Pest and disease control
  • Breeding stocks for farmers and herders
  • Cultural values
  • Scientific discovery
  • Recreation
  • Maintenance of the ecosystems that support life on Earth

Why is Biodiversity a women's issue?

Around the world, local movements to defend biodiversity are being led by women, who have historically preserved and bred seeds, which are the basis of all agriculture. Women's specialized knowledge about genetic resources for food and planting makes them indispensable in preserving biodiversity. In 2005, the UN formally recognized Indigenous women’s role in preserving and transmitting traditional knowledge, promoting biodiversity, and sustainably managing natural resources. Increasingly, advocates for biodiversity agree that economic and environmental justice cannot be achieved without the empowerment of women.

How do Global Trade Rules Impact Biodiversity?

Under current trade rules, biodiversity is seen merely as the raw material for industrial production and profit-making. Since the World Trade Organization (WTO) was formed in 1995, control over biodiversity has been taken away from communities and national governments and claimed by corporations. Through this process, communities have lost access to the ecosystems and knowledge bases that are the source of their seeds, food, and medicine. Governments have lost the right to control patent laws, and citizens have lost the right to influence those laws in ways that could benefit their communities and countries.

The WTO's Trade Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights Agreement (TRIPS), allows corporations to patent pretty much anything, including micro-organisms, seeds, plants, medicines, and traditional knowledge. By "owning" sources of life, such as seeds, giant biotechnology corporations like Monsanto exert a dangerous degree of control over the world's food supply. As Monsanto President Robert Fraley boasted, "What you are seeing is not just a consolidation of seed companies, it's really a consolidation of the entire food chain."(2)

Under TRIPS, large foreign corporations that have no accountability to local communities have taken patent control over local production and distribution of seeds, plants, and other life forms. The very farmers who have cultivated seed varieties over millennia must now pay to use natural and agricultural resources that were—until quite recently—held in common by communities and often managed and maintained by women farmers.

Around the world, Indigenous Peoples have taken the lead in denouncing and resisting intellectual property rights as conceived by the WTO. They reject the claim that individuals "invent" knowledge and that knowledge exists merely to be bought and sold. Instead, Indigenous worldviews suggest that knowledge is created communally, over time through processes that are always embedded in culture and place. Based on this understanding, Indigenous Peoples demand that their communities and their collective knowledge be exempt from WTO regulations.

MADRE is one of the non-governmental organizations monitoring governments' commitments to protecting biodiversity through the UN Commission on Sustainable Development (CSD). MADRE is helping to shape the debate and to ensure that the rights and perspectives of local women and Indigenous Peoples are recognized in the policies crafted at the CSD.

(1) S.L. Pimm, G.J. Russell, J.L. Gittleman and T.M. Brooks, The Future of Biodiversity, Science 269: 347-350 (1995).
(2) Tokar, Brian, ed. Gene Traders: Biotechnology, World Trade, and the Globalization of Hunger. Toward Freedom, 2004, p. 42.


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