Canada Seeks to Drop Native Peoples from New Biodiversity Pact


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By Stephen Leahy/IPS

Activists in Canada are accusing their government of "new colonialism" in response to their exclusion of indigenous people from their biodiversity pact. UN Photo/John Isaac

NAGOYA, Japan, Oct 21, 2010 (IPS) – Blame Canada if countries fail to agree to a new binding treaty to curb the rapid loss of plant, animal and species that form the intricate web of life that sustains humanity. That is the view of indigenous representatives from Canada in response to a late night move by the Canadian delegation to strike a reference to indigenous peoples’ rights at the U.N. Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) members’ conference here.

“Canada is stalling progress here, weakening our rights and fighting against a legally-binding protocol on access and benefit sharing,” said Armand MacKenzie, executive director of the Innu Council of Nitassinan, the indigenous inhabitants in northeastern Canada.

“Their opposition threatens global biodiversity… people need to speak out,” MacKenzie told IPS.

A protocol on access and benefit sharing (ABS) without a guarantee of the rights of indigenous people and local communities “would be totally void”, said Paulino Franco de Carvalho, head of the Brazilian delegation.

“Brazil will not accept any agreement on biodiversity without a fair ABS protocol…. We are not bluffing on that, I must be very clear,” Franco de Carvalho said in a press conference.An ABS protocol is one of the three legs of the CBD “stool” – a new international agreement to halt the loss of biodiversity. The second leg is a strategic plan with 20 specific targets to be achieved by 2020, such as no net deforestation and the elimination of harmful subsidies. The third is the mobilisation of sufficient financial and other resources to support the other two.

ABS refers to way in which the genetic material in plants, animals and microbes can be used for food, medicines, industrial products, cosmetics and other goods. The use of such materials owes a great deal to the traditional knowledge of indigenous peoples. Access refers to how such genetic material is obtained, and benefit sharing means how the benefits, financial and otherwise, of their use are distributed.

Indigenous peoples say they are holders or caretakers of much of the world’s biodiversity and traditional knowledge, and omitting references to that reality is a non-starter for them and most countries.

“The Canadian government has been undermining the human rights of the world’s indigenous peoples since 2006, at home and internationally,” said Paul Joffe representing the Grand Council of the Crees, a large indigenous nation in central Canada.

Canadian indigenous representatives have expressed their views to the Canadian delegation but the Canadian government position is that there can be no reference to the rights of indigenous people in the final ABS protocol, Joffe told IPS.

“The government never consulted with us. It came as a complete surprise,” he said.

Few indigenous representatives are in attendance because Canada and many other governments do not provide financial assistance so that they can attend the conference as observers. Indigenous peoples have no official role here and can only offer their views when requested.

“We are at the mercy of state governments,” said Ellen Gabriel, president of the Quebec Native Women Association. “Indigenous people are utterly dependent on biodiversity for their livelihoods.”

Gabriel calls what Canada is doing a “new form of colonialism”.

“We are the peoples with the rights to the genetic resources of biodiversity,” she said.

Canada’s position reflects an ideology and is a political decision made by the current government in the capital of Ottawa, says Joffe. At previous international meetings, Canada has been widely if quietly called “obstructionist”. At the Copenhagen climate talks last December, international civil society gave Canada the “Colossal Fossil Award” for worst behaviour at those negotiations.

Not surprisingly, many United Nations member states declined to support Canada in its bid to get a highly prized seat at the Security Council earlier this month.

Joffe maintains this negotiation is simply politics for Canada’s government and it will take political and public pressure on the Stephen Harper government. However, at this point there are no Canadian media in Nagoya nor are any registered, according to organisers.

For his part, Brazil’s Franco de Carvalho is optimistic an ABS agreement can be reached by the end of next week at the conference conclusion when more than 120 ministers of the environment are expected to be in Nagoya to sign a new international agreement.

“I think we could find a good result,” he said.

Stephen Leahy is a freelance journalist. He can be contacted at Or follow him on Twitter at

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