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International action and trends

Discussions on plant genetic resources within FAO were first begun in 1948. Over the more than 50 years of FAO’s existence, perceptions of global needs and priorities have greatly changed, and programmes and priorities have shifted, accordingly.

Annex 1 attempts to capture some of these changes in focus and areas of priority in forest genetic resources work, through documenting new and emerging issues and key points raised and discussed in the sessions of the FAO Panel of Experts on Forest Gene Resources, from 1968 to 2001 (FAO 1968-2002).

In 1961, FAO established a Panel of Experts on Plant Exploration and Introduction; the Panel of Experts on Forest Gene Resources, was established in 1968. The first professional post dealing with forest genetic resources was created in the FAO’s Forestry Department in 1974. IBPGR, now the International Plant Genetic Resources Institute, IPGRI, was established in 1974 as a semi-autonomous unit within FAO, with the purpose of focusing action on research related aspects of genetic resource management, largely, but not exclusively, in crop plants. Four international technical conferences on plant genetic resources were convened by FAO, in 1967, 1973 and 1981 and 1996; while the main focus of these conferences was food crops, forest genetic resources were also included in discussions (Palmberg and Esquinas 1990).

In 1983, the 22nd Session of FAO Conference adopted a legally non-binding, International Undertaking on Plant Genetic Resources, and established a Commission on Plant Genetic Resources to oversee and guide related activities. The International Undertaking was created to support a multilateral system of facilitated access and benefit-sharing for the world's key crops.

The legally binding, International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture, was adopted by the FAO Conference in November 2001, after many long years of discussions and negotiations. Central in this Treaty are, "the conservation and sustainable use of plant genetic resources for food and agriculture and the fair and equitable sharing of benefits derived from their use, in harmony with the Convention on Biological Diversity, for sustainable agriculture and food security" (Articles 5 and 6). The Treaty covers all plant genetic resources for food and agriculture and thus, in principle, according to FAO terminology, also forest genetic resources. One of the components of the Treaty is a, Multilateral System for Access and Benefit Sharing. The Multilateral System covers a relatively small number of, mainly, food crop species, listed in an Annex to the Treaty. The Treaty will enter into force following ratification by 40 countries (Fresco 2001; FAO 2002a).

The Convention on Biological Diversity, CBD, was established following the UNCED Congress in Rio de Janeiro in 1992 and entered into force the following year. The CBD focuses on the conservation of biological diversity and the equitable sharing of benefits from the use of its components. It calls on Parties to create conditions to facilitate access to genetic resources. While the Convention itself makes no specific reference to forests and forestry, the Sixth Meeting of the Conference of the Parties (COP-6) to the CBD, in April 2002, agreed on an expanded work programme on forest biological diversity, including conservation, sustainable use and benefit sharing; the promotion of institutional and socio-economic enabling environment; and knowledge management, assessment and monitoring. The task of priority setting and action in carrying out the work programme, lies with signatory nations (Laird 2001; Le-Danff and Sigaud 2001; Anon 2002b).

The UNCED-Rio Declaration on Environment and Development of 1992, contains 27 principles on sustainable development, including many referring to, or relevant for, diversity and genetic resources of forests and forest species. Agreements related to the Precautionary Principle; Biosafety- used in the Cartagena Protocol in reference to the release and transboundary movement of Living Modified Organisms; ‘Advance Informed Agreement'; and Biosecurity or Bioprotection, which refer to the policy and regulatory frameworks to manage environmental and biological risks; and yet others, have led to a situation in which Governments require effective, improved and up-dated international frameworks and standards to support national action and to help underpin national and international monitoring and reporting (see e.g. Foster et al. 2000; O’Riordan et al. 2001; FAO 2002c). As investments involving both infrastructure and human resources to develop and implement regulatory frameworks are high, the challenge is to generate more consistency across sectors for added efficiency and cost effectiveness (Anon 2001b; Stannard 2002). Australia is, reportedly, signatory to some 20 international conventions, treaties, mechanisms and agreements of some relevance to forestry, in addition to having specific legislation and acts governing national issues, such as indigenous peoples’ rights. There are some 75 Acts or laws in the country affecting access to biological resources (Anon 1994,1996).

At the end of this month, in South Africa, the so-called “Rio+10” -summit will be held, officially known as the UN World Summit for Sustainable Development, WSSD. The outcome of this Summit is not known at the time of preparing the present paper.

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